Ten Classic Beer Styles to Try Before You Die

If you haven’t tasted these types of beer, you don’t know beer

Most beer drinkers don’t know the difference between a lager and an ale (and many couldn’t care less!). Even more mysterious and intimidating to most beer drinkers are the many, many beer sub-styles that exist. And don’t confuse beer styles with beer brands. Budweiser, Heineken, Beck’s and Corona may be different brands, but they are all the same style of beer: pale lager.

All told, there are approximately 70 styles and sub-styles of beer in the world. The only way to truly understand and appreciate this variety and diversity is to be intrepid and try as many of them as you can. There’s no guarantee that you will enjoy all of these, but at least you will have a better understanding of the world of beer –and maybe even a increased appreciation for the brewer’s art.

As you search out these various styles, be aware of regional interpretations and aggressive marketing strategies that pay little respect to brewing history and tradition. Brewers have a penchant for personalizing their brews with oddball ingredients or techniques and label hype often serves to confuse the consumer further.

To the point, then, here is a starter list of ten classic beer styles you should try before you die. To be true to brewing history and tradition, these should all be from their country and/or locale of origin.

  1. Pilsner- this hoppy golden lager was born in Plzen, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) dating back to 1842. It was the first golden beer of any kind –and now its many imitators make Pilsner the most popular beer style in the world.
  2. Dry Stout– this dark roasty ale that is traced back to Ireland is typified by the inky beer brewed in Dublin by Guinness. Note that the Irish “dry” stout is just one of five different stout styles produced in the beer world.
  3. Lambic– this tart, spontaneously fermented ale can only be found in the Senne River Valley near Brussels, Belgium. Wild, airborne microflora is responsible for lambic fermentation. It is also produced in fruit-flavored varieties.
  4. Doppelbock– this rich, malty lager is a Spring (Christian Lent) staple in Bavaria. Like its name suggests, it is a “double bock,” meaning it is a stronger version of regular bock beer (6.5% to 8% alcohol by volume).
  5. Flanders Red Ale– this reddish colored sour, oaky ale is somewhat rare outside of the Flanders region in northwestern Belgium. Its distinctive character comes from long term fermentation in old oaken vats.
  6. Witbier- this pale, perfumy, citrusy wheat ale traces its roots to Hoegaarden, Belgium. Its pleasant fruity aroma and flavor is derived primarily from the use of the lemony coriander seed and Curacao orange peel.
  7. Rauchbier- this brownish smoky lager is a gift to the beer world from Bamberg, Germany. The smokiness of the beer comes from smoking the barley malt over beechwood fires.
  8. Weizenbier- this cloudy, spritzy golden ale is a Summertime favorite from Bavaria, Germany. Alternately known as weissbier (white beer), this wheat-based beer with the towering white head of foam is a great thirst-quencher.
  9. Berliner Weisse- this pale, sour ale from Berlin, Germany, is also wheat-based, but it is much paler and more acidic. Some Berliners choose to drink their weisse “mit schuss” –with a shot of woodruff or raspberry syrup to cut through the bracing tartness of the beer.
  10. American IPA– this spicy, citrusy, malty, tangy ale is a hop-driven India Pale Ale from the good old U.S. of A. The use of all-American hop varieties gives this brew an assertive tangy, citrusy character.

Some of these beer styles are relatively easy to find in the United States, but others may not be. Searching them out in your travels abroad make the experience all the more fun and rewarding.

The Basics of Ale

Pale Ale, Dark Stout, and Everything in Between

The history of beer dates back almost as long as the history of civilization, with beer recipes being found dating as far back as 2050 BC. And these early beers were all ales. In fact, the term “beer” didn’t come into being until the 1400s, when it was used exclusively to refer to fermented beverages that were made with hops.

There are many varieties of ale, and it can sometimes be difficult to group them into tidy categories. Generally, the easiest way to divide them is by their color or by the style associated with their country of origin. The styles listed here are far from all-inclusive.

Pale ales are brewed with pale barley malt, and as the name implies, are generally very lightly colored. This category would include English pale ale, American pale ale, and Belgian pale ales & Belgian ales. IPAs (India Pale Ale) could also fit into this category, although they generally have much more pronounced hoppiness than most pale ales.

