Ales vs. Lagers
To start off, the process of fermentation is what separates ales from lagers; and, as we discussed in our article on National Lager Day, ales are top-fermented in warm temperatures whereas lagers are bottom-fermented in cold temperatures. (Beer U published a great presentation on this topic.) The differences between these two brewing styles result in a large spectrum of aromas, flavors and appearances.
Ales are further specified by a number of sub-types, including pale ales, porters, stouts and many German specialty beers. Descriptions of these brews usually veer towards buzzwords like “robust, hearty and fruity,” although the ale category itself is extremely diverse.
American ales—which are created from American ingredients—include popular sub-types such as amber ales, blonde ales, brown ales, pale ales, porters and stouts. The majority of American ales share a generally malty character, but each sub-type boasts its own unique attributes. The following are just a few popular American ales.
These ales range from shades of amber to deep red hues and possess a low to high amount of hops. Floral or herbal flavors are common. One well-known example is New Belgium's Fat Tire Amber Ale.
American Black Ale
Black Ales, also referred to as Black IPA's, are distinguished by dark brown to black hues, malty flavors and hoppy characters. One of our personal favorites is Stone Brewing Co.'s Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale.
Often mistaken for lagers, blonde ales are relatively new compared to other sub-types. Pale yellow to deep gold in color, they offer a lighter malt flavor and often contain hints of fruitiness and bitterness. I personally have a weakness for a lot of blondes, but I have to say that Victory Brewing Co.'s Summer Love and Real Ale's Firemans #4 are two fabulous incarnations of this sub-type.
A cousin of the English brown ale, this variant usually showcases a wide range of bitterness and hops with added hints of coffee or nuts. One brown ale that is steadily gaining popularity is Big Sky's Moose Drool Brown Ale. (Moose drool may sound icky, but this ale is definitely worth a try.)
The American IPA is a west coast reanimation of its predecessor, the India Pale Ale. With a bitter, malty backbone, the American IPA offers up a big and bold character defined by floral or citrusy notes. Dogfish Head's 60 Minute IPA is one go-to for hops lovers.
American Pale Ale (APA)
Cleaner and hoppier than its British relative, the APA is now enjoys a large presence on the American craft beer scene. Known for its reliable balance of malts and hops, the APA is a good choice for drinkers seeking a dependable brew. Examples include the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Oskar Blue's Dale's Pale Ale.
An innovative spin on the English porter, the American porter reinvigorates its namesake with hops, smoked malts and burnt hints of coffee and chocolate. We recommend Deschutes' Black Butte Porter, which has a nice vanilla aftertaste in my humble opinion.
Much like the American porter, the American stout has European roots. Amplified by heartier notes of chocolate and coffee than its British and Irish counterparts, the richness of the American stout makes it a solid choice during winter months. Dogfish Head's Chicory Stout for drinkers in search of a strong, bitter beer.
English, German, and Belgian Ales
America's craft beer industry owes a lot to its European connect. Less radical and more classical, the ales produced in England and continental Europe—such as the Belgian pale ale, the lambic, the English IPA, the Dunkelweizen, the Hefeweizen and the Weizenbock—are distinguished by traditional brewing techniques. Here, we've listed a couple popular European sub-types.
The intense, tangy flavor of Belgian fruit lambics is created during the brewing process; shortly after spontaneous fermentation begins, brewmasters add whole fruits—usually cherries, raspberries, or peaches—to produce the sweet character of the lambic. We suggest the Lindemans Framboise from Brouwerij Lindemans. Its sweet, fizzy character is a great treat after a hot day.
The story of the IPA—a full-bodied variant of the pale ale—began in the late 1700s, when the English started exporting barrels of pale ale to British troops in Indian colonies. To fortify the beer for the long voyage to India, brewers increased malts and added hops as natural preservatives, resulting in a high volume of alcohol and strong taste. (One rumor purports that captains would water down the intensity of the beer for their crews, but save the boldly hopped IPA's for themselves.) For a good IPA experience, we recommend Left Hand's 400 Pound Monkey.
A darker version of the wheat beer produced in southern Germany—dunkel translates into “dark”—the Dunkelweizen is known for its complex, malty character and hints of clove and banana. A popular example of a Dunkelweizen is Shiner Holiday Cheer, which is available during the winter season.
One of my personal favorites, the Hefenweizen is another south German style of wheat beer, much like the Dunkelweizen. It appears cloudy and unfiltered as a result of its high wheat ratio (usually 50:50, but often higher), creating a snap of intense flavor. The yeast used during fermentation produces a tart edge, which often accompanies diverse flavors like banana, apple, and clove. Anyone breaking into craft beer should give the Live Oak HefeWeizen a try.
Lagers—which include pilsners, bocks, Oktoberfests and Dortmunders—outnumber ales worldwide. Best served at cool temperatures, lagers are often described as “smooth, crisp and clean” by beer enthusiasts. Our previous post on National Lager Day further explained the intricacies of the lager genre, but we have isolated a number of the most popular lager sub-types.
