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Beyond Basics - Ales, Lagers & more: Unveiling Beer's Varied Classifications



Beer, revered for its diversity, spans a vast spectrum of styles, each with distinct flavors and brewing techniques. From the robust complexity of ales to the crisp refinement of lagers and the intriguing tang of lambics, let's explore the flavors and nuances that define these prominent beer classifications.

The highest consumed alcoholic beverage in the world is beer. After water and tea, it is the third most popular drink worldwide! It is most likely the oldest fermented drink still in existence. It is made via the saccharification of starch and by fermenting the sugar that results, yielding alcohol [beer]. What’s the most popular type of beer? Let’s learn more about the different types of beer first. Time for bartender school. Class is in session. Drink up.


Malted cereal grains, usually barley, and wheat, produce the starch and saccharification of the enzymes. Rice and un-malted maize are also commonly used to lighten the flavor because they are less expensive. The production of beer is referred to as brewing. Beer is typically flavored using hops. This adds some bitterness and acts as a natural preservative although flavoring with herbs and fruit may also be done. 


The production and distribution of beer is referred to in some of the oldest known writings in the world. For example, Hammurabi’s Code dating back to about 1772 B.C. includes laws related to beer and beer parlors. Additionally, “The Hymn to Ninkasi”, which is a prayer to the Mesopotamian goddess of beer, functioned both as a prayer and a method of remembering the recipe for beer in a time when few were literate. Today, brewing is a booming business worldwide and is made up of several multinational companies and thousands of smaller local brewpubs and breweries.


Beer’s strength is typically about 4-6% alcohol by volume (ABV), though it can vary between 0.5% and 20%. Some breweries have achieved beers of 40% ABV and above in recent times.


Many types of beers are produced, but the foundations of beer are common to many nations and cultures. Germany, England, Belgium and the Czech Republic all make their own types of beer and are collectively known as the traditional European brewing regions.


As stated previously, there are two main types of yeast used in producing beers. And in turn, these two yeast strains produce the two major classifications of beer: Ales and Lagers. While there are many varieties within the two classifications, all beers will be classified as either an Ale or Lager based on the yeast that was used to ferment it. 


Ales: A Diverse Palette of Flavors

Ales encompass a broad range of beer styles, each with its unique brewing methods, flavors, and historical significance.

As stated, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or the “Ale yeast”, is a top-fermenting yeast that clumps and rises to the surface at between 60˚-75˚ F. At this temperature, somewhat fruity compounds (which resemble pear, pineapple, apple, plum, banana & prune) appear as a result of the yeast creating lots of esters and other secondary flavors. Examples of Ales include Barley Wine, India Pale Ale, Pale Ale, Porter, Stout and Wheat Beer. A lot of variety can be obtained using the Ale yeast; Porters may be malty and dark in color while lighter colored and fruitier Pale ales can also be brewed.


Prior to hops being introduced from the Netherlands in England in the 15th century, the word "ale" was used only for un-hopped fermented beverages. Beer was the term gradually introduced to characterize a brew made with hops. Ale may derive from the Old English "ealu", which derives from the Proto-Indo-European base alut- which has connotations of "sorcery, magic, possession, intoxication."


Here are five notable ale beer styles and their distinct flavor profiles:

Pale Ale:

Flavors: Pale ales feature a balance between malt and hops, showcasing a golden to amber color. They typically offer a moderate to strong hop presence, providing floral, citrus, or piney aromas and flavors. The malt backbone contributes biscuity or caramel sweetness, creating a harmonious blend of hoppy bitterness and malty richness.

India Pale Ale (IPA):

Flavors: IPAs are characterized by a robust hop profile, often displaying pronounced bitterness and prominent hop aromas. They come in various sub-styles such as American IPA, English IPA, and Double IPA (DIPA). Expect citrus, tropical fruit, resinous, or floral hop flavors, balanced against a solid malt base that may add notes of breadiness or caramel sweetness.


Flavors: Stouts are known for their dark color and rich, roasted malt character. They offer flavors of coffee, dark chocolate, and sometimes hints of toffee or caramel. Some variations, like oatmeal stouts, incorporate oats for a smoother mouthfeel. Stouts often have a full-bodied nature with a moderate to high level of bitterness derived from roasted malts.


Flavors: Porters share similarities with stouts but tend to be slightly lighter in body and roastiness. They offer a diverse range of flavors, including chocolate, coffee, caramel, and nutty undertones. Porters can vary from robust and full-bodied to lighter and more sessionable versions, making them a versatile choice for different palates.

Belgian Ale:

Flavors: Belgian ales encompass a wide spectrum of styles, including Dubbel, Tripel, and Quadrupel. They often showcase fruity esters, spicy phenols, and a complex yeast character. Expect flavors such as banana, clove, bubblegum, and even hints of pepper or coriander. Belgian ales can range from moderately to highly carbonated, with varying levels of sweetness and alcoholic strength.

