From Budweiser and Coors to fruity ales

Whether you’re new to the beer world or have been enjoying beer for years, it can be overwhelming to be confronted by the selection of beers available at a beer bar or liquor store, especially if your beer experience has been restricted largely to the American mass-market beers. And while you don’t have to know the lingo to experiment and enjoy new beers, learning the basics may make it easier to pinpoint your preferences and help you search out your own ultimate beer.

Despite all the different styles, colors, and flavors, in the end, there are really only two styles of beer – ales and lagers. These terms don’t refer to a particular color or taste, but rather describe the type and behavior of the yeast used in the brewing process, as well as the process itself.

Ales are “top-fermented.” In other words, the yeast collects or floats along the surface of the beer. More importantly, these beers generally are at fermented at higher temperatures, ranging from 60-75 degrees. Because of the higher temperature, these beers have a quicker fermentation period, often a week or less. The yeasts used for ales also product by-products called esters. Esters create a wide range aromas and flavors, as well as textures, that will surprise a novice beer drinker.

Lagers are brewed with bottom fermenting yeast. Just like it sounds, these are yeasts that gather or sink to the bottom of the fermentation vessel. The term lager is derived from a German word, lagern, which means to store, and is a good description. Bottom fermenting yeast work much more slowly and at much lower temperatures, around 34 degrees, and so require the beer-in-progress to be kept for a longer period. Lagers are also often stored to mature after fermenting. The yeasts used in lagers produce fewer of the ester by-products than seen in ales, and so allows other flavors, such as hops, to become more noticeable.

If your exposure to beer has been solely through the so-called “mass market” American beers, you’ve become familiar with lager. Budweiser, Coors, Miller, Michelob – these are all lagers. The range of flavors noticeable in lagers is more limited than that is ales. They’re going to be hoppy, malty, sweet, or dry. There’s definitely nothing wrong with these flavors, but there are fewer variations, which explains why many people insist that all beers taste alike.

There are still few selections of ales from the big brewers, but the number of macro or micro brewer producing ales is growing rapidly, and these could be good choices to expand your beer horizons. The most common flavors are usually described as flowery or fruity, such as plum, apple, pear, grass, and hay, but the yeasts can also produce flavors as unique as vanilla, cloves, or butterscotch. These are not flavors added to the beer (although there are any number of beers with unique ingredients and flavors added), but are essentially a searched-for side effect of the brewing process.

In the end, the best way to learn beer is simply to taste it. There are so many beers that it’s hard to imagine that it would be impossible to find something appealing. Many restaurants are featuring micro-brews and macro-brews along with local brewers, making it easy to try something new. Beer bars and brew pubs are also becoming more common, and most are glad to give patrons an opportunity to sample a taster glass or two. A good bartender or waiter is a fantastic resource; he or she should be able to ask a few questions and make recommendations based on what you’re partial to.

And luckily, many excellent beers are relatively inexpensive. A six-pack is generally not a budget breaker. If you hate the idea of wasting a beer if you decide don’t like it, find a couple of adventurous friends and arrange a “beer swap” – trading out a few bottles makes it even easier to try something new.

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