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Beer 101: The Ultimate Guide To Beer

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Growing up, we all learned about the melting pot that is the United States. Built upon diversity, this nation stands as a true testament to cross-cultural cooperation and innovation. Why should the beer industry be any different? As the American desire to create grew over the 20th century, as did the taste for beer. Soon, beer drinkers sought to develop options that would rival the ubiquitous light lager that dominated the scene. Many took an interest in home brewing, with hopes of taking their products to the people, reintroducing the coveted styles of that had unfortunately disappeared amongst the fray. It wasn’t until 1976 with the founding of Sonoma, California based New Albion Brewery that the beer industry experienced a type of “rebirth” in the U.S.

Now, even though New Albion closed up shop only six years after opening (there is word that Jim Koch of Samuel Adams helped revive the brewery in 2013), the brewery served as a fulcrum for the future of craft brewing. New Albion later went on to inspire hundreds of home brewers with names like Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada, and Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, to pursue their crafty dreams of sharing their beers with the world. Today, over 4,000 breweries operate in over 350 congressional districts across the nation. It’s a number so impressive that three-quarters of Americans over 21 live within 10 miles of a local brewery. With numbers like these, it’s clear the craft beer industry is here to stay. And we couldn’t be happier.

Now to help you enjoy this growing trend as much as we do, we’ll take you through the life span of this loved libation from creation to tasting, with a look at 12 major styles across the board.

Ingredients To Make Beer

Basic Composition of Beer

You’d be surprised to learn that brewing beer is an involved science, all about proportions and temperature control. In fact, the process can get so granular that facilities often start resembling pharmaceutical plants more than breweries. However, to cover the basics, beer is made from four ingredients: hops, yeast, malted barley, and water. Let’s take a closer look at each one.

  • Hops: These are flowers from the hop plant Humulus Lupus. They’re used extensively for their antibacterial and flavor effects on the beer, balancing out the sweetness of the malt with their bitterness, leaving the beer less prone to spoilage. Depending on where they’re grown or their variety, they also contribute various aromas to each brew.
  • Yeast: Yeast are single-celled budding microorganisms. Biologically they’re classified as fungi and work diligently toward converting fermentable sugars into alcohol and other byproducts. Hundreds of varieties and strains of yeast contribute a myriad of flavors that lead to different styles of beer. However, for learning purposes, they boil down to two: top fermenting for ales and bottom fermenting for lagers.
  • Malted Barley: Even though brewers have dabbled with wheat, rye, rice and corn, barley remains the favorite for developing malt. The process involves soaking the grain, allowing it to germinate, and stopping the germination with heat. The amount of heat applied directly affects the appearance and flavoring of the malt and eventually the beer itself.
  • Water: This may seem obvious, but water plays a huge factor in developing a sound beer. It’s the base compound, and as such, H2O needs to be pure. PH and mineral contents in water can have a huge effect on the final taste. In the past, a region’s water played into the style. Now, brewers look for pure distilled water as a base and subsequently add the necessary compounds, like salts and minerals to match the style.

Beer Brewing Process

The Brewing Process

With these four ingredients, among others, depending on the style, the brewing process begins. The process itself dates back hundreds, even thousands, of years. Though the technology today is vastly different than the days of the Trappist monks, science remains the same. And any brewer will tell you the key here is temperature control and patience. Beer is all about taking a break from the hustle and bustle. The process, then, should be just as relaxing and contemplative.