Each of these ale styles brings its own set of flavors and characteristics, from the hoppy bitterness of IPAs to the rich, roasted notes of stouts and the complex yeast profiles of Belgian ales. Ales offer a diverse and vibrant world of beer, catering to a wide range of tastes and preferences, making them a beloved choice among beer enthusiasts worldwide.



Lagers: Crispness and Refinement

Lager beer, known for its crispness and refreshing qualities, encompasses various styles, each with its unique characteristics.

Lager is the name of Central European beers fermented in cooler temperatures than Ales. The most consumed type of beer in the world are lagers. The name derives from the German “lagern,” which means “to store,” as brewers around Bavaria stored beer in caves and cool cellars during warm summer months. These brewers noticed that the beers continued fermenting and became cleared of sediment when they were stored in cool conditions.


Saccharomyces uvarum or the “Lager yeast” ferments at lower temperatures, around 44˚ to 59˚ Fahrenheit and flocculates (or clumps together) closer to the bottom of the fermentation tank. It then undergoes a long secondary fermentation at cooler temperatures. This secondary phase is known as the “lagering” phase. During this stage, the lager mellows and becomes clear. Cooler conditions also inhibit production of esters and other byproducts, resulting in a cleaner tasting beer. Lager yeasts also have a tendency to ferment aggressively and leave less flavor and sweetness than ales. Beers under the Lager classification include Bock, Oktoberfest / Marzen, and Pilsners.


Gabriel Sedlmayr, the Younger, perfected dark brown lagers at the Spartan Brewery in Bavaria. His techniques set the standard used by modern breweries. With improved modern yeasts, most lager brewers only need short periods of cold storage, usually 1-3 weeks.

Brewing techniques also contribute to the differences in the final product. Ales are usually aged no more than a few weeks. The aging process is generally done at 40˚ to 55˚ F. Lagers are similarly aged but at much lower temperatures, 32˚ to 45˚ F, and for a much longer time, typically months. This aging or “lagering” creates a cleaner and clearer beer.


The differences in Ales & Lagers can be seen as comparable to the differences between red and white wines. Lagers can be seen as similar to white wine; both are light, clean and refreshing. They are served cold and can pair easily with a wide variety of food. Ales can be seen as similar to red wine; complex, flavorful and sometimes served room temperature and containing rich aromas and flavors. It’s important to gain this type of beer training, not featured in other bartender schools.


 Here are five distinctive lager styles and their flavors:


Flavors: Pilsners, originating from the Czech Republic, boast a pale golden hue with a notable hop presence. They often exhibit a balance between floral, spicy hops, and a biscuity, slightly sweet malt character. The bitterness is pronounced yet smooth, providing a clean and refreshing finish. Pilsners showcase a remarkable clarity and effervescence, making them immensely drinkable.

Helles Lager:

Flavors: Originating in Germany, Helles Lager translates to "pale lager." It's known for its brilliant clarity and a straw-yellow color. Helles offers a malt-forward profile with a balanced sweetness that complements a restrained hop bitterness. The malt imparts a bready, sometimes lightly toasted flavor, creating a smooth, clean, and highly quaffable beer.

Vienna Lager:

Flavors: Vienna Lager, originating from Austria, showcases a copper to amber hue with a malt-centric profile. This style features a rich, toasty malt character often accompanied by a gentle sweetness. There's a subtle hop presence, contributing to the beer's balance, and it finishes clean with a touch of caramel or nutty notes.


Flavors: Historically brewed for Oktoberfest celebrations, Märzen has a deep amber color and a medium to full-bodied profile. It offers a complex maltiness with flavors reminiscent of toasted bread, caramel, and a hint of toffee-like sweetness. Despite its malt-forward nature, it maintains a clean finish with a restrained hop bitterness.


Flavors: Bock beers, notably the traditional German variety, present a range from amber to dark brown. They offer a robust maltiness characterized by rich, caramelized flavors with hints of dark fruits and a subtle to moderate hop bitterness. Bocks often have a full-bodied and smooth mouthfeel, making them ideal for sipping during colder months.

Each of these lager styles brings its own set of flavors and characteristics, showcasing the diversity within the lager category. From the crisp, hop-forward Pilsners to the malt-driven richness of Bocks, lagers offer a spectrum of tastes, making them a beloved choice among beer enthusiasts seeking a refreshing yet flavorful experience.



Lambics: Unique and Sour

Lambic beers, hailing from the Pajottenland region of Belgium, stand apart for their unique brewing process involving spontaneous fermentation and distinct flavor profiles.

