Beer Style


Beer style is a term used to differentiate and categorize beers by various factors such as colour, flavour, strength, ingredients, production method, recipe, history, or origin. The modern concept of beer style is largely based on the work of writer Michael Jackson in his 1977 book ‘The World Guide To Beer’ in which he categorized a variety of beers from around the world into local style groups according to local customs and names. In 1989, Fred Eckhardt furthered Jackson’s work publishing ‘The Essentials of Beer Style.’ Although the systematic study of beer styles is a modern phenomenon, the practice of distinguishing between different varieties of beer is ancient, dating to at least 2000 BCE.

The study of what constitutes a beer’s style may involve provenance, local tradition, ingredients, and/or empirical impression, which is conventionally broken down into several elements; typically – aroma, appearance, flavor and mouthfeel. The flavor may include the degree of bitterness of a beer due to bittering agents such as hops, roasted barley, or herbs; and the sweetness from the sugar present in the beer.

Yeasts that ferment at relatively warmer temperatures, usually between 60 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, form a layer of foam on the surface of the fermenting beer, which is why they are referred to as top-fermenting yeasts. Yeasts that ferment at considerably lower temperatures, around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, have the ability of to process a chemical compound known as raffinose, a complex sugar created during fermentation. These yeasts collect at the bottom of the fermenting beer and are therefore referred to as bottom-fermenting yeast. The majority of beer in production today is fermented in this way and is called lager.

Two other types of beer styles include beer of spontaneous fermentation and beers of mixed origin (such as Altbier and Kölsch). Beers of spontaneous fermentation are mainly produced in Belgium using wild strains of yeast. These types of beers are often referred to as Lambic.

The Alulu Tablet, a Sumerian receipt for ‘best’ ale written in Cuneiform found in the ancient city of Ur, suggests that even in 2050 BCE there was a differentiation between at least two different types or qualities of ale.  Five hundred years later the Hittites had over 15 different types of beer. Pliny the Elder in his ‘Naturalis Historia’ wrote about Celts brewing ale ‘in Gaul and Spain in a number of different ways, and under a number of different names; although the principle is the same.’ Anglo-Saxon laws reveal they identified three different ales, while the Normans mention cervisae (ale) and plena cervisia (full bodied ale) in the ‘Domesday Book,’ a 10th century English survey.

By the 15th century brewers in Germany and the Low Countries (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and parts of northern France) were using hops to flavor and preserve their ale; this new style of ale was called beer. When this trend came to Britain and brewers of beer in Southwark, London, took sales away from the traditional brewers of unhopped ale, causing complaints and protests. Various laws were passed favoring either beer or ale for a number of years, until hopped beer became the standard style throughout Europe.

Also in the 15th century, brewers in Bavaria were storing beer in cool caves during the summer months in order to stop it spoiling. The beer became known as lager from the German word lagern, meaning ‘to store.’

Although beers using naturally dried malt would have been pale-colored, by the 17th century most malts in Europe would have been dried over a fire, resulting in a dark colored beer. When coke started to be used for roasting malt in 1642, the resulting lighter colored beers became very popular. By 1703 the term pale ale was starting to be used, though the beer it described was a lightly hopped ale, very different from more bitter modern versions.

However, despite an awareness by commentators, law-makers, and brewers that there were different styles of beer, it wasn’t until Michael Jackson’s ‘World Guide To Beer’ was published in 1977 that there was an attempt to group together and compare beers from around the world. Jackson’s book had a particular influence in North America where writer Fred Eckhardt was also starting to explore beer styles. The wine importing company Merchant du Vin switched to importing beers mentioned in Jackson’s book. Small brewers started up, producing copies and interpretations of the beer styles Jackson described.

While North America developed beer styles into a serious study with fixed parameters of bitterness, color, aroma, yeast, ingredients and strength, other countries continued to mainly categorize beers loosely by strength and color, with much overlapping of naming conventions.

The visual characteristics that may be observed in a beer are color, clarity, and nature of the head. Color is usually imparted by the malts used, notably the adjunct malts added to darker beers, though other ingredients may contribute to the color of some styles such as fruit beers. Many beers are transparent, but some beers, such as hefeweizen, may be cloudy due to the presence of yeast making them translucent. A third variety is the opaque or near-opaque color that exists with stouts, porters, schwarzbiers (black beer) and other deeply colored styles. Thickness and retention of the head and the lace it can leave on the glass, are also factors in a beer’s appearance.

The aroma in a beer may be formed from the malt and other fermentables, the strength and type of hops, the alcohol, esters, and various other aromatic components that can be contributed by the yeast strain, and other elements that may derive from the water and the brewing process.

The taste characteristics of a beer may come from the type and amount of malt used, flavors imparted by the yeast, and strength of bitterness. Bitterness can be measured on an International Bitterness Units scale, and in North America a number of brewers record the bitterness on this scale as IBUs.

