Deciphering the different styles and characteristics of beer
Merriam Webster Dictionary defines beer as an alcoholic beverage usually made from malted cereal grain (as barley), flavored with hops and brewed by slow fermentation. Beer has been around a really long time, first being produced in Egypt and Mesopotamia around 5,000 BC. Modern beer has European roots. Beer became popular amongst all classes of citizens in areas where grapes for wine could not easily be grown. All beer is made from four basic ingredients: grain, yeast, hops and water. From these ingredients hundreds of styles of beers are made — but they are all either ales, lagers or hybrids.
To your average restaurant patron, the characteristics they’ll notice in the different styles of beer are how they taste, smell and look. Ales tend to have more of a “fruity” flavor and lagers lend themselves to having more of a “crisp” taste. The scientific difference between ales and lagers comes down to the strain of yeast used to ferment the beer. Ales were the first beers brewed using Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast, for example. And they were the only styles brewed until lagers came along a few centuries ago. Lagers only started being brewed after the discovery of the new world and a new strain of yeast, Saccharomyces pastorianus, hitched a ride on trade ships traveling back to Europe from North America. The difference between the two yeasts used is all about the temperatures at which they convert the sugars in beer wort to alcohol. Lager yeast can work in colder and warmer temps. Ale yeast can work only in warmer temperatures.
Popular ale styles include Pale Ale, India Pale Ale, Brown Ale, Porter, Stout, Hefeweizen, Kolsch, Gose, Sours & Barley Wine. Pilsner, Märzen, Dortmunder, Bock, Dopplebock and Light Lagers are all popular lager styles. Hybrids include Fruit Beers, Pumpkin Beers, some Wheat Beers, Barrel Aged Beers and Smoked Beers.
Several terms are used to describe the characteristics of beers. ABV and IBU tend to be two of the most commonly used terms. ABV means “Alcohol by Volume” and is used to express how much alcohol is in beer. The ABV of mass-produced light beers is typically in the 4-5 percent range. Most IPAs have a higher ABV of 6-10 percent. Porters and Stouts range from 7 percent on the low end to as high as 14 percent. Barrel-aged beers, which are aged in barrels that bourbon and other liquors were first “aged” in, actually gain additional ABV from the bourbon or liquor trapped inside the porous wood staves of the barrel. The ABV of Barrel-aged beers can climb upwards of 20 percent. The Higher the ABV, the greater the intoxicating effect.
IBUs are International Bitterness Units. This describes how bitter a beer is. Major lagers such as Miller Lite or Bud Light tend to have a low IBU rating that is usually less than 10. “Hoppy” beers such as some pale ales, almost all IPAs, Double IPAs and some seasonals tend to be more bitter and have higher IBU ratings. For example, Double and Triple IPAs can have IBU ratings well over 100. Scientists and experts argue that our taste buds can not detect differences in bitterness for IBUs over 70. True beer geeks will go even deeper into describing beer. They’ll describe color in terms of SRM (Standard Reference Method) and discuss the Esters and Phenols that are yeast fermentation byproducts that affect beer flavor.
We’ll dive deeper into the popular styles of Ales, Lagers and Hybrids next month! Enjoy a craft beer or two between now and then…
Keith Coffman is the owner and operator of Lost River Pizza Company.