Perhaps you've been known to enjoy a pint or two, but 'fess up: between all that Guinness and red ale, do you know what you're really imbibing? It's true that unless you're a science fiend, home brewer, or craft-beer aficionado, it can be confusing to wrap your head around the different varieties — especially since they're all made from water, malted barley, yeast, and hops. But for the most part, beer can be broken down into two major categories.
Most beers are either ales or lagers. Ales, which originated in England, are made by brewing a top-fermenting yeast (a fungus that grows at the top of the fermentation vessel) at room temperature. They have lots of hops and malt, which give them a characteristically bitterer taste and darker color. Varieties of ale include the following:
- India Pale Ale: A very hoppy (read: bitter) brew.
- Hefeweizen: An unfiltered wheat beer.
- Irish red ale: The roasted barley content creates a signature red color and tea-like flavor.
- Porter: A London-style dark ale made with roasted malts.
- Stout: The darkest of beers, packed with toasted flavors like those of chocolate, coffee, oatmeal, or cream.
Unlike ales, lagers, which originated in central Europe, are created when bottom-fermenting yeast is cold-brewed at low temperatures (between 45°F and 57°F) for long periods of time. They tend to be lighter in color and mild- and fruit-flavored. Varieties of lager include the following:
- Pilsner: A light yellow lager with a bitter, hoppy flavor.
- American-style light beer: A watered-down version of pilsner that's lower in calories (and in taste).
- Bock: A strong lager that's brewed for extra months and has a robust malt characteristic.
- Märzen: A copper-colored, high-alcohol beer with a toasty flavor, full body, and dry finish.
To learn more about the difference as well as some of our favorite bottles, watch this video on different beer styles.