The feel of a beer in the mouth, both from thickness of the liquid and from carbonation, may also be considered as part of a beer’s style. A more dextrinous beer feels thicker in the mouth. The level of carbonation (or nitrogen, in ‘smooth’ beers) varies from one beer style to another. For some beers it may give the beer a thick and creamy feel, while for others it contributes a prickly sensation.

The strength of beer is a general term for the amount of alcohol present.

Measurement of the specific gravity of the beer has traditionally been used as an to estimate the strength of beer by measuring its density. The Plato scale is the most common measure. This approach relies on the fact that dissolved sugars and alcohol each affect the density of beer differently. Since sugars are converted to alcohol during the process of fermentation, gravity can be used to estimate the final alcohol. In beer brewing, a distinction is made between the original gravity, the gravity of the wort before fermentation has begun, and the final gravity of the product when fermentation has completed. Since the concentration of sugars is directly proportional to the gravity, the original gravity gives a brewer an idea of the potential alcoholic strength of the final product. After fermentation, the differences between the final and original gravities indicates the amount of sugar converted into alcohol, allowing the concentration of alcoholic strength to be calculated.

The original gravity of a beer was the basis for determining taxation in both the UK and Ireland from 1880 until the late 20th century, and a legacy of that system remains in the largely arbitrary division of bitter into ‘bitter,’ ‘best bitter,’ and ‘special bitter’ substyles. In continental Europe, the strength of a beer in degrees Plato is sometimes used by a brewery to distinguish a particular beer produced in a line. For example, Rochefort Brewery produces three beers, all dissimilar in color, flavor, and aroma; and sells them as Rochefort 6, Rochefort 8, and Rochefort 10, the numbers referring to the original gravities of the beers. Westvleteren Brewery, meanwhile, produces three beers, and calls them Blonde, 8, and 12.

A variety of yeasts are used in making beer, most of which are strains of either top-fermenting yeast or bottom-fermenting yeast. Different strains impart different flavor and aroma characteristics, and may vary in which complex sugars they can ferment and how high their alcohol tolerance is, both of which are factors in attenuation (reduction in strength). Some beers use other microbes in addition to yeasts, such as Lactobacillus or Brettanomyces. For example, the distinctive flavour and aroma of Belgian Abbey ales largely result from the yeast strains used to ferment the beer. There are a few modern styles, notably lambics, where spontaneous fermentation is used — that is, rather than being inoculated in a controlled fashion with a nurtured yeast, the unfermented wort is allowed to be colonized by microorganisms present in the environment.

Most beers use barley malt as their primary source of fermentable sugars, and some beer styles mandate it be used exclusively, such as those German styles developed under Reinheitsgebot. Some beer styles can be considered varietals, in the same sense as wine, based on their malt bill. Kilned pale malts form the basis of most beer styles now in production, with styles that use other grains as a base distinguished by those grains (for example bock, which uses Munich malt as a base). The Rauchbier and Alaskan smoked porter styles are distinguished by the use of smoked malt. Some styles use one or more other grains as a key ingredient in the style, such as wheat beer, rye beer, or oatmeal stout.

The inclusion of some grains such as corn and rice is often viewed as making less of a flavor contribution and more of an added source of fermentable sugars. Rice in particular ‘is considered by many [craft] brewers what the nasty industrial brewers use to water down their beer.’ This is due in large part to the use of rice by large scale American breweries. While it is commonly held that these breweries introduced these grains to their formulas during war shortages, author Maureen Ogle states ‘The mythology is that these giant beer makers began adding rice and corn to their beer after World War II to water it down, but that’s simply not true. The American brewing industry was built in the late 19th century by first-generation German American immigrants such as Adolphus Busch, Adolph Coors and Frederick Miller. Although these men, craft brewers themselves, initially re-created the full-bodied beers of their homeland, many Americans had not developed a taste for the malt-heavy style. They needed a domestic ingredient that would make the beers more effervescent, bubbly and lighter. Rice and corn did that – it was a desired flavor, not inexpensive filler.’

Hops contribute bitterness, flavor and aroma to a beer in different ways depending on when they are added during the brewing process. How much hop bitterness and aroma is appropriate varies considerably between different beer styles. There are many varieties of hops, some of which are associated with beers from specific regions. For example, Saaz hops are associated with Czech Pilsners; Hallertau and Tettnanger are two of the ‘noble’ hop varieties one expects to find in German beers, and Kent Goldings are an English variety.

Water is the main ingredient in beer, and, though water itself is flavorless, the chemical composition can have an influence on the finished taste; indeed, some brewers regard it as ‘the most important ingredient in beer.’ In particular, two styles of beer are especially noted for their water chemistry: pilsner, and pale ale, for which the process of Burtonisation is widespread (the act of adding sulphate, often in the form of gypsum, to the water).

