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A Short History of Beer Styles

Posted by David Collinge on

Origins of Beer

It’s said that beer originated several thousand years ago, shortly after humans began making bread from crushed grains. Somebody left the grain outside in a pail of water, and shortly afterwards, wild yeast found this delicious mixture and began propogating themselves - ingesting the sugars and excreting alcohol. Imagine being that first beer drinker - having no idea what this disgusting, frothy liquid would taste like, but having the guts to down it anyway. Must have tasted okay, but I don’t think that mattered - a little while after consuming it, a nice glow began to take hold, and our primal beer drinker became the first budding brewer!

As the millennia passed, the message that fermented grains produced happiness was spread far and wide. Regional differences began to emerge, primarily because what tastes good in a cold climate isn’t quite as appealing to those in warm climates, and vice versa. In addition, locally available ingredients made for a wide range of beer styles, and many of those styles were refined over time. Today, we are the fortunate. We have over 50 major styles of beer from which to choose, and hundreds of variations of each of those styles are available to us every day.

Of course, that’s what makes the task of selecting “the right beer” daunting. Without a basic understanding of beer styles and origins, how can you possibly look like the most knowledgable Backyard Bartender? Below is the beginning of the journey - we’ll give you just enough info to impress your guests today, and as you enlighten them, we’ll keep you ahead of the curve as we publish interesting facts and stories over the coming weeks and months.

Ingredients and their impact on style

If you ask any craft brewer today for a list of ingredients in his or her beer, you will likely hear only 4 things: water, malted barley, hops, and yeast. Of course, that doesn’t take into account flavored beers, and also doesn’t include “adjuncts” that are used by large-scale brewers for a variety of reasons: to lighten the body of the beer, increase head foam retention, to make the beer cheaper to produce, etc. Adjuncts include sugars extracted from rice, corn, and other grains, all of which have different attributes that contribute to the flavor profile of the beer style.

As you delve into the descriptions below, you’ll soon see that each beer style has a distinct balance of ingredients, but within that style, there are infinite possibilities for the brewmaster to add a unique character to the beer that he or she produces. Let’s start with the uber-groups of beer, ale and lager.

Ale versus Lager

The distinction between Ale and Lager is determined by the type of yeast being used for fermentation. The yeast used in ale production floculates, or gathers, on top of the liquid it is fermenting. These yeasts thrive in a relatively warm environment, and produce “esters” or noticeable essences of fruits and other flavors and smells that we associate with food.

Lagers, on the other hand, employ yeasts that floculate to the bottom of the barrel as fermentation nears completion. This isolation from the atmosphere, along with the lower temperatures in which lager yeasts thrive, tend to produce beers that are more subtle, based more heavily on the distinct malt, yeast, and hops used.

European Influence

Most of the styles we’ve come to know have their roots in Europe, largely as a result of migration patterns to North America. So let’s explore the regions that had the largest impact on our beer drinking habits.

 

 

British Isles

Arguably the greatest contribution from Britain to the world of beer lies in the production of ales, ranging from pale gold bitters to jet-black stouts. Until the early 1700s, most beer production in Britain was conducted at the pub or restaurant, and the style, variety, and quality were all completely in the hands of the proprietor. At that point, at the beginning of the industrial  revolution, several breweries spring up, and a common style of ale called Porter began to emerge, putting all of the competitors in the same arena.

Porter - this was the first commercial style available in Britain - it was a beer made for everyday drinking, so a light to medium body and alcohol content was desired. Generous use of hops made it thirst-quenching, and initial batches were made by blending aged ale with unaged light, hoppy ale. Porter remains a ruby-to-deep brown ale today, with a moderate body and medium to strong hop bitterness.

Stout - Around the beginning of the 18th century,
customers began demanding stronger beer, so a “stout” porter was developed to suit this new segment in the beer market. Stout today ranges from dark brown to jet black, has a more pronounced roasted malt character from a higher percentage of unmalted roast barley, and has a distinctive, creamy head. The roasted barley may also contribute coffee or chocolate flavors.

Pale Ale - in the mid-18th century, a new style of beer began to emerge. Pale ales became fashionable as drinking goblets changed from pewter to glass, allowing patrons to see the beer inside. At the same time, a number of breweries in Burton-on-Trent began producing highly-regarded pale ales, due to a lucky coincidence of brewing skills and local water chemistry. Over time, pale ales have become sub-divided into distinct categories, largely due to alcohol-content related taxation laws in Britain. While distinctions have become fuzzy over time, here’s a general guideline you can follow to distinguish the various sub-styles of pale ale:

  • Bitter - 3-4% alcohol, light amber to light copper, medium hop bitterness, malty (not hoppy) flavor.
  • Best Bitter or ESB - 4-5% alcohol, amber to dark copper, medium to high hop bitterness, more pronounced malt (toasty) flavor.
  • English Pale Ale - 4.5-5.5% alcohol, gold to copper, medium-high hop bitterness and flavor, lower malt flavor, moderate to strong esters.
  • India Pale Ale - 5.5-7% alcohol, pale gold to deep copper, very high hop bitterness and flavor balanced by medium malt flavor, very pronounced esters.

 

Bavaria

Germany, like Britain, has a very long brewing tradition, and most people don’t realize that for most of their history, ales dominated in Germany. These days, almost all examples of mass-produced German beers are lagers, and we’ve come to associate lager with Germany. Despite this, Germany still has a thriving ale industry, which we’ll cover below.

