Guide to 20 Beer Styles
Intro. There are hundreds of beer styles out there, but we have grouped them generally into 20 areas that we'd like our mug club members to have experience before joining the club. You can learn about them here. For better tasting descriptions, visit the Beer Judge Certification Program's website here.
Belgian Trappist: in order for a beer to be Trappist, it needs to be made by the monks from the Order of Cistercians. They have 150 monasteries but only 16 of them produce products by the International Trappist Association (they make soap, greeting cards, bread, chocolate, cheese and beer). Only 12 breweries in the world make beers that the organization has allowed to use the familiar hexagon insignia: Achel, Chimay, Engelszell, La Trappe, Mont des Cats, Orval, Rochefort, Spencer (only one in USA), Tre Fontane, Westmalle, Westvleteren, Zundert.
Examples: Chimay Red is a Dubbel-style (dark amber), Chimay White is a Tripel, stronger than the Dubbel but light in color like a Pilsner, Chimay Blue is a Grand Reserve or Quadrupel , which is very dark and rich and alcoholic.
Belgian Non-trappist : Belgium has a long history when it comes to beer causing the country to have a wide array of styles. Many of Belgium’s beers are recognized by their unique yeast characteristics; fruity, spicy and earthy. These beers are primarily ales with an emphasis on malt and yeast flavor. Common styles include: Belgian blonde, witbier, dubbel, tripel, quad, grand cru, and the Belgian sours
Examples: Hoegaarden (Wit), Maudite (double), Tripel Karmeliet (tripel), St. Bernardus Abt 12 (quad), Val-Dieu (Grand Cru)
Belgian/French Saison: Saison literally means “Season” as this was brewed for summer season. There are autumn, winter and spring versions as well. A unique flavor profile with emphasis on yeast, which ranges from fruit and ester to spice and clove. They are typically drier than other beer styles with a ABV that ranges from 4-7%.
Examples: Saison DuPont is the golden standard. Moody Tongue Steeped Emperor’s Lemon Saison
Berlinerweiss/ Sour: A beer that is intentionally acidic, tart or sour in taste. The most common styles are Berliner Weisse (low ABV with a straight forward sour flavor), Flanders red/brown (darker in color and often matured in oak barrels), and Gose (characterized by the use of coriander and salt). The sourness comes from bacteria and/or wild yeast. Bacteria is really good at making acids like lactic, acetic and others. Most Wisconsinites enjoy cheese but not everybody enjoys “stinky cheese”, the same can be said for sour beer.
Examples: Duchesse de Bourgogne (Flanders red), Tallgrass Raspberry Jam (Berliner Weisse), Sierra Nevada Otra Vez (Gose).
Czech/German Pilsner/Craft Lager/Kolsch: A light lager golden in color with light bitterness and spicy hop notes from the Nobel hops. American craft lagers are modeled after the Czech pilsner and German Helles, although you’ll find darker variations. American lagers usually use American hops and can be mild or very hoppy like an IPL (India pale lager). Kolsch tastes very similar to German light lagers but in fact uses ale yeast and is fermented and stored colder to mimic lager processes. As a result the yeast produces more sulfur but still has the esters associated with ales.
Examples: Krombacher (German-style Pils), Pilsner Urquell (Czech-style Pils), Lakefront Pils, Mobcraft Oddball.
German Bock/ Dunkel/Schwartzbier: Bocks are dark in color with a higher ABV than typical German lagers. They are toasty and malty with a defined sweetness. Dunkels are much weaker than their Bock counterpart, rarely reaching 5.5%. Dunkel has low bitterness, a distinctive dark color, and a malty flavor. Bock comes in several varieties. Maibock (released in May) is very light in color and usually the most hoppy of the bocks. Traditional bock is moderately in flavor and strength and the dopplebock (double bock) is stronger in alcohol and flavor. Schwartzbier (literally “dark beer”) is commonly referred to as black pilsner as it has more in common with that style. Darker than the dunkel but not really anymore flavor or alcohol.
Examples: Paulaner Salvator (Dopplebock), Titletown Dark Helmet (Schwartzbier), Erdinger Dunkel.
German Hefeweiss/Hefeweizen: A wheat beer known for its low hop bitterness, cloudiness (due to unfiltered yeast), and high carbonation. “Hefe”= yeast, “weiss”= white, “weizen”=wheat. Common yeast flavors include clove, vanilla, bubble gum, and banana. Relative sweetness along with crispness makes them a great choice on a hot day.
Examples: Franziskaner Weissbier, Weihenstephaner Weiss
Fruit Ale/ Lager: This section includes any style of beer brewed or fermented with fruit.
Examples: O’fallon Wheach, Tallgrass Raspberry Jam, Fox River Blu Bobber
Spiced Ale/ Lager: This section includes any style of beer brewed or fermented with spices, coffee or chocolate, etc.
Examples: Surly Coffee Bender, Boulevard Ginger Radler, Hoegarrden (coriander, orange peel)
Smoked/Barrel-aged Beers: Smoked beers are technically smoked malt and the beer is made with the smoked ingredients. These typically are very light-handed like a lightly smoked Swiss cheese. They pair well with meats. The Barrel-aged beers are a group that has huge variation. Some are just soaked with natural oak cubes/spirals and give an oaked chardonnay character. Others have been aged in used spirits barrels and give off huge notes of bourbon, wine, tequila, gin, rum or brandy flavors. Charred oak barrels are also used and do similar things to beer as they do to whiskey. Barrel-aging can be risky as it allows a little oxygen to seep through the wood pores. This will make a barleywine or imperial stout age gracefully but might be for a lower alcohol beer, unless you are trying to make a sour ale.
