The days of simply ordering ‘a beer’ are over. Most of us don’t miss it. It seems craft breweries have taken over and there isn't an end in sight.
A craft brewer is defined as a brewery that has an annual production of six million barrels of beer or less. These breweries normally innovate with the various types of beers they bring to market and push the boundaries with flavors and styles of beer.
The rich and complex art of craft beers can be a bit intimidating for someone who knows nothing about it. I’ve explained a few terms here that might help you pick the right beer for your personal taste.
Ales and Lagers—What’s the Difference?
The big difference between these two types of beer is the temperature at which the beer was fermented.
Fermentation is the process of turning water, hops, barley, and yeast into beer.
A lager is fermented at a colder temperature, which allows the malt and hops flavors to shine. Ales ferment at room temperature, and tend to be more on the fruity or hearty side. This can be an advantage to brewing ales at home since you won’t need to buy a special refrigerator for your new hobby. As a home brewer myself, I only brew ales...and I have had a lot of success.
Five common brews
American lager is where many beer drinkers start. This is the type of beer most major breweries produce. Coors, Miller, and Budweiser are of course the biggest and most well know examples. Since they are all Lagers, they are brewed at colder temperature relative to Ales which is what Coors Light’s ‘Frost Brewed’ ad campaign is all about. They have a low Alcohol by Volume (ABV) between 4 and 5 percent. Crisp and clean; they sound like a wonderful idea on a hot summer afternoon after mowing the lawn.
Amber ales continue to be popular thanks to Fat Tire from the New Belgium Brewery. The flavor of a Fat Tire is what personally got me away from the big brewers, such as Coors and Bud, and into craft beer. The main flavor that comes out of amber is a malty or a sweet caramel character. Those who aren’t ready for, or just don’t like, bitter or ‘hoppy’ flavored beer will enjoy this style. Don’t let the darker color of an amber fool you into thinking it is a heavy beer. The sweet full finish is what keeps me coming back to amber ale’s all the time.
Pale ales start moving towards the bitter or hoppy side of beer flavors. From my personal experience, I moved from enjoying amber ales into pale ales and then the most bitter and hoppy of them all known as IPAs. Pale ales will have a lighter color than amber ales because they have less malt/caramel flavor and will have more floral/citrus notes instead. The amount of hops will be increased to give it a more bitter taste over the amber ales. A human’s taste buds for sweetness are on the tip of the tongue while bitterness is towards the back of the tongue, so the hop flavor of a pale ale will come out after the initial floral/citrus when first tasting a pale ale. With its fresh and spicy flavor, I recommend Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for a first try of pale ales.
IPAs, or India pale ales, are the last of the three big categories of ale’s. The high hops content was a way the British kept beer from spoiling while sailing to India during their colonization efforts in the 1700s. IPA’s are best thought of as a high octane version of pale ales when talking about the amount of hops it uses. Currently IPA’s are also by far the most popular type of craft beer overall. The bitterness of an IPA isn’t for everyone but once you have been tasting craft beers for a while, most people end up loving a well brewed IPA. The color of an IPA is much lighter than an amber ale because again, the amount of malt is less and it is replaced by the wonderfully bitter hops. The hops are added towards the end of the boiling process prior to fermentation to keep the flavor of the hops rich and full bodied. I first tried an IPA and I described it as a liquid pine cone. Deschutes Brewing’s Fresh Squeezed IPA is a wonderful first choice as it has lemon notes that brings the bitterness down but keeps the true IPA profile.
Finally, stouts and porters are the deepest and darkest of the popular types of beer. They have almost no hoppyness if that isn’t your flavor of choice. They normally have a coffee or chocolate flavor. Guinness is by far the most well-known of the stouts and can be found almost everywhere. If it is poured on draft, it should be served in its own special pint glass displaying the famous Harp logo. Guinness uses nitrogen rather than Co2 to carbonate the beer and just after the beer is poured, you must enjoy the wonderful ‘cascading’ of the beer as the nitrogen travels to the top of the glass. A porter will have a similar flavor and color to a stout but the stout is normally a stronger beer, hence the name “stout.”
So now some of the very basic education is complete. Now what? There are so many other types and styles of beer that hasn’t been covered (sours, barley wine, wheats…to name a few) it could still feel overwhelming when you see all those tap handles lined up at the bar. My suggestion is to find some good friends and head to a local bar or Tap House and request a ‘flight’. A flight is normally between four and six small glasses of beer served in a row on a wooden board. Each beer should be a different style of beer for tasting to see what style really fits you. Relax with good friends, good conversation and hopefully good beers and begin your adventure into the world of craft beers.