First though, let’s look at how lager became associated with Germany. During the 1500s, beer quality declined as brewers attempted to cut costs. As a result, beer consumption, and therefore tax revenue, began to plummet. Authorities in Bavaria (southern Germany) enacted the Reinheitsgebot (Bavarian Purity Law) to limit brewing ingredients to water, hops, and malted barley, but quality problems persisted - and were associated with brewing beer in the summer-time. This led to a decree that beer could only be brewed in the winter. At the time, little was known about strains of yeast, but natural selection came into play - lager yeasts flourish in low temperatures (below 50 degrees F), while ale yeasts can only propogate above 60 degrees. Winter brewing produced lagers.

As fortune would have it, the nobles that created the laws governing beer production also had a healthy thirst, but they felt that lagers were beneath them. Several nobles in Bavaria were heavily invested in the production of wheat beer, and this was considered a drink fit only for the upper class. Eventually the laws were adapted to permit brewing from wheat and other grains, but only with the use of top-fermenting yeasts. Although it has experienced ups and downs over the next couple of hundred years, a healthy tradition of brewing Weissbier was once again established in Bavaria.

Here are some well-defined beer styles that originated in Germany

Helles (aka Munich Lager) — 4.5-5.5% alcohol, straw color, full body, low hop bitterness, low hop flavor, mild malt flavor, very dry finish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maibock — 5.5-7% alcohol, golden color, heavy body,  medium-to-high hop bitterness, low hop flavor, high malt flavor.

 

 

 

Märzen (aka Oktoberfest beer) — 5-6% alcohol, amber color, heavy body,  medium-to-high hop bitterness, low hop flavor, high malt flavor. Traditionally brewed in March for consumption at Oktoberfest.

Dunkel — 5-5.5% alcohol, mahogany to deep-brown color, medium body, low hop bitterness, low hop flavor, high malt flavor.


 

Bock — 5.5-7% alcohol, deep copper to dark brown color, heavy body,  low-to-medium hop bitterness, low hop flavor,high malt flavor.

Doppelbock — 7-12% alcohol, dark brown to black color, heavy body,  high hop bitterness, medium hop flavor, very high malt flavor.

 

Weissbier (Weizenbier, Hefeweizen) - 5-5.5% alcohol, cloudy very pale to pale amber, medium body, low hop bitterness and flavor, some malt but overshadowed by fruit (banana) and clove flavors.

Note that these are only a few of more than 60 beer styles that originated from Germany. For more information on the varieties available, click here.

Bohemia

The Czech Republic has the highest per-capita consumption of beer in the world, and a very long brewing tradition that extends back to the 12th century. However, the most noteworthy beer style to originate from the Czech Republic is Pilsner, which was first produced in 1842 by the Pilsner Urquell brewery located in Plzen.

Pilsner - 4-5% alcohol, straw to gold color, low to medium hop bitterness, low hop flavor, low malt flavor, very dry finish.

 

Belgium

Brewing tradition in Belgium extends back to the 12th century, and has always been strongly associated with the church. Abbeys were the primary brewers for centuries, using the revenue from beer sales to raise funds for their operations. The most famous of the abbey brewers are the Trappist monasteries, which entered the brewing scene in the 1830s. Abbey beers have a wide range of styles, most of which are top-fermented ales.  A couple of these are discussed below.

Dubbel - 6-7.5% alcohol, red to dark brown color, medium to full body, pronounced maltiness, low hop bitterness and flavor, fruity esters (especially banana) frequently present.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Tripel
 
- 7-10% alcohol, slightly cloudy straw color, light to medium body, low hop flavor and bitterness, some malt with a characteristic spicy, clove-like essence and flavo
  

 

Beyond the abbey breweries, Belgium has made a significant contribution to the diversity of ale styles available throughout the world. Most Belgian styles, including the abbey beers, are bottle-conditioned (yeast finishes fermenting in the bottle), as opposed to most of the other European styles. Here are a few of the more prominent examples that illustrate the diversity of Belgian brewing:


Flanders Red
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5-6% alcohol, distinct red color, medium body, malt and hop are completely overshadowed by the sour, winey, fruit flavors imparted by lactobacillus, which works in tendem with the yeast during the 
long fermentation and aging process.

Oud Bruin (Flemish or Flanders Brown) - 4-8% alcohol, reddish-brown to brown color, no hop bitterness or taste, malt flavor present and balanced with mild sourness.

Witbier - 5-6% alcohol, cloudy white to cloudy straw color, light body, noticeable coriander and orange flavors, low hop bitterness and flavor. Usually served with a wedge of orange or lemon.

Lambic - 5-8% alcohol, wide range of red-brown colors, light to medium body. Unlike most beers in the world, lambic doesn’t use cultivated yeast - it spontaneouly ferments using wild yeasts and bacteria present in the region just southwest of Brussels. This produces a very unique flavor profile that includes sour and cidery notes. The beer undergoes a long aging process, which elevates the risk of infection, so it is highly hopped (hops inhibit infection) using aged hops that have lost much of their bitterness and aroma. There are a number of sub-types of lambic that contain sweet fruits to balance the sour flavors of the beer, or to enhance it, as is the case with Kreik, which is brewed with sour cherries.

Saison - 5-6% alcohol, wide range of color from cloudy gold to reddish-amber, light-to-medium body, highly carbonated, fruity and spicy.


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