Feel lost and awkward when you hear your beer-loving friends talking about their Belgian blondes and chocolate stouts? Don’t feel bad: In our book, it’s better to be an ordinary schlub who likes to drink a cold brew from the supermarket than an insufferable snob of the suds. Still, a little knowledge of beer terms and types can’t hurt, so here goes…
What is beer?
Beer has four basic ingredients:
- Water: makes up most of the beer’s volume
- Grain: the sugary, starchy ingredient that the yeast consumes and converts to CO2 and alcohol
- Hops: small, green buds of the hop plant with a sharp, bitter flavour
- Yeast: ferments the whole concoction, infusing it with CO2 and alcohol
The starch used in beer is usually barley, although you might find beers made from wheat, corn, rice and other grains at your local brewpub.
The qualities of the beer depend on the types of ingredients used and the process of brewing – which can be as simple or complex as you choose to make it.
All types of beer are merely subvariants of ale and lager.
Ales are brewed at higher temperatures, causing the yeast to float to the top, a process called “top fermentation”. Lagers are brewed cooler, making the yeast sink to the bottom in a much lengthier process known as “bottom fermentation”.
Most common beer varieties, including pale ales, porters and stouts, fall into the ale category, which tends to include heavier and richer beers with a higher alcohol content. A lager is usually lighter and milder than an ale, and more accessible for new drinkers. Thus, most common commercial beer brands – think Kirin, Heineken and Budweiser – are lagers.
Pale ales – literally paler in colour than most other ales – are on the lighter, crisper end of the ale spectrum, with a lower alcohol content and sweeter, more malty taste than thicker ales. If you enjoy pale ales, watch for names including the words “blonde”, “amber” and “English”.
What pale ale says about you: You would rather be drinking a lager, but you can’t handle the beer snob judgement, so you’ve picked something with “blonde” in the title in the hopes it doesn’t taste like soggy burnt toast.
India pale ale
India pale ales (or IPAs) tend to be more bitter than ordinary pale ales with higher alcohol levels, a sharp, hoppy taste, and fruity notes – especially citrus. There are many varieties of IPA in a range of flavours and strengths.
What IPA says about you: Good choice. IPAs are the darling of the craft beer world, so even if you don’t like IPAs, pretending to enjoy them will go far with your beer snob friends.
Porter and stout
Porters are heavy, dark-coloured ales that are usually sweeter, and less hoppy and bitter than other ales. They tend to be thick, creamy and earthy with notes of chocolate. Stouts, originally called “stout porters”, are a darker, dryer offshoot of the porter family. They tend to be smoky and earthy with notes of coffee (the popular Irish beer Guinness is a stout). Both traditionally hail from Ireland and England.
What stout and porter say about you: You won’t drink anything less opaque than Vladimir Putin’s deep state. If you must drink a milder brew, it should come in an aluminium can which you can then crush on your forehead.
As the name suggests, wheat beers are made with wheat – typically around 50 per cent mixed with barley or other grains. Wheat-based beers are some of the lightest, mildest and most refreshing ales.
What wheat beer says about you: You want an excuse to show off everything you’ve learned in this post to beer newbies. Congratulations, you are now a beers snob.
Pilsners – especially those from Europe – are light, crisp golden lagers known for being drinkable and refreshing. American-style pilsners tend to be fuller-bodied with a higher alcohol content, but are still the perfect beer for a hot day.
What pilsner says about you: You don’t go for the super-strong stuff, but you still know your way around a microbrewery menu.
On the other end of the lager spectrum, bocks are darker and richer, with a full, malty flavour. As the name suggests, they hail from Germany.
What bock says about you: You can’t stand weak beer, but you don’t want to upset your casual-drinking friends at the backyard cookout.