  • Milling: This process prepares the brewing grains for the mash. The key is to crush the grains to expose the starchy center of the barley seed, but not too much that the grain hulls get damaged. If the crush is too course, not enough starch will be converted into fermentable sugars. On the flip side, too fine of a mill will result in a gummy unusable beer.
  • Mashing: Here’s where the milled grains are added to a large vessel (called the mash tun) and mixed with hot water. The heat from the water then activates the enzymes in the barley thus converting starches in the grains into sugars (food for the yeast).
  • Lautering: The above process will then yield a thick sugary liquid called wort. And once the grains are spent in the mash ton, they are removed through a method called lautering, a procedure that strains out all the wort from the grains while flushing additional water from above through the grain bed. This ensures all the fermentable sugars are extracted from the mash.
  • The Boil: Upon separation, this now sweet wort is brought to a boil for one to two hours. Boiling wort dates back centuries to times when common water was unsafe to drink. Boiling also removes any unwanted bacteria from the wort. Hops are also added at this stage of the process. The amount and type of hop varieties added here depend on the style of the beer.
  • Fermentation: Once the boil is completed, it’s rapidly cooled to room temperature. A rapid cool is crucial to reduce the presence of off-flavors. Once it’s cooled, the wort is now transferred to the fermenters where our star player, yeast, is added and the fun begins. These organisms immediately get to work consuming the sugars, expelling alcohol and carbon dioxide along with a variety of flavor compounds. After the initial fermentation period, the beer is then conditioned to let the yeast absorb the remaining off flavors (typically sulfur, butter or green apple). The process takes anywhere from a week or two for ales to up to a couple of months for lagers. From here, beer is then filtered to remove the yeast, packed, and shipped to the nearest watering hole or package store near you.

How To Taste Beer

How To Taste Beer

Part of enjoying a craft beer is appreciating the time and effort involved in the brewing process. And in doing so, there is a specific way to get the most out of the beer and provide your senses with an overload of sight smell and taste that hopefully facilitates a deeper understanding of the craft beer art form.

  • Soak Up The Beer’s Visual Aesthetic: Pause for a moment to glance at the character of the beer. Take notice of its hue in soft light, its pour, the color, and consistency of the head, and compare those to other brews in that style.
  • Swirl It Around: Don’t let your beer just sit stiffly in your glass. Gently give it a swirl in your glass to release the full body or aromas and flavors that have been locked away until the very moment the beer entered your glass. This is also a great way to stimulate carbonation and test head retention.
  • Smell: It’s understood that a significant amount of your tasting experience comes through smell. So, after agitation is complete, breathe in through the nose with two quick sniffs, then with the mouth open, then only through the mouth. The combination of all three will provide you with an accurate flavor profile before the taste. Beer’s banquet is one of its greatest features. Don’t make the mistake of missing out.
  • Taste: Now it’s time to taste the beer. Be careful not to initially chug. This isn’t college. Instead, take a sip and let it wander across your entire palate. Take notice of the mouthfeel and breathe out during the tasting process. Try to detect any sweetness, salt, acids or bitterness. Explain what they are and how they compare to everyday foods or flavorings.

From here, now that the basics of beer brewing, ingredients, and tasting procedures are covered, it’s time to explore the many styles of beer. We’ve done the brainstorming ourselves and together decided upon 12 main styles to explore. Keep in mind there is a myriad of additional styles that branch off of these 12. We’ve simply chosen these big 12 for space purposes.

Our list breaks up these style into two groups, lagers and ales, with the final two, Ambers and Specialties, bridging the gap between the two.

Best Pale Ales

Pale Ales

  1. Lagunitas Born Yesterday Pale Ale (CA)
  2. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (CA)
  3. Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA (DE)

Modern pale ales launched the American craft beer movement. However, the style dates back over 300 years to England. American pales tend to be more hop-forward than their British counterparts, evoking a bit more wild citrus and piney notes. Sierra Nevada, founded in Chico, CA in 1979, first popularized this style. Drinkers can expect an amber-gold color with fruity and citrus aromas. The name of the game here is balance between sweet malts and bitter hops. It’s a great beer to drink socially with relatively low ABV and pairs well with just about any meal.

It is important to note a very popular offshoot of this style, known as the India Pale Ale, is one of America’s most sought-after style’s today. Typically much more forward in their hop profile, IPA’s first developed in transit from Britain to India where brewers would add tons of fresh hops to each barrel of beer to eliminate the growth the bacteria during its months-long transit. Today, especially on the West Coast, this style of beer continues to grow in popularity and consumption.

Best Wheat Ales 0

Wheat Ales

  1. Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier (Germany)
  2. Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse (Germany)
  3. Samuel Adams Dunkelweizen (MA)

Also known as weissbier (pronounced “vice-beer) the wheat ale style came from the southern German province of Bavaria in which brewers would use pale malted wheat instead of malted barley in the brewing process. The result is a yellowish-white hue to the beer’s appearance. In the U.S. we call these Hefeweizens but there’s also different variants included dark wheat beers (dunkelweizen) that use roasted wheat malt.

