“You foam within our glasses, you lusty golden brew, whoever imbibes takes fire from you. The young and the old sing your praises; here's to beer, here's to cheer, here's to beer.” – from Bedrich Smetana's 1866 opera “The Bartered Bride.”
While I whole heatedly agree with this quote, wading through the many beers available in markets, liquor stores and brewpubs today can overwhelm even the most avid beer drinker. For me, choosing a beer begins with understanding beer types. There are hundreds of beers brewed around the world, but most fall into two categories: ales or lagers.
Many people believe color distinguishes these two types of beer, a lager being pale golden, and ale, darker, rich and stout. However, the real difference lies in the yeast used to ferment the beer. Ale is produced by yeast that floats to the top during fermentation and can handle higher temperatures. The yeast in lager ferments at the bottom of the vessel in colder temperatures. Higher-temperature and top-fermenting yeast produce more fruity and complex floral flavors, while the cooler-temperature and bottom-fermenting yeast yield a much more mild beer in which the ale characteristics are subdued.
The hundreds of variations on flavor and taste in these types of beer come largely from beer’s other two main ingredients, malt and hops. The malt produces the beer’s sweetness and body (thick or thin mouth feel), and depending on the type of malt may add chocolate, caramel, coffee or spicy flavors. The hops are important for their herbal bitterness and floral aroma. For a beer to be a truly great, all these ingredients must be balanced.
Stylistically, ales encompass a wide range of flavors and colors. The darkest of the ales are the porters, stouts and barley wines. Porters are a dry, dark-brown to black, opaque ale. They have a sharp, bitter taste and tend to be lightly hopped. Stouts are the darker, heavier cousins of porter. The traditional stout made famous by Guinness is known as dry or Irish stout. The dry, roasted flavor and dark black color are classic stout traits. Russian Imperial stout is stronger than dry stout and has a bitter-burnt overtone. A sweeter, less bitter version is oatmeal stout, which uses oats in addition to barley malt. Barley wine — which is not wine at all — is simply ale with a high alcohol content (10-12%). It is also one of the few beers that benefits from "cellaring." This heavy, powerful ale has an alcoholic finish that warms the throat, making it a popular winter brew.
Lighter ales are also plentiful and include amber ales, IPAs, pale ales and brown ales. Pale ales, and amber ales are distinguished by their fruity and hoppy flavor. The varying reddish, amber and golden shades come from the use of different types of malt (using darker malts result in darker beer). India pale ale, or IPA , is hoppier in both flavor and aroma and also slightly higher in alcohol. IPAs were developed in England to withstand the long sea journey to India and the other colonies of the British Empire. Brown Ale is a slightly darker version of the pale ales. Because of their nutty flavors, brown ales are often called nut browns. These beers are slightly sweet, with a fruity, pleasant aroma. These and all ales should be served at what the Brits call cellar temperatures, around 50° F.
Lagers also vary in color and flavor. In general, lagers tend to have a cleaner, drier taste than ales. The most common lager is the pilsner. It offers flowery hop aromas and bitter flavors in a light bodied pale gold brew. Bocks are stronger but smooth all-malt lagers that compete only with their stronger cousin the doppelbock, or double bock, a darker and more chocolatey lager. In the fall, Oktoberfest (also known as marzen) is released. This is an amber, copper-colored lager similar to a bock, but with less chocolate and toasty flavors. Unlike ales, most lagers should be served at cooler temperatures, about 38° F.
Whether you choose ales or lagers remember, beer is as complex a beverage as wine and should be chosen as such. Try pairing pale ale with roast beef or a thick steak, or maybe Guinness Stout with chocolate layer cake. Perhaps you’re in the mood for a crisp lager; try pairing that with pears, apples and cheddar cheese, maybe a strong barley-wine with hot gorgonzola cheese fries.
However you drink it and whichever you choose to drink, beer is above all a beverage with great humanity and by far the most democratic of beverages. It’s been written that, “the poorest man cannot afford the finest wines but the finest beers are affordable to all.”