By Miles Liebtag
Miles Liebtag has worked for craft beer wholesalers in New York and Ohio and is currently a sales representative for Cavalier in Columbus. He is a Certified Cicerone and holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from Ohio University and an M.A. in English Literature from Miami University. He loves German beer, leftist literature, and his daughter Marin.
Here, we won’t be discussing the absolute basics of beer, such as how to brew (there are many amazing resources available for that already). Rather, we’re going to start by taking a very cursory look at how rudimentary style categorizations make beer, in all its complexities and historical permutations, a little easier to understand. We’ll also take a strafing glance at the basic (and largely subjective) principles of pairing beer with food and cheese. Understanding flavors and how they mesh (or don’t) is a fine way to approach a broader understanding beer styles, and beer styles are, for better or worse, the conceptual framework from which much of the beer world hangs.
Craft beer sales continue to grow. As this market expands, diversifies and matures, consumer relationships with beer are changing radically and rapidly. Lifelong beer drinkers who have been accustomed to three or four major domestic brands and a small handful of import options for decades are now faced with an entire galaxy of new choices. The sheer number of new breweries, new brands, and new styles can seem overwhelming, even alienating to an unseasoned consumer
Some beer basics:
- Barley is malted, or allowed to partially sprout from seeds to create sugars within the kernel of the grain.
- Malted barley is mashed, or steeped in hot water, to activate enzymes in the grain that break down carbohydrates into sugars that are fermentable by beer yeast.
- The “wort,” or unfermented beer, is then boiled (for an hour or longer) with hops that add different flavor characteristics and bitterness that balances the innate sweetness of the liquid. The boil also breaks down proteins that contribute to beer haziness and kills any bacteria that would interfere with fermentation.
- The beer is then inoculated with a yeast culture specific to the style of beer being brewed. Yeast imparts particular characters that would otherwise not be present in beer. Fermentation usually takes 2-3 weeks, though aging or conditioning in separate tanks may take longer. In the fermentation process, the yeast convert sugars into alcohol.
- Once fermentation is completed, flavors may be added through additional conditioning, as in barrel-aged beers. The beer is then either bottled, canned or packaged in kegs for serving on draught.
So what is a beer style? Something I’ve come to understand only gradually is that other areas of the alcoholic beverage world do not have “styles” per se—wine has “varietals,” which refers directly to the grape used to produce it, while spirits have “types” or “kinds.” These may seem small distinctions, but to speak of a beer “style” is to figuratively acknowledge the level of agency that goes into its creation. We think of style as personal, mutable, adjustable for the moment or the occasion. Beer styles are analogous in that they provide debatably useful means to categorizing beers that share certain similar characteristics.
Beer styles are not promulgated into existence by a governing body; rather, they develop organically, usually with ties to a specific region, need, or period of history. They may not even be recognized as discrete styles for years or generations after they’ve become prevalent and popular—which is where that notional governing body comes in. When we talk about beer styles in America in a professional or evaluative context, we’re often talking around the concept of style as presented by the Beer Judge Certification Program, or BJCP. The BJCP Style Guidelines are arguably the most-referenced style quantification rubric in America (the Brewer’s Association also publishes their own set of guidelines which are widely respected, if not so often referenced). As of 2015, the BJCP Guidelines include more than 80 styles across 34 broad categories. These categories organize beer styles according to “similar perceptual characteristics;” that is, beers that smell, look, taste and feel relatively similar on the palate are grouped together to make evaluating and judging these beers against one another easier—these guidelines are used primarily for competitions, after all.
So what does style mean to the casual (or perhaps formal?) beer drinker? They’re shorthand for what you like, and perhaps what you don’t. At the very least, they may tell you what you want. Even without knowing the quantifiable specifics of alcohol by volume, SRM color rating, original or final gravity, etc., you can be reasonable confident in ordering an IPA that you will not receive something dark and roasty. Styles, even for the most avantgarde brewers, provide a point of departure, or at least of reference. Practiced brewers formulate recipes with flavors, not style, in mind, but when it comes time for that rarified brew to enter the mart of competitive commerce, it behooves even the most iconoclastic brewery to describe their creation in a way that makes sense to the consumer. Styles provide that.
There are 23 style categories recognized by the Beer Judge Certification Program, but within those 23 categories there are hundreds of possible variations. Additionally, many brewers—especially in America–disregard strict style categories and focus on creating something unique or specific to their desires. Below are a few important and popular beer styles that you may find yourself discussing with guests.
