Why on earth are there so many beer styles and sub-styles, I hear you cry? Well most brewers in the UK and around the world love to experiment with beer styles, mixing flavours, maturing them in wine and bourbon barrels, adding fruitier flavours and all the rest of it. It keeps things interesting. So look out for limited editions and special beers which might appear on the market but not be brewed all year round.
Take my advice: always keep a note of the name of the beer as well as the brewery who produced it, so you can do your research about where you can find that delicious beer again! And when you are trying a new beer or beer style, ensure you read the whole description on the can or bottle to get an accurate sense of what the brewery has done with their own version of that beer style. Here’s the rundown on a few of the main beer styles out there.
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Arguably the most popular beer style in the world, pretty much every brewery brews a lager all year round as a core beer in its range of staples. The history of this beer style dates back to Bavaria in the 1400s. Lager means ‘to store’ in German and owes to the way the beer was traditionally stored to mature. A lager usually pours bright and clear into your glass, with a straw-like colour. The lager beer style is usually carbonated and best served very cold, and has a clean, crisp taste with bread-like notes, and sometimes a hint of grass or earthiness, coming from the noble hops. Lager is brewed using bottom-fermenting yeast so that low and slow fermentation and cold conditioning temperature leads to this flavour profile. You will usually get a pronounced level of bitterness in a lager – however, remember that each lager from every brewery will vary. Lager is a versatile drink that pairs well with South-East Asian cuisine, grilled barbecue dishes and salty savoury snacks such as sausage rolls, crisps and charcuterie.
Try these lagers from our BBC Good Food Beer Club Lager Case
• Braybrooke Session Lager
• Beavertown Bones
The pale ale family is vast. There are many and various styles – including more recently a growth in cloudy pale ales. They started out exactly as it says on the tin, an ale which is pale in colour (golden to amber), which pours bright in the glass. The style is usually moderate in alcoholic strength (3.5-5%) and bitterness, with a pronounced fruitiness: anything from gooseberries to lychees – it all depends on the hop combination the brewer has chosen. Again, this beer style has exploded: there are IPAs, American pale ales, of varying strengths and bitterness, owing to different brewers’ ideas for their own take on the style. Pale ales pair well with dishes laced with mild cheese, where it can cut through its fattiness. Simple cod and white fish dishes and light, no-fuss salads can also balance the sweetness in the beer.
Check out these in our Introductory Case at the BBC Good Food Beer Club
• Lervig – House Party
• Cloudwater – Fuzzy Pale Ale
IPA is short for India pale ale. It is a beer style that originated in London and has its roots in 18th century colonialism. It is argued that it is responsible for the renaissance of craft beer here in the UK. But the Americans love it, too: they love playing with the style. In fact, according to CAMRA, the beer style accounts for between a quarter and a third of the American craft beer market.
An IPA calling itself a British or English IPA will usually be that bit more malty, rich and raisin-like in flavour, with an assertive bitterness. The American style is more hop forward in terms of both fruit flavour and sweetness (you often get mango or apricot notes punching through) alongside a pronounced bitterness. Whereas New England IPAs (NEIPAs) taste more like a big juicy orange, but with a lower bitterness. Double-dry hopping is also a thing right now, so watch out for incredible fruity aromas bursting out of your glass with those ones. You can get IPAs spanning from around 3.5% ABV going right up to 7% ABV. Sessions IPAs often back all of the flavour and aroma but at the lower end of the strength spectrum. IPA is a terrific beer style to explore. The world is your oyster! An IPA can pair well with strong spicy food, such as a curry, and emphasise the heat. Caution: do think carefully about the strength and bitterness of the beer to be sure that it does not overpower the spiciness (chilli heat) of the dish.
Our BBC Good Food Beer Club Introductory Case has two session IPAs
• Northern Monk – Eternal
• Purity Brewing Co: Session IPA 4.5%
• Thornbridge – Jaipur 5.9%: multiple World Beer award winner
The first wheat beer most of us will have tried is a Belgian (witbier) or German (weissbier). It is a beer style dating back to the 16th century, and – just like an IPA – has a range of sub styles within it. As the name suggests a large proportion of wheat is used in the brew, sometimes with oats, which then offer a silky smooth mouthfeel as you drink it. The beer style pours milky pale golden in the glass, the cloudiness owing to the suspended yeast and wheat proteins due to its top, and slightly warmer than normal fermentation. The beer style is characterised by a light banana aroma with coriander and orange peel – with which it is often spiced – on the nose. That translates onto the tongue, along a light bitterness in taste. It means it is a beer style popular with anyone who prefers a fruitier and lighter beer. It is sometimes served with a slice of orange on the side of the glass. Variations on the style include lambic (sour), gose (salty and sour) and Berliner weiße (cloudy and sour). Wheat beer pairs well with pork, even a dish with a spicy bite to help emphasise the kick.
