What Defines a Style of Beer?
Nailing down the number of beer styles that exist is an almost impossible task. It depends on the person you ask, their geographical location, how long they’ve been drinking, and what they consider to be a beer style.
Defining a Style by Region
Looking at the names of different beer styles can provide insight into why there are so many, as these names come from various sources.
The first and oldest source is the region where the beer developed. Many old beer styles are named after the places they originated from. Due to local ingredients and brewing traditions passed down through generations, regionally developed beer styles can vary greatly.
For example, Kolsch is a style that originated in Cologne, Germany, and was named after the German word for Cologne, Koln. Similarly, Scottish ales obviously came from Scottish breweries.
Defining a Style by Ingredients
Beer styles are often named after the ingredients used in the brewing process. There are as many beer styles named after ingredients or adjuncts as there are actual ingredients that can be added to beer.
An obvious example is raspberry wheat beer. Another example is Rauchbier, or smoked beer, which may be less obvious. The beer itself isn’t smoked, but rather the barley is smoked, similar to smoking meat before using it in the brewing process.
Defining a Style by Appearance
The appearance or characteristics of a beer style can also influence its name. Stout is a perfect example, as it is a rich beer with bold flavors – truly stout.
Wit beer, a popular Belgian style, is brewed with orange peel and coriander and served unfiltered. Wit is the Belgian word for white, referring to its cloudy white appearance when poured into a clear glass.
Other examples include black lager, pale ale, and cream ale.
Defining a Style by Method
Brewing methods can also describe a beer style, although this can become confusing. There are two main styles of beer – ale and lager – which are defined by the brewing method used.
Remember… most beers are either an ale or a lager. Therefore, if a beer is simply called an ale or a lager, it either takes the easiest way out in defining its style or there is nothing distinctly defining about it that requires further classification.
Ale can be broken down into numerous sub-styles, including Indian Pale Ale (IPA), Brown Ale, Pale Ale, Porter, Stout, Wheat Beer, etc.
Lager is a German word that refers to the practice of storing the brewed beer at cold temperatures for an extended period before packaging. Lagers can be further classified as Bock, Dunkel, Oktoberfest, and Pilsner, among others.
Dry-hopped beers have additional hops added after fermentation.
The Unknown Factors
Of course, there are several beer names whose origins remain unknown.
Porter is a good example, with various stories attempting to explain its name. However, none of these stories can be definitively confirmed as the truth.
So, How Many Beer Styles Are There?
Over time, beer has been developed and reinvented, resulting in dozens upon dozens of established styles. In this article alone, over 20 different beer styles have been mentioned, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Furthermore, new beer styles emerge constantly. For instance, American Pale Ale (APA) is a variation of the classic hoppy British-brewed India Pale Ale (IPA). APA incorporates more ingredients from the American brewing tradition, such as bright and citrusy hops, as opposed to the woodsy and floral hops commonly used in Britain.
Does It Really Matter?
With so many styles, some with only subtle differences, it may seem overwhelming and unnecessary to the average beer drinker. And honestly, it kind of is.
The people most concerned with beer styles are those participating in or judging beer competitions. To judge beers accurately and objectively, styles must be precisely defined. Americans, in particular, emphasize this aspect, as evidenced by the extensive list of beer styles in competitions like the Great American Beer Festival.
For beer drinkers, it is helpful to be familiar with broader style categories like stout, wheat, or pale ale. This knowledge can assist in selecting a beer for a specific occasion or to pair with a meal. However, knowing the differences between, for example, a brown porter and a robust porter likely won’t significantly enhance the average beer drinker’s experience.