Typically wheat ales impart notes of banana and cloves on the nose, very low bitterness and hop flavor though the carbonation tends to be a little higher. They are certainly one of the more drinkable style’s around.

Best Belgian Ales

Belgian Ales

  1. Orval Trappist Ale (Belgium)
  2. Fantôme Saison (Belgium)
  3. Westmalle Trappist Tripel (Belgium)

What’s interesting about Belgian beer is that there is no one particular style that encompasses the whole cohort. Instead what makes Belgian beers so interesting are their non-conforming characteristics. Within this group your’ll find what are considered Holy Ales, classic styles that date back to the Trappist Monks, Belgian Ales, including whites, and saisons, and others such as Quads.

What we can deter from these styles is the presence of phenol aromas, such as clove, spicy, herbal and almost bubblegum scented notes to the majority of styles. Also, the existence of fruity esters, resulting from the yeast strains involved, provide a bit of banana and fresh citrus to the experience. Many of the lighter styles of Belgian beers feature a bubbly effervescence while the darker tend to lean more towards a bigger mouthfeel and dark fruit profiles.

Best Sour Ales


  1. Goose Island Lolita (ILL)
  2. Cuvée Des Jacobins Rouge (Belgium)
  3. The Bruery Tart Of Darkness (CA)

By far one of the more unique styles you’ll ever try is the intentionally-tart sour beer. It is important to note that some sours are indeed Belgian. However, plenty of American breweries took to the style in recent years. What gives the beer its unique character is the presence of wild yeast. Typically appearances range from a deep reds in Flanders’ ales to golden straw colors in Goses.

On the nose you’ll detect fruit and instantly be able to smell the sour, pungent, almost spoiled, yeast aromas that give sours their unmistakable flavor. The amount of bitter sour taste depends on the wild yeast strain, additional ingredients, and aging process.

Best Brown Ales

Brown Ales

  1. Bell’s Best Brown (MI)
  2. Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale (England)
  3. Big Sky Moose Drool Brown Ale (MT)

Brown Ales are consistently overlooked for their perceived boringness. However, if you’re into a quality balanced ale, there’s nothing more refreshing. They were initially crafted in the 18th century and were lightly hopped and brewed from 100 percent brown malt. Visually, the majority of brown ales appear true to their name, ranging from deep amber to brown in color.

On the nose, these beers feature a roasted malt character, with American browns boasting a bit more hoppy notes thanks to the American hope varieties. Flavor profiles are distinctly caramel and chocolaty with hints of nuttiness to boot.

Best Porters


  1. Founders Porter (MI)
  2. Harviestoun Brewery Old Engine Oil (Scotland)
  3. Fuller’s London Porter (England)

The porter first made its way on the scene in the early 18th century and acted as a pivotal moment in the brewing world. Porter style beers soon took off all across Britain and are even believed to have been a favorite of George Washington himself. They predate stouts and actually influenced Arthur Guinness to begin brewing the style before switching over to a stout-centric business model.

Today, the porter is well known across the brewing guild. They’re ruby-black to dark brown in color and malty on the nose. Porters offer something special for those cold winter nights, and they boast a tasting profile of chocolate, caramel, and licorice. The majority are well-hopped and brewed from brown malt, thus giving the porter the perfect balance of bitterness and sweet malt notes.

Best Stouts 0


  1. Guinness Draught (Ireland)
  2. Rogue Double Chocolate Stout (OR)
  3. Deschutes Obsidian Stout (OR)

In world of beer, too many people fall into the trap of judging a book by its color. And when it comes to stouts, it’s automatically assumed they’re heavy and strong while in most cases quite of opposite is true. The stout style has strong ties to Ireland, where the brewing culture has been traced back five millennia. The dry stout style really took off however with the founding of Guinness when Author Guinness took the traditional porter and made it a bit stronger and round in flavor.

Stouts pour dark brown to almost black and range in mouthfeel from medium bodied to full depending on aging and sub-style. The opaque appearance comes from the use of roasted barley, which also contributes to the stout’s recognizable bitter chocolate and espresso flavor. Stouts are often carbonated with a combination of nitrogen and CO2 pressure which gives the beer a smooth, creamy texture.