There is a wide range of beers that could be described as golden, amber, red or brown. As the names imply, they have a noticeably darker color than the pale ales, and often a stronger hop flavor. Examples would be American amber or red ales, English special bitters and extra special bitters, and Scotch ales. The German Kolsch ale, English mild ale and English dark mild ale could also fit into this category.

Dark ales are the porters and stouts. Porters get their dark color from the use of black or roasted malts, while stouts are generally known more for the use of roasted barley. People often assume that all dark beers are strong and bitter, but this is not the case. Irish style dry stouts are heavily hopped, and should have a noticeable bitterness. English style stouts, on the other hand, often have added sweeteners to off-set the bitterness, and can be noticeably sweet, leading to the terms sweet stout, milk stout, or cream stout. Oatmeal stouts have a slightly nutty flavor. Imperial stouts, also known as Russian imperial stouts, are known for their rich, malty flavor and higher than average alcohol content.

Barley wine ale is not a style well known in the United States. Traditionally a name used to describe the strong beers of home brewers, these beers have an alcohol content close to that of wines, and are usually found bottled rather than on tap. The beers are strong and rich, and are often described as dessert beers.

Similar to barley wine are the strong ales. These beers are usually identified as English, Scotch, or Belgian, and are typically dark, rich and sweet.

Belgian ales are often considered a class of their own. Belgium produces a variety of specialty beers that defy other classification, including dubbels (malty with a reddish color) and tripels (light gold with a high alcohol content).

Trappist and Abbey beers are based on the recipes dating back hundreds of years used in European monasteries. Trappist beers are brewed under the control of the monks themselves, and there are only a half dozen Trappist monasteries in Belgium brewing this beer. Abbey beers are made using similar recipes by commercial brewers.

Wheat beer, weizenbier or witbier, as the name implies, are not made with the traditional barley, but use a wheat and barley blend.

Christmas Dinner Beer and Food Pairing

Making your meal merrier with malted beverages

Many chose to open a large meal with a light dish. If you plan garden greens and vinaigrette dressing, for instance, look for a thirst-quenchingly tart and light-bodied, Berliner Weiss to pour alongside it. Similarly at home with a salad is the relatively rare Belgian gueuze, another effervescent brew with hints of citrus and rhubarb that finishes tart and dry.

Should your first course consist of fresh fruit or crustaceans (shrimp, prawns, or lobster), consider serving witbier (Flemish for “white” beer, the sweeter and more complex Belgian cousin to German Weissbier, also known as bière blanche). Spicy citrus notes in the aroma and flavor, together with its mildly sweet, malty palate, would safely and satisfyingly join such a delicate first course.

Main Course

Succulent veal pairs well with a subtly sweet, pale golden cream ale; while slightly more gamy lamb would be done more justice by a bronze, generously malted, German Altbier (“old beer”). India Pale Ales (aggressively hopped pale ales often called IPAs) are perfect foils for roast beef and brisket. It’s a virtual requirement that hearty steak dinners be accompanied by a robust dark beer in the style of porter, stout, or Schwarzbier (black beer). Sometimes opaque and often dry, these roasty flavored brews are also perfect company for the charred and smoky taste when your beefsteak is broiled or barbecued. The mildly smoky character of a German Steinbier (“stone beer”) or a semi-sweet and chocolaty Munich Dunkel (dark lager) would nicely suit a liberally glazed ham shank. If you choose to roast a bird this year, please consult my suggestions for complementary beers in my article about Thanksgiving beer pairing.

When seafood is on your menu, be sure to draw a mental line between lobster, crab, shrimp, or whitefish and the more assertive mollusks (clams, mussels, and oysters), salmon, or herring. For the more delicate former, a crisp, dry, golden lager such as a Pilsner should be offered; for the flavorful latter, a well-balanced pale ale is a more appropriate choice. If the salmon or herring are smoked, and you’re in a daring mood, try serving them with a German Rauchbier (smoked beer); but be forewarned that these acrid beers may be considered too austere by some. It bears noting that in England oysters and dry stout are considered a classic culinary combination.