Ales and lagers
One of the most basic style distinctions we make in beer is between ales and lagers. At heart, this is a distinction based on yeast and process. Yeast is the single most important ingredient in beer; without healthy fermentation, a beer made with even the world’s very best malt and hops will likely be unpalatable. In America, this basic lager/ale distinction is complicated by the fact that many craft brewers make traditionally-lagered styles with top-fermenting ale yeasts, as lagering is both costly and time-consuming. Lagers are generally perceived as being “lighter” than ales, due in large part to many lagers being lighter in color, as well as the deeply-ingrained association of lager styles.
In a nutshell:
- ALES are fermented with TOP fermenting yeast. Ale yeasts tend to thrive and perform optimally at between 60F and 75F. They congregate at the top of the fermentation vessel. There are many types of ale yeasts that produce many types of different flavor and aroma compounds.
- LAGERS are fermented with BOTTOM fermenting yeast. Lager yeasts perform best between about 45F and 55F. Most lager beers undergo a period of cold conditioning after fermentation that produces the crisp, clean character we associate with them—“lager” means to “store” in German, and these beers are typically stored at temperatures of about 35F. There are many types of lager yeast that produce different characteristics, but the yeast themselves congregate at the bottom of the fermentation vessel.
Along with the lager/ale distinction, color plays an important (one might say outsized) role in the American perception of style. Drinkers weaned on American pale lager almost invariably perceive darker-colored beers as heavier, stronger, and more filling—regardless of the fact that the dark beer they are most likely to have encountered is both lower in alcohol and caloric content than. While the association of dark color with strength is correct in certain respects (strong porters and stouts, for example), there are many beers that present dark in the glass that are in fact light in body and alcohol (schwarzbier, dunkel, dry Irish stout, etc.). Color is indicative of nothing more than the color of the barley malt used in the brewing of that particular beer; malt that has been kilned to a high temperature or roasted to a darker color will naturally impart darker colors to the finished beer made with it. Many pale beers, like Belgian strong ales and triples and the wildly popular IPA-inflected styles, use no or very little dark malt, but are brewed to a very high strength, either through the use of extra pale malt or the addition of extra fermentable sugars.
India Pale Ales are arguably the most popular style in the American craft beer scene. IPAs account for fully 21% of volume sales of craft beer. Regardless of the precise numbers, the overwhelming anecdotal evidence is that IPAs rule the craft category, drive sales in both the retail off-premise business and in bars and restaurants, and regularly convert macro drinkers to craft. In today’s environment, any corner dive bar without an IPA on draft is losing money via opportunity cost. How did this style become so dominant in American craft? It is (generally) quite bitter and can be boozy—two flavors the American palate, in its lust for sweetness and general aversion to alcohol that tastes like alcohol, tends to despise. One line of reasoning goes that as Americans in the past generation or so have turned away from bland and processed foods in favor of more flavorful “authentic” products, so too have beer drinkers sought more and more depth and extremes of flavor, veering as far from American pale lagers as possible in a desire for something radically different. Undeniably, once one acquires a taste for the bitter, piney and citric, it’s hard to go back.
Pale ales and India Pale Ales have their roots in 19th century English brewing traditions. Pale ales are lighter-colored beers with typically a decent balance between malt sweetness and hop bitterness. IPAs are stronger, though not necessarily darker, with higher amounts of alcohol, more hop bitterness, and bigger malt flavors. These beers were originally brewed for export from England to colonial India, and the extra strength helped them survive this voyage.
- American Pale Ales: 4.5%-6.2% ABV. 30-45 IBUs.
- American IPAs: 5.5%-7.5% ABV. 40-70 IBUs.
- Lighter color, medium carbonation.
- West Coast hops: piney, citrusy, resiny.
Stouts and Porters
Darker beers that also have a long history in English brewing. Porter was extremely popular in 18th century England, made with brown malts and brewed to be extremely drinkable. Stouts can be thought of as stronger, more robust porters: they typically have more body, more roastiness, and sometimes more alcohol (though not always). Stouts and porters come in a huge variety of different styles, but they generally all are of dark brown to inky black color, have low hop aroma or bitterness, a medium-to-full body with lots of malt sweetness and some roastiness.
- Porters: 4.5%-6.5%ABV. 18-50 IBUs.
- Stouts: 4%-7%ABV. 20-75 IBUs.
- Darker, low to medium carbonation.
- European hops, very little hop aroma.
The most popular lager style in America. A clean, crisp, bottom-fermented lager with good grain flavor and medium hop bitterness that contributes to the cleanness of the finish. More dry than sweet. There are regional variations of pilsner within Europe, with Germany producing a slightly maltier type than Czechoslovakia.
- 4.2%-5.5%ABV. 25-45 IBUs.
- Lighter in color, medium carbonation.
- European hops, bitter finish.
Imperials and Doubles.