Other versions in England and the U.S. are often sweeter and stronger than the Irish dry stout. Recently, brewers have added lactose (milk sugar) for sweetness or brew with oatmeal to add silkiness and a bit more sweetness to the beer. Some have even gone as far as adding real chocolate and coffee.

Best Pale Lagers

Pale Lagers

  1. Jack’s Abby Hoponius Union (MA)
  2. Brasseries Kronenbourg 1664 (France)
  3. Stella Artois (Belgium)

The development of the pale lager came as a marriage between the British pale ale brewing techniques, and the German lagering method. Lagers use bottom-fermented yeast and ferment between 40° and 60°F, significantly cooler than their ale counterparts. The result is a dry, lean and clean-tasting beer that lends itself more the refreshing “crisp” description than most others

They pour a translucent golden color and the hop characteristics are near negligible to a subtle dry bitterness from the noble hops, the star hop variant used in brewing Pilsner. And because they’re fermented at a much slower rate than ales, there tends to be little in the way of off flavors in the final product.

Best Dark Lagers

Dark Lagers

  1. Baltika #4 Original (Dark) (Russia)
  2. Devils Backbone Vienna Lager (VA)
  3. New Belgium 1554 (CO)

Acting as a preliminary style to the pale lager, dark lagers were around long before any Pislner made it onto the scene. They feature more roasted barley thus giving the beer an amber to dark reddish brown hue. They may be termed Vienna, dunkel, or schwarzbier.

The majority of the these beers will feature a dry, toasted and bready malt flavor profile complimented with aromas of fresh grain and hints of dark fruit and licorice. They pour near opaque but aren’t as strong as you may think, making them a favored style of choice for chilly evenings of socializing and meal sharing.

Best Bocks


  1. La Trappe Bockbier (Netherlands)
  2. Samichlaus Classic Bier (Austria)
  3. Spoetzl Shiner Bock (TX)

The origin of the bock style is a bit more mysterious than others. Most likely because it was a favored style of German monks, who would brew the stronger style beer for their lenton fasts. It’s believed to represent the end of winter, since it takes a several months to ferment in cold temperatures, and was drunk as a nod to better times ahead.

The beer generally pours an opaque dark amber to brown and hosts a robust malt character. Most bocks are only slightly hopped. However, some brewers try to break through the malty sweetness of the beer by adding a bit more into the mix. On the whole, they boast notes of roasted toffee and caramel malts, a medium-bodied mouth feel, and are smooth on the palate.

Best Amercan Ambers


  1. New Belgium Fat Tire Amber Ale (CO)
  2. Speakeasy Prohibition Ale (CA)
  3. Bear Republic Red Rocket Ale (CA)

As we’ve discussed above, ambers can fall in line with both lagers and ales. They’re typically defined by their amber pour and range a bit in bitterness from ales (higher) to lagers (lower). Examples of ambers include top-fermenting Scottish Ales and regular Amber Ales to bottom-fermenting smoked beers, Vienna Ambers, and German Marzens.

Best Specialty Beers

Specialty Beer

  1. Dogfish Head Chateau Jiahu (DE)
  2. Founders Blushing Monk (MI)
  3. Left Hand Good Juju (CO)

It’s a fun time to be a brewer. No doubt about that. And with a myriad of ingredients and new brewing techniques making their way on the scene the amount of specialty beers out there will only increase as the years progress. Recently these fell within the category of extreme fruit flavored, smoked, herbed, or spiced beers you may find around the holidays.

While these are all fun for the moment, the most important factor to consider here is the drinkability of the beer. Is it even bearable for more than a sip or 8 ounces? Too often specialty beers fall too far in the realm of novelty rather than drinkability. Regardless, there are some gems out there to consider, such as raisin ales, raspberry beers, Lambics, and coffee lagers.

Clearly the world of beer is expanding. As beer drinkers ourselves, the continued evolution of the craft beer industry has been an exciting time. Almost every day a new notable brewery springs up on our radar, and we have to admit, we’re always looking forward to conducting field research in that matter. So pull up a seat at the bar, support a local craft brewery, and take part in the beauty of craft beer. Leave the Bud Light for the frat bros.