Dessert Course

Christmas desserts run the gamut, but rich and/or creamy fruit or chocolate creations seem to be the order of the day. Sweeter, heavier beers are best suited to such concoctions. “Estery” — fruity and flowery — pale strong ales such as Belgian Tripels work well with fruity treats. So would spicy Belgian strong golden ales (occasionally labeled grand cru and spiced with coriander and Curaçao oranges). The perfect matches for chocolate baked goods are darker, roastier porters and stouts.

Christmas Candy

A word for those who pass candy at the end of a holiday meal: Explore the world of well-aged Belgian fruit-infused lambics. These are tart and sparkling beers to which macerated fruit (most often cherry or raspberry) has been added during fermentation. If these prove impossible to find, German Doppelbocks (dark, malty brews of considerable strength 6 – 8%), or rich Scotch ales (sweet and viscous beers with a mildly smoky backdrop) are full flavored “malternatives.”

A Word about Wassail

In the realm of tradition, wassail is punch, a concoction made of strong ale laden with spices, sugar, and floating pieces of fruit -such as roasted crab apple. To most modern brewers, however, wassail is a special winter beer to which has been added any number of spices or flavorings. These often include cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, ginger, vanilla, anise, and even essence of spruce, among others. You may drink these wassails chilled, but serving them slightly warmed not only brings out more of their spicy flavor, it can also bring a glow to your cheeks.

Best Italian Beers – Craft Breweries In Italy

Top Italian Ales: Artisan Brewers and Bottled Beer from Italy

Think of Italian drinks and you think of sparkling Prosecco (Italy’s ‘champagne’), fine wines like Chianti and Brunello, or sunny liqueurs such as Limoncello. You certainly don’t think of beer. However, Italian beer is on the up: a growing band of craft brewers in Italy are producing the sort of delicious and inventive ales of which mama (and certainly papa) could be proud. In fact in his book World’s Best Beers (pub. Jacqui Small, £25) Ben McFarland declares that: ‘of all the up-and-coming brewing nations in the world, Italy is the one to watch’.

Le Baladin Brewery – Musical Yeast

Traditionally Italians have only really drunk beer with pizza, but since the 1990s there has been a growing appreciation of the sort of artisan beers that deserve to be savoured by themselves. There are now around 150 microbreweries and brewpubs in Italy. Perhaps the best known is Le Baladin, which McFarland features in World’s Best Beers. Baladin beers are produced in the hills of Piedmont – and they’re adventurous brews, sometimes made with spices, chocolate, coffee beans – and even myrrh.

Teo Musso, of Baladin, is a creative character – even rather eccentrically attaching headphones to the fermenting vessels so as to play music to the growing yeast. Most of Baladin’s beers are bottled and include Xyauyu (13%), a dark and powerful ‘oxidized’ ale that McFarland says has the character of wine; Super Baladin (8%) a beer that’s based on a 9th-century Belgian recipe, and Nora – an unusual beer that is made with ginger root and myrrh.

Beer with Chestnuts, Cocoa Beans – even Wormwood

But Baladin isn’t the only Italian brewer worthy of note. McFarland highlights over 30 different Italian beers, produced by brewers from Milan down to Rome. They offer an extraordinary variety of flavours and will often work with local producers to source local – sometimes unusual – ingredients, bringing an experimental zing to the industry. There’s Torbata, a bottle-conditioned ‘smoked ale’ that’s made at the Almond 22 brewery in Abruzzi and flavoured with chestnut honey, orange peel and cane sugar; Birolla, a delicious sounding dark ale from Il Birrificio di Como in Lombardy, made with roasted chestnuts and honey from local chestnut and thorn trees; Chocarrubica, from Grado Plato in Piedmont, a stout flavoured with cocoa beans from Sicily, and Chiostro, a Belgian-style beer made at Piccolo brewery in Liguria, that is spiced with wormwood – the ingredient that was famously used in absinthe and led to it being dubbed the ‘green fairy’.

Blueberry Beer

Amongst the other Italian beers that McFarland features are Montegioco Draco, a potent barley wine that’s brewed with fresh blueberries; Noscia, a pale ale containing honey and a hint of dried apricot, and Scires, an intense dark ale from Lombardy made with cherries. With so much variety, and so many acclaimed brews, it seems that Italian beer is well and truly on the map. Cin cin!

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