Examples: Schlenkerla Helles or Marzen, Firestone Walker Double Barrel Ale, Goose Island Bourbon County Stout, Founders Dragon’s Milk or Kentucky Breakfast Stout.
Pale Ale: Originally an English beer style, this has been adopted by the American craft beer scene and now the rest of the world has been inspired by American breweries. This beer is usually 4-6% alcohol by volume and is hoppy (flavor/aroma) but not overly bitter.
Examples: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is the golden standard. New Glarus Moon Man and Ale Asylum Hopalicious.
IPA: India Pale Ale. Similar to Pale Ale but derives it’s name from the fact that it was being sent to the colonists in India in the late 1800’s. They found that by increasing the alcohol and hops of the Pale Ale, the beer survived the trip and the beer still was good. Hops are a natural anti-microbial plant so it helped preserve the beer without it going sour. If more hops are boiled longer, they will extract more bitterness. This is usually a key to this style.
Examples: Anything that says IPA after the name. Everybody brews an IPA but Ballast Point, Heady Topper, Russian River, 3 Floyds are all famous for theirs.
Double IPA or Imperial IPA: these aren’t exactly double the alcohol or double the flavor, the name is misleading. If a regular IPA is 6-7.5%ABV then an IIPA or DIPA will be 8-11% and triple IPA could be 11+%. These need more bitterness to overcome the fact that all the sugars might not have been consumed by the yeast. Without extra hops, these beers would be too sweet. The alcohol helps bring aromas and flavors forward and are favorites of Hopheads.
Examples: Flying Dog Double Dog, Russian River Pliner the Elder, New Glarus Screamin Imperial IPA.
Blonde/Cream/Amber: This category is a catch-all for easy drinking craft beers. Blonde is just light in color. Cream ales are made using a portion of corn and ambers are usually amber-brown in color and have more crystal malts for a sweeter flavor. American Red was a spin-off of amber but is usually more hoppy and bitter than an amber.
Examples: New Glarus Spotted Cow (cream ale), 3 Sheeps Rebel the Kent Amber, Wi Brewing Badger Club Amber
Scottish/Scotch Ale: Scottish beers come in different strengths due to the fact that over 100 years ago the Scottish Gov’t would tax brewers based on how much grain and therefore how much alcohol was in each. So a 60/- (pronounced “sixty shilling”) was lower in alcohol than a 70/- or 80/-. 60 Shillings is what the brewer paid in taxes per barrel of beer. A Scotch Ale (AKA Wee Heavy) is the biggest of them all usually 8+%ABV.
Examples: McEwans Scotch Ale, Central Waters Slainte, Belhaven 60/-
Ordinary Bitter, Special Bitter/Best Bitter and ESB (Extra Special Bitter): Don’t let the word “bitter” mislead you. These probably were considered bitter when they were invented in England 200 years ago but they are sweet with noticeable hop presence. Nothing like the IPA’s of today. The bitter was the smallest, usually less than 4%ABV and the ESB was the biggest usually over 6%ABV and has the most flavor.
Examples: Adnams Bitter, Greene King IPA, Bass Ale, Whitbread Pale Ale, Fuller’s ESB
Barleywine: This style was invented by English brewers to compete against wine which was stealing market-share at one time. As the name implies the beer is stronger in alcohol but tastes nothing like a wine. Typically 8-12%ABV these beers are very flavorful in dark/crystal malt character. The beer ages well with most examples drinking well past 5 years old. The biggest difference in English and American is just in the ingredients. English yeast, English hops and English malt define that style, likewise for American. In order to age these the beers are usually packed with a lot of hop bitterness, so the fresh examples are more bitter than an IPA, but as they age, the bitterness mellows and the sherry character increases. Enjoyed in a tulip, snifter or wine glass.
Examples: JW Lee’s Vintage Harvest Ale, Fuller’s Golden Pride, Avery Hog Heaven, Anchor Old Foghorn, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot.
Brown: Before the development of pale malts, most every common beer was a Brown ale. Today they represent a specific style that is amber to dark brown in color. The flavors range from nutty to roasty, and biscuity to toffee and some even contain coffee and chocolate flavors. Very little as far as hop aroma or flavor, as this is a malt-forward beer.
Examples: Bell’s Best Brown, Big Sky Moose Drool, Newcastle Brown, Samuel Smith’s Nut
Porter: Porter is named after the profession. These “porters” would come to drink a beer that originally was a mix of a big brown ale and a small brown ale. The publicans would mix this right in the pubs. Eventually the brewers started making it pre-mixed at the brewery and a new style of beer was born. Not a lot of roast character but lots of chocolate, brown, nutty, coffee, licorice and toasted notes. Low in hop bitterness, aroma and flavor.
Examples: Fuller’s London Porter, Sam Smith Taddy Porter, Boulevard Bully Porter, Deschutes Black Butte Porter, Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter
Stout: Legend has it that this beer started out as a porter…It was said that this beer was “the most stout of all porters”. Today there is a lot of cross-over between what a porter or stout can be. Typically stouts will have a stronger roast or coffee character than porters. This comes from the barley malt that is in fact roasted similarly to how coffee is roasted. Common variants are the oatmeal stout and milk or sweet stout that in fact has lactose sugar added. (yeast cannot ferment lactose, so the sweetness remains in the beer)
Examples: Sand Creek Oskar’s Oatmeal Stout, Left Hand Milk Stout, Guinness, Rogue Shakespeare Stout