Beer Facts

If you're ready to expand your beer horizons and try out microbrewery offerings, here are some basic beer facts about lagers and ales to get you started.

Perhaps you're just learning about the wide variety of beer available for sale in the United States. Or perhaps you've been visiting microbreweries all along, but you never were precisely sure what made a porter different from a stout. In any case, you're ready to try something beyond the most commonly known beer brands. It's much easier to find beers that you like if you understand the differences between beer styles.

Even though there will be minor variations on beer styles from brewery to brewery, this guide should help you identify the beers that you will like, and avoid the ones that you won't.

There are a three terms that are generally used to describe the flavor of beers. If you take the time to learn how to identify these flavor characteristics, and decide what balance of these traits that you prefer, you'll be well on your way to consistently ordering a beer that you'll enjoy.

Maltiness - Malt is derived from grains, and is the part of the beer that is fermented. The grains that are generally used to create malt are wheat and barley. There are several varieties of malt, with varying flavors. Many people also find a malty flavor to be somewhat sweet.

Hoppiness - Hops are a plant that is also added to beer, and they give beer a bitter flavor. Pale ales are generally the hoppiest beers available in the United States.

Fruitiness - Most ales have some degree of fruity flavor present, even though there is no actual fruit in the beer. The fruity flavor is a by-product of the yeast fermentation in the brewing process.

Now that you know the basic flavors that are present in beer, you can explore the different varieties of beer and find a type that best matches your palate.

There are two basic categories of beer styles: top-fermenting beer and bottom-fermenting beer. Generally speaking, top-fermenting beers (also called ales) are more complex with fruity characteristics, and bottom-fermenting beers (also called lagers) possess a cleaner finish. Top-fermenting beers include wheat beer, stout, porter and ale; bottom-fermenting beers include bock, Oktoberfest, pilsner, American lager, and malt liquor. In the United States, most of the beer consumed is of the bottom-fermenting lager style, but top-fermenting beers have gained popularity in recent years.

Bottom-fermenting beers styles - lagers

American Light - This type of beer encompasses the most popular beers sold in the United States. Very light in color, this variety of beer will usually have little to no malt or hop characteristics. This type of beer is also very light-bodied.

Bock - A bock is usually full-bodied, with a strong, malty flavor. The color is most often a very dark brown.

Doppelbock - A full-bodied beer, a doppelbock is a stronger variety of a bock. With a very dark brown color, it will usually also possess an intense malt flavor.

Oktoberfest - Medium-bodied and malty, an Oktoberfest will be dark in color and very flavorful.



Pilsner - A pale, light-bodied lager, with a hoppy, dry flavor.

Top-fermenting beer styles - ales

Alt - Derived from the German word for old, an Alt (or Altbier) is medium-bodied and slightly fruity. With a medium copper hue, Alts generally drink lighter than they appear.

Barley Wine - Barley wine is very strong, very full-bodied, and possesses a strong flavor. Generally, barley wine has a distinct hop presence.

Bitter - A British-style ale, a bitter is usually reddish-copper in color, and similar to a pale ale.

Cream Ale - This variety of beer is usually light in color and body, with high carbonation. Cream ales usually have very little hop flavor.

Hefeweizen - An unfiltered wheat beer. Light in color, hefeweizen is fruity and light in body.

India Pale Ale - Often referred to as an IPA, an India pale ale will be very hoppy, medium-bodied, and amber in color.

Lambic - A Belgian-style wheat beer, a lambic is not malted and very fruity in flavor.

Porter - Very dark in color, but medium-bodied, porter is usually dry and fruity with a discernable malt character.

Scottish Ale - Full-bodied, dark, and strong, Scottish ales have a strong malt aroma and flavor.

Stout - A very dark, full-bodied roasted-flavored beer.

Trappist Ale - A very special beer, the only beers that can be called Trappist ales are produced at monasteries. Generally medium in body and in color, these beers and usually strong in fruity, and are often served in a wine glass or goblet.

White - Also known as a witbier, white beers are pale and cloudy in color, with a medium body and apparent fruit, malt and hops flavors.

Serving temperatures have a tremendous impact on the way that a beer tastes. In the United States, most beer is served as chilled as possible. However, extreme cold temperatures are not always best for serving beer. Knowing the proper temperature at which to experience certain varieties of beer will further assist you in finding a beer that you'll love.

Only light beers and light lagers should be served very chilled (46°F or colder). Darker lagers, wheat beers, and alt should be served closer to 50°F for optimum flavor. Most ales, stouts and porters are best presented at 53°F to 57°F for the fullest flavor. Everything else strong and dark should be served at 58°F to 62°F.

When in doubt about purchasing a beer, don't hesitate to ask. Most breweries have staff trained to be knowledgeable about the characteristics of the beers that they produce. Many sellers of premium beer can help guide you to something that you'll enjoy. Don't be afraid to ask questions like, "I particularly like Brand X; what you do carry here that is comparable?"

That being said, you'll only find great new beers if you get out there and try a few. You can only get a limited amount of information from reading the label on a bottle. Perhaps you've disliked stouts in the past, so you don't ever try dark beers. However, porter is usually lighter-bodied, and may be much more to your liking. There's a world of beer available, and you never know which kind is going to best fit your palate until you try them.

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