American Adjunct Lager
It's a running joke around beer lovers that American adjuct lagers—think Budweiser, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Corona Extra—are what you drink between fist fights. Popularized by large American macrobreweries, these lagers are extremely light, fizzy, and pale beverages with low levels of bitterness and hops and moderate amounts of alcohol. Usually the large-scale producers focus on massive output over quality, but there are decent beers on the market that use adjunct cereals, or rice and corn. I personally like the Red Stripe Jamaican Lager quite well.
American Double/Imperial Pilsner
America's tendency to revamp traditional sub-types eventually subsumed the pilsner. Much like the classical pilsner, the American double pilsner has a light appearance, but with a more pronounced presence of malty bitterness. Dogfish Head's My Antonio is a good example of this type's spicy notes and aggressive ABV (alcohol by volume).
American Malt Liquor
American malt liquor is like your old college roommate. (You know, the one who would drive you to Taco Cabana after a gnarly round of 'Edward 40 Hands.') You probably remember him fondly, but your liver cannot allow you to rekindle your friendship. Indeed, malt liquors—like Mickey's or the merciless Bud Light Lime-A-Rita—are often sold in infamous 40 oz. bottles, and contain large amounts of cheap adjuncts and refined sugar. There are very few “all malt” malt liquors on the market, but the Haffenreffer Private Stock has garnered some fans based on its grainy, astringent character.
American Pale Lager
For the most part, American pale lagers are referred to as “all-malt” beers. Brewed without any cereal adjuncts, these lagers still appear yellow and fizzy, but also pack a complex, malty punch. These tend to be a little more interesting than their bland adjunct-based cousins. Magic Hat's Dream Machine is a pretty good example of an American pale lager, although I have taken a liking to the Shiner Blonde lately.
Your mom probably likes light lagers. Low in calories and carbohydrates, light lagers are basically premium lagers that have been watered down excessively with cereal adjuncts. With a dry body and virtually no flavors or aromas, light lagers like Bud Light, Coors Light, and Michelob Ultra are some of the least interesting beer styles out there.
Low Alcohol Beer
To be a good craft beer snob, don't talk about low alcohol beer. Seriously. I would not wish low alcohol beer on my worst enemy.
The land that brought us Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, Heidi Klum, and my sister's boyfriend also created a good deal of lagers. The beloved Bock and all of its variants, as well as the pilsner and the Oktoberfest, all originate from Deutschland. Here is a collection of popular German lagers.
Ah, Bock. The legend of Bock beer is set in medieval times, when monks dwelling in German monasteries invented Bock as a source of sustenance during long months of fasting. (Other myths hold that pagans actually concocted Bock beer as a homage to the Capricorn goat, thus Bock's association with goats.) Whatever the case, Bock beer today is produced by a long process that involves smoothing out the beer's intensity with a few extra months of lagering, which just entails being stored longer in cool temperatures. Stronger than typical lagers, Bock beers like Samuel Adams Winter Lager and Shiner Bock boast a robust, malty character and a light to medium degree of bitter hoppiness.
A potent German lager, Doppelbocks are often considered to be meals in a glass. A tad darker than their Bock siblings, the Doppelbock maintains a very strong flavor and a higher alcohol content. I have enjoyed Victory Brewing Co.'s St. Victorious, but the Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock is probably the best example of this beer's full-bodied nature.
Originally brewed in Bohemia—formerly a part of the Austrian Empire—the pilsner is one of the most well-known lagers worldwide. Sometimes abbreviated as “pils,” this classic German beer is typically a light golden color that exhibits spicy, herbal, and floral aromas and a dash of citrusy zest. Real Ale's Hans' Pils and Victory Brewing Co.'s Prima Pils are two good American takes on the German pilsner, but the Tannenzapfle from Badische Staatsbrauerei Rothaus AG is an awesome choice for authenticity (if you can pronounce its name correctly.)
A lesser known offshoot of traditional Bock beer, Helles Bock is a bit lighter and hoppier than its forerunner. (In another article, we explain the historical origin of this lager.) The Helles is a safe choice for drinkers who enjoy the simplicity of pale lagers, but also desire a stronger flavor profile. One of my favorite lagers at the moment is Freetail Brewing Co.'s Bat Outta Helles, although the Southampton May Bock is a better example of the classical Helles Bock, which is typically served during spring months.
Back in the good ol' days, Oktoberfest beer was made of wood. (Not really, but it does have historical roots.) Before refrigeration, the Munich region was far too hot to preserve beer during the summer. To avoid the risk of bacterial infection, brewing started in the fall and ended in the spring—thus, the names Märzen and Oktoberfest. Both are full-bodied beers with a rich copper color and a moderate hop profile. The Brooklyn Oktoberfest is a pretty good homage to its European namesake, but the Great Lakes Oktoberfest has gotten a handful of positive reviews.