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.