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What’s the Difference Between Different Styles of Beer?

Beer is the world’s third most widely consumed alcoholic beverage, after wine and spirits. But what we think of as ‘beer’ has changed dramatically over the last few decades. There are now so many different varieties of beer available that it can be hard to keep track of them all. From pilsners and pale ales to lagers and kolsch, there are plenty of different styles of beer available. However, while there are many different types of beer available on the market, they all fit into broad categories known as beer styles. Each category is representative of a general type of beer with its own characteristics, history and production methods. While there are many subcategories within each style, these five broad general categories cover almost every type of beer commonly brewed today. Let’s take a closer look at the differences between these five common beer styles:

What is a Lager?

Lagers are the most popular beer style in the world, making up the majority of beer production. Lagers are a type of beer that can be further divided into two sub-groups: German lagers and Pilsner lagers. They are generally fermented at lower temperatures than ales but have longer maturation periods than ales or wheat beers. The majority are also brewed using bottom-fermenting yeast which produces fewer flavour compounds than top-fermenting yeast. As a result, lagers have a cleaner, crisper taste. Because lagers are fermented at colder temperatures, they have a lower ester content than ales. Lagers are also lighter in colour, clearer in appearance and have less flavour than ales.

What is an Ale?

Ales are the oldest beer style and were the only type of beer brewed until the invention of lager in the 19th century. There are many different types of ales, which are largely differentiated by the style of hops they use. Some of the most popular types of ale are pales, porters, stouts and English ales. Ales are generally fermented at higher temperatures than lagers, with a shorter maturation period. They are usually brewed using top-fermenting yeast, which produces higher levels of esters than bottom-fermenting yeast. This gives ales a fruitier taste than lagers. Just as ales are brewed at higher temperatures, they are served at a higher temperature than most beers to maintain their flavour and aroma (usually 12 degrees) which has led to the style being labelled as “warm beer” (somewhat unfairly in our opinion!). 

What is a Dark Beer?

Most beers fall into the light beer category, but there are many dark beer styles as well. Dark beers are generally full-bodied with a rich flavour. Some of the most popular dark beer styles are porters, stouts, Irish stouts and Baltic porters. These beers are fermented with a mix of yeast and bacteria at lower temperatures than ales or lagers. As a result, they have a higher level of ester content than ales or lagers. The higher ester content of these beers gives them a more complex taste. 

What is a Light Beer?

Although they may seem like quite the opposite, some beers are actually light. Such is the case with light beers, which are generally lower in alcohol content and flavour than other beer styles. Light beers are often served with the intention of being a low-calorie or low-alcohol option. Some of the most popular light beer styles are American light lagers and Pilsner light lagers. These beers are fermented at lower temperatures, with a shorter maturation period than ales or lagers. They are again usually brewed using top-fermenting yeast, which produces lower levels of esters than the bottom-fermenting yeast that is used in ales. 

What is a Stout?

Stouts are a dark beer that originated in Ireland. They are generally high in both alcohol content and flavour and are often served as a dessert beer. Stouts have a very thick and creamy texture that comes from the addition of lactose to the beer. The addition of roasted barley gives stouts a strong flavour, which is often described as coffee-like. Because of their often higher alcohol content, stouts are commonly served on nitrogen rather than carbon dioxide. As such, they are often served in a special draught system known as a “ beer engine ” (though be aware, that market leading Irish stout you probably know, isn’t as high in alcohol content as you’d think!)

Summary

There are many different types of beer available, and they all fit into broad categories known as beer styles. Each category is representative of a general type of beer with its own characteristics, history, and production methods. Lagers are the most popular beer style in the world, while ales are the oldest beer style. Dark beers are high in both alcohol content and flavour, while light beers are lower in alcohol content and flavour. Stouts are a dark beer that originated in Ireland, and are often served on nitrogen. These five broad categories cover almost every type of beer commonly brewed today.

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