Notable ones are
A style of lager with its origins in Munich, Germany and – if you are not a fan of the bitter taste in beer – then this beer style is for you because it has a lower level of hop bitterness than a traditional lager. In fact, a helles will usually pour bright and pale to gold in colour into your glass. It usually emits a lightly bready aroma, owing to the malted barley in the beer. That bready note will be mixed with a very light floral note which translates into its flavour. There is usually a light sweetness here which also makes it a quaffable beer style, best served cold. It pairs well with salted fish dishes, to contrast with its sweetness.
Check out the three terrific helles beers in our BBC Good Food Beer Club Lager Case
• Paulaner Munich
• Flotzinger Helles
• Hacker Pschorr Munich Gold
Pilsner was the first pale lager. Lager was first brewed in Germany, but much of the lager that was brewed was dark, and not the straw/golden we are more familiar with today. As brewing advanced and ways were found to produce more pale malts, beer evolved. Pilsner was first brewed in the Czech Republic region in the 1800s, on the site of the Plzen brewery (now home to the Pilsner Urquell beer). Clear golden as it pours into the glass, it is a more bitter beer but still retaining that earthy, floral nature on the nose and a bread or biscuit-like flavour, with a dryness to finish. I love my pilsner with some tray-baked or roasted chicken, or my particular favourite, veal.
A mild does what it says on the tin. The beer style is both low strength (anywhere between 2.5 and 5% ABV), and low-no in bitterness. Usually a dark caramel, brown beer, brewed with some additional brewing sugar, it was extremely popular ale – particularly among women – until it declined in the 1960s. However, CAMRA keep its memory alive by celebrating Mild Month every year in May. Best served at cellar temperature – 11-13C, so not fridge cold. The condensation should offer a tingle on the tongue. A delicious beer style worth seeking out. Delicious with a salty snack such as pork scratchings, or something sweeter such as a flan or tart made with dark fruits.
Ones to try
A bitter is an enduring English beer style which is still a firm favourite with many. It has all the hallmarks of an amber but it – as the name suggests – contains a more pronounced hop bitterness in taste. The colour of the beer can range from gold to a much darker hue of amber. The bitterness helped drinkers distinguish it from a mild ale, and there is often a nuttiness about the flavour. And, as with a mild, it should be served at cellar temperature. The beer style averages 3-4% in strength, but there are sub categories, too – it is rich with session bitters or higher strength extra special bitters and premium bitters besides, it is all to play for. Bitters are great with rich red meat, so a robust beef dish or a vegan dish rich with walnuts or chestnuts could contrast and complement in many ways.
Ones to try
This beer style is rich, sweet and satisfying. Pouring an amber, toffee colour and offering citrus notes on the nose: grapefruit or sometimes orange, there’s a rich, but not cloying juicy dried fruit type of sweetness to the beer (dates or sultanas). There’s also a characteristic mellow bitterness and low in strength (3-4.5% ABV). It really complements grilled or barbecued foods (burgers and salmon, for example).
Porters first arrived on the scene being brewed in London in the 1700s. It was a thirst-quenching drink of the working classes: usually of a high alcoholic strength (circa 6.6%). Beers in this style are sometimes more of a mahogany brown colour as opposed to jet black, owing to being traditionally brewed with a base of brown malt. Today there is tissue paper’s difference between a porter and a stout, because brewers tend to use the terms interchangeably so much so the lines have been blurred, or – some might say – totally erased! You might also get more chocolate and caramel notes coming through in porters. You can get Baltic, brown and American porters. Drink a porter after dinner, and pair it with a complementary chocolate dessert?
A stout looks like a porter and a porter looks like a stout! Historically, stouts were the next generation of porter and they were originally called a ‘stout porter’ – owing to them being stronger and more full-bodied. The ‘porter’ was soon dropped.
Stouts are usually brewed with black malt (and often a combo of other malts, depending on the brewer’s preferences). That black malt offers a smoky aroma and flavour to the beer, as well as bitter, burnt, nutty and coffee notes. Today stouts vary hugely in levels of bitterness, sweetness and mouthful depending on what’s added to the brew. Keep an eye out for ones with oats, honeycomb, chocolate or vanilla. There’s so much fun to be had. Of course, we all know arguably the most famous stout in the world is Guinness (4.2%).
And then there are incredible imperial Russian stouts at the other end of the scale: they are often silkier and smoother in mouthful, and also far stronger (up to 15-20% ABV). Try this with perhaps a game dish or mature or aged cheddar.
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