DRINKING IN STYLE: A quick guide to beer styles
Getting to know all of the various beer styles out there can seem daunting, or even intimidating. But it needn’t be! The beauty of beer is that you can find world-class examples at local retailers, many for less than $5 per bottle. It’s less intimidating to find exactly what you like when you don’t have to worry about sinking a lot of money into a stinker. So what are the beer style basics?
Well, beers are typically classed as ales, lagers or wild/sour/spontaneously fermented beers. Beyond that, there are four main brewing regions that have their own sets of style categories: Germany, Belgium, Britain and the U.S. Beers will fit into one of many style categories based on their history, brewing style, ingredients and specific parameters for colour and alcohol content, amongst other qualities, such as aroma, flavour and mouthfeel. Keep your eyes peeled for breweries around the province that may offer some of these styles.
Many people assume a few things when they hear “lager”: that these beers are light in colour, lightly flavoured, crisp and refreshing. Although this is often true, lagers can also be thick, dark and malty, or hoppy and lively. Two things all lagers have in common is the strain of yeast used and the method of fermentation, meaning the yeast won’t produce as many fruity or spicy flavours (esters or phenols), resulting in a clean tasting beer.
This is the beer style that spawned thousands of copycats. Originating in the Czech Republic, variants of this style make up 80 per cent of the world’s beer consumption by volume. Pilsners are light lagers, meant to be crisp and refreshing with a moderate bitterness. German hops add perfumey and flowery aromas and flavours. These do well with lighter dishes, such as chicken alfredo. The beer won’t overpower your delicate pasta, while the high carbonation will lift the fat from your tongue to refresh your palate between bites.
German lagers, bocks are considered a family of “big beers” that are malt-forward and high in alcohol content. The hoppiest of the bock family would be the maibock, but there’s also the doppelbock and a distilled version called eisbock. Your standard bock beer is very toasty and caramelly, slightly bitter, with little to no hop flavours. I like these beers with gamier meats, especially ones that have earthy and caramelized flavours, like sausages.
Ales are older than lagers by a few thousand years. These beers ferment warmer and faster than lagers do. Because of this, they often exhibit yeast qualities of fruity esters or spicy phenols.
Depending on where you are in the world, ordering a wheat ale could have you consuming very different beverages. Wheat has higher protein content than barley does, meaning your beer may be cloudier, but it will also have a bigger head of foam. Unmalted wheat can sometimes add a slight lemony bite as well. In the U.S. wheat ale can be very similar to blond ale, but hazy. These light beers do well with light foods or very mild cheeses, so mozza sticks would work here. In Germany your wheat ale, called hefeweizen or weisse, should taste like bananas and cloves. They are very effervescent and refreshing; try one with strawberry shortcake and cardamom. Whereas in Belgium, witbier usually has coriander and bitter orange peel added while brewing, creating an altogether new experience. I find these beers stand up superbly to vinaigrettes and tangy marinades.
Bitter (Best/Extra Special)
Possibly the quintessential British style of beer, the bitter category actually may be a misleading title for American drinkers. The average British bitter is actually less bitter than the average American amber ale. These beers are subtle; they have lower carbonation, lower alcohol and lower. They also have many fruity flavours and can have a touch of caramel malt flavour to balance their bitter essence. This British beer pairs best with classic British pub grub like fish and chips.
Belgians love adding an eclectic mix of ingredients to their beers, from rock candy, to herbs and fruit. Saisons, in particular, are popular Belgian style ales. These beers are quite dry, highly effervescent and very refreshing. Saisons often boast flavours that could remind you of an herbal bouquet, either from directly adding herbs or from the phenols created by the yeast. Saisons will pair with many foods. One option is charcuterie, especially spiced and herbed meats that will hold their own against these complex beers.
The India Pale Ale originated in England in the 1800s. Though many argue over its exact history, legend has it that this beer was made with more hops and alcohol to preserve it on long ship voyages to India, where British troops were stationed. If there’s one beer that stands as an American craft beer icon, this is it. Americans have taken this style and made it their own. Aggressively hoppy in flavour and aroma but still having enough malt backbone to balance its firm bitterness, the IPA pairs well with spicy foods like traditional Indian curry.
Porters and Stouts
During the Industrial Revolution in England, porter beer had become so immensely popular that at one point porter breweries were as profitable as banks! While porters have caramelly and chocolaty smoothness with low bitterness, stouts can be drier and have a more firm bitter bite to them, like a dark coffee. Both porters and stouts are dark, malty beers with lots of roast qualities. They pair well with dark and roasty foods, like grilled meats or roasts, but do exceptionally well with chocolate and desserts.
Considered the oldest way to brew beer, sour beers have microbes and/or wild yeast instead of, or in addition to, traditional brewing yeasts. Bacteria such as Acetobacter and Lactobascillus give flavours of vinegar or yogurt-like tartness, respectively, whereas the wild yeast Brettanomyces can add funky, damp wool, barnyard-esque flavours.
Quickly rising in the ranks as a craft favourite, this sour German wheat beer uses salt and coriander in the brew, making it very complex. The wheat in this beer can give it a lemony bite. Lactobascillus is usually what gives these beers their signature sour pucker. Gose could almost remind you of a salty, lemon meringue pie, just lacking sweetness. These flavours will marry well with your favourite seafood, particularly any fish dish that uses a beurre blanc or hollandaise.