Understanding beer begins with understanding the idea of “style” (beer style or beer types). As we shall explore, it is not always as simple and straightforward as one might think. Some people have compared the wine drinker’s use of grape styles to that of the beer drinker’s use of classifying beer styles. While this may be a convenient device for the discussion of wine, it is wholly inadequate when discussing beer.
The wine snob (I mean wine enthusiast) can use the basic ingredient of grapes to solidly classify a style of wine – if you want to make a cabernet, then you need to use cabernet grapes. Beer lovers do not have such a luxury. There are many different types or styles of beer that can be brewed from the same basic ingredients – water, grain (usually barley), yeast, and hops. It’s the methods, timing, amounts, and other factors that contribute to the final product.
What we mean by Style
We use the term “Style” to describe a general classification of beer that helps to define a beer by ingredients, color, aroma, yeast type, brewing methods, bitterness, originating region, and overall flavor. In order for a beer to be considered within that style, it must fit, at least loosely, into these general parameters. The descriptions provided below are not considered comprehensive or definitive; they are simply a description of what we consider to be the “classic” version of each individual style.
Always keep in mind that the beer you are tasting may or may not compare exactly to the descriptions outlined here (or elsewhere for that matter). Each brewery and brewmaster has quite of bit of leeway within each of the styles – in the end there are no rules or laws governing how brewmasters are supposed to interpret and design their beers. This ensures that each brand or brewery can create their own individual interpretation of each style (See NOTE below). In essence, beer is like a snowflake, with an almost limitless number of variations within each type. Therefore it is our job as beer enthusiasts to sample and enjoy each and every one (tough job, but someone has to do it!).
An appreciation of the main beer styles will greatly increase your enjoyment of good beer. However, the most important question you should be asking is, "Do I like this beer?" If a discussion of a beer’s style adds to your enjoyment of the brew, so much the better, but always remember that beer has been brewed since the beginning of civilization to BE ENJOYED, so relax and enjoy it. That’s an order.
*Note – There is also the complication of misleading naming and labeling within the beer industry. Just because a label states it’s a pale ale, does not mean it truly meets the style guidelines. As an example, the Boston Beer Company, makers of Samual Adams, creates a seasonal brew called Cranberry Lambic. While I like the beer itself, it can not be a lambic since only beers from a particular area of Belgium can be considered true Lambics) These misleading naming practices are quite common and only further exacerbate the difficulties in classifying beers.