It’s National American Beer Day and we are celebrating with a special write up all about (mostly American) brews.
So, you think you hate beer. You are not alone. I, for one, love all beer but I know your struggle. Every time you go to a bar you have a beer drinking friend who foists his or her glass upon you demanding you try it because “you might like it.” You ask what it tastes like and your friend gives you a one word answer like “hoppy” that means nothing to you.
Then because you have no choice you take a tentative sip, which again reveals and reinforces the idea that you don’t like beer. As a result, when you find yourself dragged to the cool craft beer bar near your office you apologetically ask the bartender for the house wine or the cocktail list. You wish you could like beer but you just haven’t found the one. Am I getting close?
There are others who aren’t quite beer haters, more of under appreciators. This type of beer drinker “likes” beer but almost always orders the same beer. Is this you? Maybe you had a Blue Moon once at a friend’s B(eer)BQ and it was okay so you just keep ordering it.
Every once in awhile you order a Blue Moon and the bartender says they don’t have it. Uh oh! A panic sets in as you start scanning a list of unfamiliar and foreign looking names before the bartender tells you they have Shock Top (a very similar Belgian White beer) on tap. Crisis averted. But for how long!? There are so many types of beers you may find you actually love more than the familiar one that you ‘kind of like’, but you just don’t know which beer to try first.
Regardless of the category you find yourself in, I have consulted with a pair of beer experts to help broaden your horizons. That’s right, experts! My brother, Brandon, is a Certified Cicerone and the Head Brewer at Odd13 Brewing in Lafayette, Colorado.
A Cicer-wha?? It’s essentially the sommelier of the beer world. He’s kind of a big deal, and is pretty darn knowledgeable when it comes to the science of brewing and the flavors behind each style. Also on the tasting team is my sister-in-law, Lisa, who is the Event Coordinator for the brewery as well as an extreme beer enthusiast.
Brandon and Lisa have helped create a digestible style guide/cheat sheet of 10 common beer categories and key terms to help identify what’s in a name. Note: this is not a comprehensive beer guide. We are leaving out many more styles than including, but we think the following list provides a basis for you to begin to understand the flavors in some common beer styles and encourage you to start tasting!
Beer Guide for the Non Beer Drinker
Forget all you think you know about beer. Here are five common misconceptions we urge you to omit from memory when tasting or even considering beers:
- All stouts are heavy beers that will make you fat and lonely
- Lagers are all boring blonde piss-water
- Hoppy = bitter
- Wheat beers all taste like banana
- All commercial beers are the golden standard of a beer style and all other beers should be measured up to these beers
The Taste of Beer
Now that your have emptied out some space in your brain you have room for some new information. For starters, there are three common ingredients in beer (in addition to water): yeast, hops and barley. The selection and incorporation of each of these ingredients changes the balance and flavor profile of a beer. But what does each ingredient taste like?
Yeast – responsible for fruity, spicy, funky, and even more neutral flavors during fermentation.
Hops – flower closely related to weed that is soaked in beer to produce citrus, tropical, herbal, piney, dank, earthy, and floral flavors. Adding hops before fermentation creates bitterness.
Barley – the most prominent grain in brewing, brewers use barley to create the sugar that yeast turns to alcohol during fermentation (think of it like grape juice to wine). Barley also contributes grainy flavors like water crackers, bread, toast, caramel, dark fruit, chocolate, coffee, etc. Malt is the term for barley that is specially prepared for use in the brewhouse.
Some Key Beer Terms
In addition to the common ingredients, there are a few other key terms you may encounter while perusing a beer menu that are worth knowing: ABV, Imperial and IBUs.
ABV – Alcohol by volume. Usually listed as a percentage so you know how strong a beer is.
Imperial – This is used in the name of beers with an abv >7.5%. Basically beers that are strong as heck and will knock you off your barstool!
IBUs – International Bittering Units. Measure of bitterness, generally from 0/no bitterness to 100/intensely bitter. There is technically no upper limit but you probably have your own personal threshold.