Fruits and spices are key ingredients in some beer styles. While fruit beers and herb beers are often listed as style categories unto themselves, fruits and spices are sometimes used to contribute to the flavor and aroma profile of other styles. Vegetables have also been used in beers. Honey, molasses, candy sugar, or other fermentable sugars may be added to impart their distinct flavours to a beer. Some brewers have experimented with aging their beer in barrels previously used for bourbon or other distilled spirits, imparting the flavor of both the wood and the spirit to the beer.

Alcoholic beverages made from the fermentation of sugars derived from non-grain sources are generally not called ‘beer,’ despite being produced by the same yeast-based biochemical reaction. Fermented honey is called mead, fermented apple juice is called cider, fermented pear juice is called perry (sometimes, pear cider), fermented plum juice is called plum jerkum, and fermented grape juice is called wine. Chinese jiu and Japanese sake are made using much the same process as beer with one additional step in the fermentation as well as using rice instead of primarily barley malt.

Most beer styles fall into broad types roughly according to the time and temperature of the primary fermentation and the variety of yeast used during fermentation. As the terminology of brewing arose before the advent of the science of microbiology, ‘yeast’ in this context may refer not only to fungi but to some bacteria, for example Lactobacillus in Berliner Weisse.

Top-fermenting yeast typically ferments at higher temperatures (15–23°C, 60–75°F), producing significant amounts of esters and other secondary flavors and aromas, often resembling those of apple, pear, pineapple, grass, hay, banana, plum or prune. Top-fermented beers include Brown Ale, Mild Ale, Old Ale, Pale Ale, Stout and Wheat beer.

Pale lagers are the most commonly consumed type of beer in the world. Lagers are of Central European origin, taking their name from the German lagern (‘to store’), and normally use a bottom-fermenting yeast which begin fermenting at 7–12 °C (45–54 °F) (the ‘fermentation phase’), and then stored at 0–4 °C (32–39 °F) (the ‘lagering phase’). During the secondary stage, the lager clears and mellows. The cooler conditions also inhibit the natural production of esters and other byproducts, resulting in a ‘crisper’ tasting beer.

Modern methods of producing lager were pioneered by Gabriel Sedlmayr the Younger, who perfected dark brown lagers at the Spaten Brewery in Bavaria, and Anton Dreher, who began brewing a lager in Vienna, Austria, in 1840–1841. With modern improved fermentation control, most lager breweries use only short periods of cold storage, typically 1–3 weeks.

Most of today’s lager is based on the original Pilsner style, pioneered in 1842 in the town of Pilsen, in an area of the Austrian monarchy now located in the Czech Republic. The modern pale lager that developed from Pilsner is light in color and high in forced carbonation, with an alcohol content of 3–6% by volume. The Pilsner Urquell or Heineken brands of beer are typical examples of pale lager, with the Pilsner Urquell brand having a hop presence more associated with the pilsner style. Principal styles of lager include pale lager, Bock, Dunkel, Helles, Oktoberfestbier / Märzen, Pilsner, Schwarzbier and Vienna lager.

Beers of spontaneous fermentation use wild yeasts rather than cultivated ones. By the Middle Ages, brewers had learned to crop the yeast from one brew and use it in the next. Only in a few isolated regions were wild yeasts still used. The best-known region where spontaneous fermentation is still used is the Senne Valley in Belgium where lambic is produced.

Hybrid or mixed style beers use modern techniques and materials instead of, or in addition to, traditional aspects of brewing. Although there is some variation among sources, mixed beers generally fall into the following categories:

Altbier and Kölsch, both of which are top fermented before being cold conditioned, i.e. lagered.

Steam beers were invented by German immigrants living in California and are made with a type of bottom-fermenting yeast that can ferment at warmer temperatures. The name ‘steam beer’ is a trademark of the Anchor Brewing Company, though other brewers brew this beer under the designation ‘California common.’

Fruit and vegetable beers are mixed with some kind of fermentable fruit or vegetable adjunct during the fermentation process, providing obvious yet harmonious qualities. Herb and spiced beers include herbs or spices derived from roots, seeds, fruits, vegetables or flowers instead of, or in addition to hops.

Wood-aged beers are any traditional or experimental beer that has been aged in a wooden barrel or have been left in contact with wood chips or cubes. Often, the barrel or wood will be treated first with some variety of spirit or other alcoholic beverage; bourbon, scotch and sherry are common.

Smoked beers use malt that has been treated by exposing it to smoke from burning or smoldering wood so that a smoky aroma and flavor is present. The best known examples of this style are the Rauchbiers of Bamberg, Germany. Brewers outside Germany have also used smoked malt in porters, Scotch ale and other styles.

Champagne-style beers are finished ‘à la méthode originale,’ mainly in Belgium, and include Grottenbier, Deus and Malheur Bière Brut.

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