The craft beer scene today is buzzing with with names, styles, techniques, colours and categories, and together with its people and history - from ancient to very modern - these are the the things that make it so fantastically rich, diverse and rewarding, as well as delicious.
But perhaps with all this variety it’s possible for a thirsty soul to get a bit lost - even if you’re not totally new to our world? It occurred to us that if we’re going to really succeed in helping celebrate great beer and provide local breweries, taprooms and stockists better visibility for their community of consumers, it might be useful to help people with a few signposts.
A little knowledge can go a long way, so we’ve kept it brief, and haven’t delved into more technical things like yeast types, or production techniques, that’s another conversation for another day. But included below are the key styles you’ll come across on any beer adventure worth the name. There are many others, but we’ve decided to start with just six main ones, and they’ll probably be familiar to you to varying degrees, in name at least.
So take a look, it might just make narrowing down your new favourite quicker and easier. Of course our advice would be to check them all out yourselves, and work out which ones suit you, and which would fit all those different moments in life which only a beer can enhance.
And if craft beer is new to you, then perhaps our list might steer you away from a Porter on a hot summers day, or a Lager by a log fire (Both of these are totally fine, but maybe not everyone would choose them…). And just a quick shout out here to the late great British beer writer and journalist Michael James Jackson, the actual father of beer writing. He was central to the reviving interest in craft beer in the 1970s, and it was he who first came up with the simple but genius notion of categorising and promoting beers styles, so he absolutely deserved a mention here. Cheers Michael, we beer drinkers salute you!
Right let’s go in…
What are the main types of beer?
What's a Lager?
What is lager? You’re kidding, right? No? OK, well, a pint of lager is what the average person in the UK would bring to mind when we talk about beer. Of Czech and German origin, lagers are golden, with lighter flavours, and lower alcohol and higher carbonation than their category cousins. These properties make them really approachable and refreshing, and lagers are a typical and important entry point for new beer drinkers. It might not be a darling of the ‘beer community’, but clean tasting and with easy flavours, the popularity and sales of lager are absolutely staggering. And we’re including pilsners in this category. ABV 3.2 - 5.0%
What's a Pale Ale?
Like an ale, only paler. With a name deriving from the lightly roasted pale malts used in the brewing, pale ales - an ale is a beer brewed using warm fermentation - are typically light, balanced, highly drinkable beers. In this family you’ll find things like the stone cold British classic ‘a pint of bitter’, but also bier blonde, and American pale ale. Varying between gold and amber colour, different brewing techniques and ingredient levels mean that there are a range of tastes and strengths classed as pale ale, but in general they tend to exist in a very zen beer place - carefully hoppy meets nicely malty, well balanced, with a moderate alcohol content, and very very easy to drink. ABV: 4.5 - 6.2%
What's an IPA?
IPA stands for ‘India Pale Ale’, and is a stronger pale ale, with the hops dialled up - often by a lot. Today IPAs are many people’s introduction to the world of craft beer, with their strong, heavily hopped bitterness, citrus and floral flavours, and high alcohol content. And this is a beer that’s been on a journey. No, really, IPA was the answer to the ‘problem’ of supplying beer for the British Empire in the east, where it was too hot to brew. So in the late 1700s IPA was a created as a beer that could survive the six-month journey from England. Some IPAs taste like straight-up citrus, while others are strong and bitter, depending on the type of hops. ABV: 4.5 - 7.5%
What's a DIPA?
Make mine a double. A DIPA is a ‘Double IPA’, so as you might expect from the name, this is a modern IPA style dialled up to the max - so stronger flavour, even bolder hoppy bitterness, and a higher alcohol content: Boom. Sometimes also known as Imperial, or American IPA, this big, loud style originated in California in the 1990s. With more hops, and more malt - not necessarily double, sometimes triple - a DIPA leads with hoppy punch, first to the nose and then the mouth. But the increased malt also gives rich depth, and along with the high strength, the result is a beer of super-high intensity, but balance. ABV: 7.5 - 14.0%
What's a Porter?
The noble porter is a beer legend, pure and simple. Balanced and hearty, this dark style was developed in London in the early eighteenth century, with the name said to have been derived from its popularity with street and river porters, and it went on become the first beer type to be made around the world. Porters are well-hopped and are known for their deepest ruby colour, imparted by dark roasted brown malts, and its flavours are typically chocolate, caramel, and coffee. There aren’t huge distinctions between porter and stout, but porter leads with a chocolatey feel, whereas stout is more about coffee notes. Take a bow. ABV 4 - 12%
What's a Stout?
Those who think a stout is a woodland animal a little bit like a weasel, listen up, tune in, and show some respect: Stouts are dark beers, similar to porters (see above), but with more intensely roasted flavours. The category includes ‘Irish, ‘Milk’ and ‘American’, and can pack mid-range to high alcohol levels, with the taste varying hugely depending on its style and origin. The colour of some examples - almost black at times - could give the impression that these beers might be hard work, but a slight sweetness offsets bitterness, giving mellow, roasted, coffee and cream properties. At this point it’s impossible not to namecheck Guinness, the best known stout in the universe. ABV 3.8 - 12.0%
So, who fancies a beer?