Lastly, without getting too scientific, I wanted to address the difference between Ales and Lagers because nearly all beers fall into either the Ale or Lager category. For example, Stouts and Porters are a type of Ale. That old ‘square is a rectangle’ thing. Ales are beers that are fermented with strains of yeast that “like it” warm while lagers are created with yeasts that can tolerate fermenting in colder temperatures. Ales tend to have fruity and spicy flavors from fermentation at warmer temperatures while lagers produce cleaner and more neutral profiles.
Now that you have some background, onto the beers!
Different Types of Beer: A Breakdown
Typically blonde to orange in color. Pale Ales prominently feature hops in aroma and flavor, with noticeable bitterness in balance against any sweetness from the malts or fruitiness from the yeast. In order of increasing bitterness, alcohol by volume and typically hop aroma intensity, the most common beers in this category are Pale Ale, IPA (India Pale Ale), and Imperial IPA (IPA >7.5% abv).
English versions of these styles are more balanced in flavor towards the barley backbone (think caramel, fresh bread, and sugar cookies) as compared to American pales that much more often focus with a greater emphasis on hop flavors (often with emphasis on notes of citrus, tropical fruit, and dank weed).
Amber in color, these beers will incorporate flavors such as caramel, toffee, toast, sugar cookies, nuts, figs and/or dark fruit. Like their Pale Ale counterparts, English styles tend to focus more on sweet barley flavors as compared to American renditions of the style that center around hops and have more pronounced bitterness. There are also german style Amber Ales like Altbier that mimics English Amber Ales, though with German ingredients.
Brown Ales are much like Amber Ales, but also include barley that is roasted like coffee or cacao nibs, yielding chocolate and coffee-like flavors in addition to caramel malt flavors like the Amber Ales above. Browns are typically lower in alcohol, bitterness, and flavor intensity as compared to porters.
Take a porter and make it a bit more… stout! This is literally why this style, which used to be included in the Porter family, exists on its own. Think about the balance in a Brown Ale or Porter and increase the roasty flavors. Stouts cover a broad range in terms of ABV, bitterness, and flavor profile, from Dry Irish stouts that are super crushable and bitter (despite their intensely dark and creamy appearance), to Sweet/Milk Stouts that are often moderately sweet and more akin to a chocolate milkshake than a beer (we strongly urge you to float scoops of ice cream in this beer as a guilty pleasure) to Russian Imperial Stouts that are big in every descriptor and are more easily sipped than chugged.
This category of beer is often misunderstood. Many people associate wheat with the intense banana and clove flavors found in Hefeweizens (German wheat beer) or the bold notes of citrus zest and clove that epitomize a good Belgian Witbier (Belgian wheat beer). In both cases the flavors result from yeast rather than wheat. While European wheat beers will typically focus on fruity and spicy fermentation flavors, American wheat beers tend to be like Pale Ales with a bit of extra body and fresh-bread aromas provided by this wonderful grain.
Lagers are often assumed to be the lightest beer option. But we all know what happens when you assume. The unifying flavor profile of lagers are the extremely clean fermentation profile, lacking the often fruit forward flavor qualities found in ale yeast fermentations, and a more balanced and nuanced flavor profile. Therefore, the delicate flavors of this family are typically derived from the malt selection and the often floral types of hops used to “spice” the beer.
Lagers can range from American Adjunct Lagers (Bud, Coors etc.) to more flavorful blonde Helles Lagers and Pilsners that boast highly aromatic Noble hop aromas (nuanced floral and spicy tones). Amber Lagers such as Vienna Lager and Oktoberfest/Marzen (which are seasonally topical) that are supported by rich malt backbones emphasize flavors of toasted and fresh baked bread. Still, there are many darker and stronger options like Doppelbocks that share similarities in flavor and aroma to their cousins in the Ale family such as browns, porters, and stouts.
Belgian Abbey Ales
Popularized in Belgian Abbeys, this family of beer ranges in color and alcohol from <4% abv blonde table beers to moderate strength Belgian Pale Ales and Dubbels, to >9% abv Belgian Dark Strong Ales/Quadruples, just to name a few. Flavors may include clove-like spice, orchard fruits (apples and pears), orange zest, and honey.