Imperial or double style beers are extremely popular in American craft, and most breweries have at least one in their lineup. Double IPAs, or DIPAs, are extremely common offerings everywhere craft beer is sold. Similarly, Imperial Stouts or Russian Imperial Stouts have become increasingly popular and common. These beers are strong—strong in flavor, alcohol and effect. Be aware of serving portions and be sure to mention the relative strength of these beers to drinkers.
- Double IPA: 7.5%-10%ABV. 60-120 IBUs.
- Imperial Stout: 8%-12%ABV. 50-90 IBUs.
Beer and Food Pairings
Our culture is currently obsessed with flavor. Chefs (and, to a lesser extent, brewers) are now national celebrities, because they seem to understand food and flavor better than the rest of us, and provide us with experiences we wouldn’t have otherwise. Food and beer are quite literally made for (and of) one another; luminaries like Garrett Oliver and Randy Mosher have argued for years that beer, not wine, is the ultimate potable companion to food. In its seemingly infinite varieties and combinations of flavor, it can pair with almost anything, and the magic of carbonation allows it to enhance food in ways that a still wine simply can’t. But when I talk to beer people—professionals and enthusiastic amateurs alike—beer and food pairings seem often to be little understood, or a source of anxiety. They needn’t be.
Pairing beer and food is more art than science, a largely subjective process that’s often as simple as considering what tastes good with what. Some basics, taken right from Mr. Mosher’s excellent Tasting Beer: when pairing a beer to food, one is trying to:
- Find resonances
- Create contrasts
- Match intensities
Does the beer have a fruity note? Then it can probably pair with a dish including a similar fruity flavor, or the same fruit used in the beer itself (if any). Does the beer have a clean maltiness that washes the palate? It can then likely complement a spicy dish particularly well. Is the beer powerful, intense, boozy, extremely bitter or bracingly sour? Then it’s probably better off paired with a similarly intense dish, not something built on light, clean or nuanced flavors like a piece of poached fish—better to use something similarly light or soft, like a helles lager or Belgian witbier.
Let’s look at the menu from a recent dinner I helped organize as an example featuring Dogfish Head, who is celebrating their 20th Anniversary this year.
Starting from the top, we can see the Dogfish spring seasonal Aprihop, a continuously-hopped 7.0% IPA made with Amarillo hops and apricot juice, paired with a fatty lamb rib accompanied by a couscous salad containing dried apricots and a creamy tzatziki sauce. This pairing worked well for a number of reasons: obviously the apricots in the couscous echoed with the apricot undertones of the beer, providing resonance. The carbonation, bitterness of the hops and relatively high alcohol all worked to provide a great contrasting counterpoint to the cool cream sauce and cut through the fattiness and gaminess of the lamb rib (which was quite fatty, indeed), leaving the palate refreshed and desirous. With a first course pairing such as this, it’s more typical to pick a lighter beer, and one not so high in alcohol or bitterness. However, in the context of this dinner, which was built around a stable of rather extreme and intense beers and in which the food built in intensity rather quickly, the first course pairing was both substantial enough (on the food side) and refreshing enough (on the beer side) to provide a great point of entry to a fantastic meal.
The second course was my favorite and arguably the best pairing I’ve ever had at a beer dinner. Starting with the beer, as it’s an especially complex one: Noble Rot is one of Dogfish Head’s wine-hybrid beers, a result of owner/founder Sam Calagione’s love of both wine and experimentation. The result is a beer that’s spicy, fruity, vinous, and full on the palate but dry on the finish. Chef Mike Frame crafted a dish that meshed perfectly with the many different and complex aspects of this beer. Starting with a creamy lemon Stilton that had been adulterated with ricotta, the cheese was encased in a crispy, flaky dough called kataifi, a Greek dessert specialty. Drizzled with thyme-kissed honey and a bit of citrus glaze, the plate was finished with golden raisins and a few leaves of arugula. The pairing was almost alchemical in its completeness: the Stilton mixture, full and fatty on the palate, was cut through by the Noble Rot’s high alcohol, dry finish and modest carbonation, while the honey and raisins complemented perfectly the vinous and fruity qualities from the wine must additions. The interplay of sweetness and dryness in the beer was matched by both the contrasting textures and flavors on the plate, but added up to a holistic experience. The arugula was a great surprise and a very smart addition: it pulled from the beer some of the spiciness of the Belgian yeast character, and reminded you of Noble Rot’s saison roots.
These are just two examples from a great overall meal, but you get the idea. You don’t need to be a trained chef to appreciate a great pairing—even if you can barely boil an egg, the workings of a great pairing are usually understandable if you slow down and take the time to think through what you’re seeing, smelling and tasting. Craft beer, like great food and fine wine, is about the experience of flavor, regardless of the specifics of a particular style.