Barley, hops, water and yeast. These four ingredients (though other grains can be used) are the basis for the vast styles in the ever expanding world of craft beer. From lagers to ales, domestic to imported, craft beers are becoming more and more sophisticated. Here are some beer basics to help you select the style that is right for you. Identifying whether a beer is a lager or an ale is the broadest classification for craft beer and a great starting point.
Lagers vs. Ales
What is the difference between a lager and an ale? The distinction is the yeast strain used during fermentation. Lagers use yeast that tend to ferment at the bottom of the tank and are cold fermented. Ales use yeast that typically ferment at warmer temperatures and at the top of the tank. And while there are many sub-categories of yeast strains within each of these broad categoires, lagers are typically lighter in style, while ales are heavier with more intense flavors. Lagers are characteristically "smooth, crisp, and clean," while ales are usually described as "robust, hearty, and fruity."
Lager Styles: Lager, Pilsner, Bock, Maibock, Dopplebock, Oktoberfest Marzen, Oktoberfest Weisn, Schwarzbier
Ale Styles: Porter, Stout, IPA, Brown, Amber, Belgian (Abbey and Trappist), Wild ale, Wheat beer or (Weizen), Altbier, Barleywine, Wheatwine, Kolsch
Barrel Aged Beers
Both lagers and ales can be barrel aged, though the most sought after barrel aged beers are ales. The most popular style is Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stouts, also known as BBA Imperial Stouts. This is when a brewer takes a heavy stout and ages it in a barrel previously used to age bourbon in an American charred oak barrel. True “barrel aged” beer brewers use actual barrels and not wood chips to achieve the flavors. A bottle can say oak-aged (can mean either aged in an oak barrel or aged with oak chips floated in the stainless steel fermenter) or Barrel-aged (meaning the beer was actually aged in a barrel). Barrel-aged is the more genuine style.