This is a fermented type of beer originating in Belgium that uses wild yeasts instead of cultivated strains. These yeasts are usually not strains of typical brewer’s yeast, (Saccharomyces cerevisiae). Sometimes these other wild yeasts have significant distinctions in sourness and aroma. Standard varieties of wild yeasts used include Brettanomyces bruxellensis and Brettanomyces lambicus. Also, other organisms, including Lactobacillus bacteria, provide acids that contribute to the sourness. Lambics have traditionally used wild airborne yeasts that would naturally land in beer tanks and begin fermentation in earlier periods.


Here are five notable lambic beer styles and their distinctive flavors:


Flavors: Gueuze is a blend of young and aged lambics, resulting in a complex and effervescent beer. It boasts a lively carbonation with a tart, acidic profile. Gueuze exhibits a fruity character, often featuring green apple, citrus, and stone fruit notes. Its dry finish and earthy undertones contribute to its refreshing and tangy nature.

Fruit Lambic:

Flavors: Fruit lambics are made by adding fruits like cherries (Kriek), raspberries (Framboise), or peaches (Pêche) to lambic beer during fermentation. The fruit infuses the beer with a sweet and tart essence, enhancing its complexity. Depending on the fruit used, these lambics showcase vibrant fruit flavors while retaining a sour backbone from the lambic base.


Flavors: Faro lambic is a sweetened version that traditionally includes added candy sugar or caramel. It balances sweetness with the lambic's inherent sourness. Faro offers a milder sourness compared to other lambic styles, with prominent caramel, toffee, and brown sugar flavors. It’s often lower in alcohol content, making it an approachable entry point into the world of lambics.

Unblended Lambic:

Flavors: Unblended lambic, also known as straight lambic, is a single-year, unadulterated version of this style. It tends to be extremely tart and acidic, with pronounced funky and barnyard-like aromas. The flavor profile showcases a strong sourness alongside a musty, earthy quality, reflecting the wild yeast and bacteria used in the brewing process.

Lambic with Adjuncts:

Flavors: Some lambics incorporate adjuncts like spices or additional fermentable ingredients. These variations can introduce a wide range of flavors, from subtle herbal notes to more pronounced spice characteristics. Examples include lambics brewed with added herbs, such as sage or thyme, offering a unique twist on the traditional lambic taste.

Lambics, known for their spontaneous fermentation through exposure to local wild yeasts and bacteria, offer a diverse array of flavors, ranging from intensely sour to subtly sweet and fruity. Their complex taste profiles make lambics an intriguing choice for those seeking beers that defy convention and embrace a truly distinctive brewing tradition.


Associated Beverages

There are numerous traditional and ancient starch-based beverages that are categorized as beer around the world. Various ethnic beers are made from sorghum or millet, such as Oshikundu in Namibia and Tella in Ethiopia. Kyrgyzstan also makes a beer from millet. It has a low alcohol content, which resembles porridge and is called Bozo. Millet is also used in Chhaang, a popular semi-fermented rice/millet drink made in Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet and Sikkim. China produces Huangjiu and Choujiu, which are traditional rice-based beverages related to beer.


The South American Andes have Chicha, which is made from germinated maize. Indigenous tribes in Brazil have Cauim, a traditional drink made since pre-Columbian times that is made by chewing manioc. By chewing manioc, the human enzymes in saliva break down the starch into fermentable sugars. Masato in Peru is made in a similar fashion.


Celebrating Beer's Diversity


As we conclude this flavorful exploration of beer styles, it's evident that each classification offers a distinct sensory experience. From the bold and complex flavors of ales to the crisp refinement of lagers and the unique tang of lambics, beer's diversity is a testament to the artistry and creativity of brewers worldwide.

Understanding the flavors and characteristics of various beer styles enriches the drinking experience and empowers enthusiasts and bartenders alike to appreciate the nuances of this beloved beverage. Whether indulging in the robustness of stouts or savoring the refreshing qualities of pilsners, the world of beer invites exploration and appreciation for its multifaceted nature. Cheers to the diversity of beer, where every style tells a story through its unique flavors, aromas, and brewing traditions.


At the end of the day, sometimes nothing’s better than an ice-cold beer. And for that matter there’s nothing like day drinking too! With literally hundreds to thousands of options of this ancient beverage, you’ll never be out of options. No matter what your tastes. Happy Drinking!


No matter what kind of bartender school you go to, they should explain all these types of beer knowledge at the very least. The different types of beer and how to recognize them does make a difference. A reputable bartender school has in-depth knowledge about, beer, wine and all types of alcohol. It’s important to learn more than just how to make a cocktail. There’s more to learn about beer classes, but at least you should have a better understanding, that there’s more to it than just light or dark.




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