I’ve just taken three cans of craft beer out of the fridge. One of them is called a ‘session rye IPA’, another is an ‘oatmeal stout’ and the third styles itself as a ‘blood orange IPA’. And beer-makers have plenty more names where those came from.
Suddenly there seems to be a million styles of beer out there and it’s easy to get bamboozled (or should that be booze-bambled?) by all the frothy descriptions their makers use.
Yet at its most basic, beer requires only four ingredients — water, hops, grain and yeast. And thanks to the 500-year-old German purity law that made those ingredients an industry standard before there was even an industry, that’s still the case with most beers. The differences between all those exotically named craft beers are to be found in the choice of ingredients and the way they’re brewed.
There are basically two popular styles of beer — ales and lagers. Ales are brewed at relatively high temperatures using yeast that floats to the top of the fermentation vat, while lagers are brewed at lower temperatures with yeast that sinks to the bottom of the vat. As a brewer, once you’ve decided on an ale or a lager, the character of your beer will then be decided by the ingredients you choose.
There’s a vast range of hops and grain to choose from. For example, my oatmeal stout by Modest Beer of Holywood uses an English variety of hop called Fuggles (yes, really) and a variety of barley called Maris Otter; an IPA by the Verdant Brewing Company of Wales uses two varieties of hops developed in the US called Mosaic and Simcoe and adds oats and wheat to its barley.
Take another look at the beer names in the opening paragraph. The key to all these descriptions is the last word, like ‘stout’ or ‘ale’. That tells you what you really need to know, and the words used in front are an attempt by the maker to describe the character of the beer in the hope it will appeal to you. Below is a brief guide to the significance of the last words — the window dressing added by the makers I leave up to you to assess.
Lager: The word lager comes from a German word meaning ‘to store’, since the beer could be stored in cool caves in the days before refrigeration. Not all lagers are light in colour — some German versions are as dark as Guinness.
Pils: Named after the Czech town of Pilsen, this pale coloured easy-drinking lager, also known as Pilsner, is king of the commercial beer market. Beck’s, Heineken, Stella, Budweiser and Coors could all be described as lagers in the Pilsner style.
Pale Ale: If you asked for a pint of bitter in an English pub, this is probably what you’d get. The ‘pale’ refers to the type of malt used and the beer itself is usually the colour of strong tea. Its appeal is a balanced combination of hops and malt, and a signature biscuity flavour. The best-known commercial variety here is Bass.
Blonde Ale: Light in colour, with the gentle bitterness of hops matched by a malty sweetness. Belgian blonde ales are a popular example.
Red Ale: A name used in Ireland to describe what is more or less a pale ale but with an additional malty sweetness. Smithwick’s is the classic example of an Irish red ale.
IPA: The initials stand for India Pale Ale, supposedly because the beer was created for British soldiers serving in India and needed extra hops to act as a preservative so that it wouldn’t spoil on the long sea voyage. The hops add that flowery bitterness that makes the drink so distinctive.
New England IPA: Very popular at the moment, these are usually cloudy and less bitter than a regular IPA, making them the ideal choice for drinkers who think they don’t like IPA.
Porter and Stout: Two robust, dark ales that are so similar it’s pretty hard to tell the difference. Porters are generally lower in alcohol with flavours of chocolate and caramel, while stouts are darker and heavier with a roasted, bitter edge.
Wheat Beer: Ales with a high proportion of wheat to barley that are usually cloudy and light in colour. The Dutch version, witbier, often comes with the addition of orange peel and coriander.