For the stronger examples in this family, brewers or Monks add simple sugars (like granulated table sugar) to increase alcohol while thinning the body of the beer, to keep the final product light bodied/”digestible”… which make many of these styles extremely sneaky and a good bang for your buck! While most authentic Belgian beers have spice flavors that originate from yeast selection, some American versions will add spices to accentuate these flavors.
Popularized by farmhouse traditions in Belgium and France where these beers were brewed to serve farmhands and guests of the farm (and typically safer to drink than the water), Farmhouse Ales are similar to Abbey Ales, but are typically more “rustic,” featuring more earthy and herbal flavors, and either moderate bitterness or conversely, acidity, owing from the use of local ingredients (wheat, oats, rye to replace some of the barley and incorporation of fruits, vegetables, or herbs grown on the farm) and native yeasts/bacteria.
Unlike the Abbey Ales that generally focus on clove-like spice and orchard fruit flavors, expect more pepper-like spice and citrus zest in Farmhouse Ales such as Saison. While traditional examples of these styles tend to be <5% abv and super crushable, this family of beers has become a sort of catch-all category in America that many Belgian-inspired beers end up sold as, so expect variability in color and alcohol, although the best examples share in common a dry finish/high drinkability, yeast-forward flavors, and offer a profile that is unique to the place and time to which the beer was brewed.
High Gravity Beers
The name really just equates to high alcohol content. These beers can be a high alcohol version of any family of beer previously mentioned. Common examples include English and American Barleywines, Russian Imperial Stouts, Strong Ales, and include members of aforementioned categories such as Imperial IPA, as well as Belgian Ales like Trippel, Golden Strong, and Dark Strong Ales.
Barleywines (like English Pale Ales on steroids) tend to have sweetness that is balanced with wine- or spirit-like notes of alcohol and either hop bitterness or oak/spirit flavors (if barrel aged) while Russian Imperial Stouts replace caramel flavors for overt roasty notes (stout to the max!). High gravity beers tend to get better and smoother with age like a fine wine, which is why they are often listed with a vintage/release year – not all old beer is bad beer!… though I wouldn’t drink that PBR that’s been in the fridge the better part of a decade… or maybe I would… Okay, I would.
Mmmm, our personal favorite category, gushing with complex and unique flavors only available from fermentations with “non-traditional yeasts” and bacteria. These styles cover the entire spectrum of color, ABV, and flavor profile. Some of the most common examples are light, tart, and highly approachable such as Berliner Weisse and Gose, that often have fruit or spice additions which can be very pleasant to a beginner (or advanced) beer geek.
More funky and intense versions tend to hail from oak barrels rather than stainless tanks, and require many years to produce (much like the production of wine, expect sour beer prices to reflect the time and skill required for creation).
What To Drink
At the end of the day, your palate is never wrong. What you taste is what you taste. An expert, while possessing the refined vocabulary to pinpoint what they are tasting, does not necessarily know what tastes good or bad to you. So taste any and everything and be your own judge! Keep an open mind and remember, just because you don’t like one amber ale doesn’t mean you will hate them all.
Maybe you hooked up with someone and had terrible sex. Do you give up having sex all together? God, I hope not! Think of what you’d be missing out on. Get my drift?
My advice: get adventurous and try a beer flight. This will allows you to try samples (usually between 3-5oz) of multiple beers at one time for a cheap price. It’s not much of a commitment in terms of volume so if you don’t like one (or more) of them it’s not a setback or waste. Comparing side by side can also be a great way to see what your true preferences are and say, “I liked the stout more than the Double IPA.”
Once you know that you tend to like or dislike a certain flavor or taste, you can use this as a basis to ask a bartender for a recommendation. If they really know what’s on tap they should be able to point you in the right direction. When in doubt, ask for a sample. If it’s not the most expensive, small batch, barrel aged beer, bartenders are often willing to accommodate. Why? Because the true beer enthusiast wants you to share their love and share their beer. That is, as long as you don’t take the last one.