Breaking down the different types of beer within the $250 billion industry.
Let’s avoid that awkward confusion between you and the bartender/waiter. In this article we cover how beer is made, the differences in domestic, craft and import, and the types of beer.
What is beer and how is it made?
Beer is one of the world’s oldest and most consumed alcoholic beverages. It dates as far back as 5000 BC (7,000 years ago)! The process of making beer (or “brewing”), takes sugar extracted from starch (e.g., barley, wheat, rye, etc.), boiled with hops and other spices, and then ferments the mixture with yeast to create beer. Depending on the type of beer (Ale or Lager), the mixture will be stored at either warmer temperatures for a couple of weeks or colder temperatures for a much longer period of time. During the fermentation process, the yeast will “eat” all the sugar extracted from the starch, and produce CO2 and alcohol as the “waste” or byproduct.
Now what are hops? Hops are the flowers of a hop plant (member of the hemp family) that add a natural flavor including bitterness to the beer. It also acts as a natural preservative. A common misconception is the more “hoppy” a beer is, the more bitter. While this is generally true, it is not always the case. The more hops added to a beer means the beer will be richer in flavor, aroma, and yes, generally more bitter. However, there are a variety of hop types that are naturally light and citrusy; thus, resulting in a very “hoppy” beer that is not so bitter. Rather than rely on a single term such as “hops” to describe a beer, try to incorporate how flavorful or aromatic (breathe prior to drinking) the beer is to provide a better description.
Craft, Domestic, Imported, and Draft Beer
According to the National Brewer’s Association, the U.S. beer market generated over $105 billion in sales alone in 2015. Domestic and craft beer accounted for 72% and 12% of the total sales volume, respectively. The remaining 16% of sales came from imported beer.
Craft beer is the fastest growing category within the beer industry for the last few years. It is often categorized as small, independent micro breweries producing less than 6 million barrels a year. Proponents of craft beer will argue craft beer provides a unique and creative taste authentic to the brewer.
Domestic beer companies are the behemoths of the United States. These are the large brands you see in your local markets (e.g., Budweiser, Miller Lite, Samuel Adams) and produce hundreds of millions of barrels of beer a year. Domestic beer companies should not be pegged as the corporate adversaries of craft beer. It all comes down to preference and purpose. Generally these larger beer companies are able to benefit from economies of scale; allowing them to offer more for less (i.e., more cost effective when hosting big events).
Imported beer is from outside of the united states, whether craft or not (e.g., Corona, Heineken, etc.).
On “Draft” or otherwise known as on “tap” is not a type of beer. It is a way the beer is packaged and distributed. On “Draft” is beer is pulled or tapped from a cask or keg and served in a glass. The beer itself can be craft, domestic, or imported beer.
Common types of beer today
There are two major classifications of beer: Ales and Lagers. Both can be broken down further into various subcategories.
Ales are the ancient types of beer and are fermented at warmer temperatures for a shorter period of time. Ales are generally darker, fuller-bodied beers with a fruit or spiced aroma and are considered more robust, complex and hoppy.
- Pale Ale (and India Pale Ale): Spicy, earthy or aromatic flavors. Pale Ales are typically more bitter, hoppy, and offer a higher alcohol content (woohoo!). The India Pale Ale is the hoppier and more bitter brother of the pale ale. One of my go-to pale ales is Stone IPA. I find this rich and full bodied beer to be perfect with dinner on a night in.
- Porter: Originated in the UK and identified by its dark color. This ale has a chocolate/molasses-like sweetness and light roastiness. Example(s): Last Snow Coconut Coffee Porter
- Stouts: This beer will have hints of coffee, chocolate, molasses and heavily roasted flavors. Very similar to the porter but typically less sweet. Example(s): Guinness
- Sours: An ale that is intentionally sour and tart. Example(s): Deschutes Dissident, Allagash Confluence
- Wheat: Light, medium bodied beer. I personally enjoy this type of beer the most. Wheat ales are typically refreshing and light in taste but still offer the aromatic flavors and bitterness that you find in ales. Example(s): Allagash White, Bluemoon, Hefeweizen.
Lagers have been around for the last century or so and are fermented at near freezing temperatures for a longer period of time. Lagers can range from sweet to bitter and pale to black. Most often, lagers are medium in color and provide a crisp and refreshing taste.
- Pale Lagers: Well carbonated and slightly hoppy style of beer. Most common types:
- Light Lager: Full, light and balanced taste. Usually on the lower end of alcohol content. Examples: Budweiser, PBR, Coors
- Pilsner: Very light and characterized by high carbonation, distinct hops (often tangy) and has a crisp bitter finish. Example(s): Sierra Nevada Summerfest, Samuel Adams Noble Pils
- Bock: Generally dark, strong and intensely malty. Bocks have little to no hops presence. Example(s): Anchor Bock Beer, Samuel Adams Double Bock
I like to think of ales as generally darker, richer and more flavorful. Lagers on the other hand provide you with that crisp, clean, refreshing taste. So what are you waiting for? Grab an ale or a lager – try something new! But most importantly, remember to always drink responsibly.