Name That Beer: A Guide To The Most Popular Ales and Lagers

We all have our go-to beers. They’re our tried-and-trues, our beloved brews. Yours truly loves a cold bottle of Yuengling. However, a little adventure is good for the taste buds so I’ve compiled a guide to the world of beer to encourage you all to try something different. We’ll discuss what makes them different and what may appeal to you: the soon-to-be sophisticated beer consumer. I recruited Austin Walker, a craft beer specialist and craft brand manager with Leon Farmer & Company, to help us navigate.

Ales

First things first: There are only two types of beer in this world: ales and lagers. Every differentiation is simply a remix of an old classic.

Most people are familiar with ales and with good reason: ales were the first beers made and have been a prominent beer type since the Medieval Age when they were safer to drink than water. Ales are separated from lagers by the use of warm temperatures (59-68°F) during the fermentation process, which causes the yeast to float on top of the beer. The most popular ales are pale ales, India pale ales, stouts, porters and wheat beer.

Pale Ale

Pale ales are differentiated by their light color (a result of using pale malts) and weren’t developed until the mid-17th century when British brewers started using coke, a type of coal, during the brewing process rather than wood. Using coke over wood was like using a gas stove instead of an electric stove: it allowed for more control. Americans tend to make harsher pale ales but traditionally pale ales are light, unassuming beers and easily manipulated in terms of flavor.

Austin says: “Usually good for beginners getting into the craft beer scene because the flavors aren’t too intense.”

Austin suggests: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale

Porters

At one time, porters (a combination of brown ale and mild ale) were the most popular beer in the world until a hoppier new kid stole that title and production of the style stopped. Luckily, it was resurrected in 1978. At the peak of their popularity, these beers were widely distributed throughout England and prized for being less thick and less aggressive on the taste buds. Porters have a lower gravity, or alcohol content, and combine well with flavors resembling chocolate, liquorices, caramel and even toffee.

Austin says: “More mild than stouts so it’s better for people who want something dark but not too heavy or rich.”

Austin suggests: Anchor Porter

Stouts

Stouts are as imposing as their name.While their exact origins are unknown, they seem to be descendents of porters and share taste traits with them. Stouts are easily identified by their color, ranging from dark brown to black (though blonde stouts exist) and their higher gravity (7+% alc./vol.). These beers are popular in the winter and are often brewed with oatmeal, coffee, milk sugar and chocolate, which meld well with the black malt used to brew them. A good stout should be full-bodied, thick and only a little heavy.

Austin says: “Darker, thicker, better for colder weather and people who want a full-flavored beer but not too heavy or rich.”

Austin suggests: Sam Smith Oatmeal Stout

India Pale Ales (IPAs)

If pale ales are the more demure type, India pale ale is its brassy sister. The style emerged during the British occupancy of India when persnickety expats called for a taste of home. To preserve the beer, brewers added more hops giving IPAs their distinctive bitter taste. These ales have long-outlasted British India and eventually replaced the once-popular porter by balancing sweet maltiness with said hoppiness. Double IPAs utterly defy this notion of balance by adding even more hops and upping the alcohol content to 7.5+% by volume.

Austin says: “For the more extreme beer drinker. [The] more pronounced hop character makes it bitter on the finish.”

Austin suggests: Bell’s Two Hearted Ale

Wheat Beer

Finally, another popular form of ale is the wheat beer or for the German among us, weizenbier. Wheat beers are the oldest style of ales in the world today and trace their origins to Bavaria. A wheat beer is brewed using a mixture of barley and wheat grain and contains little to no hops. For this reason, wheat beers are decidedly lighter and easier on the taste buds. These beers combine well with fruit flavors and tend to be cloudy in appearance due to wheat proteins and a special kind of suspended yeast.

Austin says: “Perfect for the summer. “The lawn-mower beer,” and easily palatable. A crowd-pleaser.”

Austin suggests: Konig Ludwig Weisse

Lagers

Lagers are the second family of beers and though they are younger than ales, they are vastly more popular. Lagers are differentiated from ales by the fact that their fermentation process occurs at lower temperatures causing a layer of hybrid yeast to ferment on the bottom of the beer. Lagers are distinguished by their significantly cleaner finish and popular varieties of the brew include pilsners, bocks, and dunkels.

Pilsners

If beers were people, pilsners would be celebrities. This type of lager is the youngest and has come a long way from its humble Czech beginnings. Today, it’s an international style, brewed the world over with more than fifty percent of beers sold being pilsners. Two words define pilsner taste: simple and clean. It is the very definition of refreshing with only a hint of hoppy bitterness.

Austin says: “Misunderstood because they’re like the IPA of the lager world with the most hop character for lagers. Still crisp and clean on the finish.”

Austin suggests: Victory Prima Pils

Bocks

It is often said that cocktails and wines are paired with foods while beer is food. A bock is the closest that beers come to providing sustenance and the brew was nicknamed “liquid bread” for its popularity among fasting Bavarian monks. Bocks contain low amounts of hops and tend not to be overly sweet or fruity but malty, rich and toasty. Generally these beers have higher alcohol content than the average beer (6.3% – 13%) and though they were once dark beers, the brewers of Munich have since developed a wide range of bocks ranging in flavor, color and alcohol content.

Austin says: “A little more hearty and rich but they’re not as malty as a marzen (i.e. Oktoberfest beer). Has more going on than a pilsner or a regular German lager. The [mild] ale of the lager world.”

Austin suggests: Genesee Bock

Dunkels

Dunkels (pronounced “doon-kuls”) are among the darkest of lager styles. Often called Germany’s first beer style, dunkels originated in Bavaria in the 15th and 16th century and to this day the majority of the style is brewed in that area. Traditionally, these beers tend to be a bit sweet and nutty with a hint of vanilla. A good dunkel should not be bitter and should have a persistent head.

Austin says: “A lager with darker, roasted flavors that you might get from a porter.”

Austin suggests: Negra Modelo

There it is. All these beers can be purchased at your local grocery store or bottle shop. Good luck in your beer adventures and cheers!

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About Nikita Richardson

My name is Nikita Richardson. I'm a recent graduate of NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute where I earned a Master's degree in Magazine Writing. I got my start as a music blogger (musicforthemusicallychallenged.com) and as part of a semester-long assignment, I've became a beer blogger. These days I'm working as an editorial fellow at The L Magazine and Brooklyn Magazine where I continue to write about music and beer among other things. You can check out my portfolio at my professional blog: nikitalrichardson.com
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