Beer has a long and illustrious history stretching back many thousands of years. Over this time, a wide range of varieties and styles of beer have emerged. Despite this, most beer drinkers remain largely ignorant of the subtle differences between beer varieties- they just know what they like.
By gaining an understanding of the beer you drink it is possible to have a much more enjoyable experience. It may also inspire you to try some new and exciting brews which you may have previously left on the shelf.
Below is a brief summary of the two major categories of beer and a few of the varieties that fall under them.
Ale is the historical method for brewing beer. The method used is known as ‘top fermentation’, which means that during the fermentation process the yeast gathers at the top of the barrel. This method calls for high temperatures, which causes the yeast to act very quickly. Because of this ales can be brewed in a short amount of time.
A number of very popular beer styles that fall under the Ale category are:
Pale Ale: The term 'bitter' and 'pale ale' are largely interchangeable. A predominance of pale malts gives these beers a lighter colour. They are characterised by the crisp flavour of hops.
Stout: You may not be familiar with the name of this style, but you will almost certainly know of two famous examples- Guinness and Murphy’s. These beers are thick and have rich flavours, due to the use of roasted barley.
Porter: These beers are similar to a stout, except in the use of unroasted barley. This process also produces a dark colour but can also impart a bitterness not found in stout beer.
Lager has a much shorter history than Ale. These beers are fermented at low temperatures, as opposed to the high temperatures used for Ales. This also makes Lager beer a 'bottom fermenting' beer, as the cooler temperature sends the yeast to the bottom of the barrel. The word 'Lager' is German for storage. The beer is given this name because before modern refrigeration it was stored and brewed in caves. Lager beers are the most popular and commonly brewed beers worldwide.
Lagers can also lay claim to being the world’s most alcoholic beers.
A number of very popular beer styles that fall under the Lager category are:
Pale Lager:The most famous beers from this variety originate from the Pilsner region of the modern day Czech Republic and often you will see beers labelled as a Pilsner rather than pale ale. These beers are characterised by a pale, golden colour and a smooth, clean taste.
Amber Lager: As the name suggests this variety of lager has a much darker colour than a pale lager. This can generally be attributed to more malt being used in brewing. The flavour of these beers can vary wildly from brewery to brewery.
The above summaries are by no means exhaustive and there are a number of books related to beer brewing, which cover a diverse range of beer production techniques. At the very least it hope that now you have the inspiration to go and learn some more for yourself. Good luck and happy drinking!
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