In a classic episode of the hit show “Friends,” Ross and Mike, Pheobe’s soon-to-be husband, discuss the difference between beer and lager on a dramatically dull night at Ross’ apartment. Eventually, they end up looking up the answer in an encyclopedia. Neither one of them seems to have any idea that lager is a type of beer and not a separate drink, or even that beer comes in more than one variety. If you pull a random person off the street and ask them their favorite variety of beer, he or she will probably give you a brand, likely something American and generic. If you press further, you’ll probably get a furrowed brow, a head tilt and a shrug. Let’s face it: most people don’t know very much about beer.
Most beer drinkers know that not all beers are the same and many can name the difference in taste between the radically different beer varieties, like an IPA and a porter, or a red ale and a stout. Still, even among those who consider themselves to be beer aficionados, the details that determine a beer’s classification are less widely known. When it comes to fully enjoying beer, appreciation requires some understanding. Here are a few of the most popular kinds of beer, what makes them unique, and why beer time doesn’t always have to be “Miller Time.”
Note: There are literally hundreds of takes on beer so I’ll stick to the basics.
I’m going to kick this list off with one of the two major catagories of beer (although some claim there are more) – lagers. As Ross on “Friends” didn’t know, lager isn’t separate from beer but rather one of multiple varieties. Dating back to the Middle Ages, lager has a long, rich tradition of bringing generations of people together for the simple love of drinking. Lager is the most commonly seen beer around the world, likely due to their pale, mild nature.
If you’re anything like me, the first lager you probably had was a can of Keystone or Natural Light at a party your first week of college, which, sadly, doesn’t give this category a great first impression. Beer pong aside, lagers are a good drink to relax with; they go down smooth, can carry a bold flavor, and can still be brewed with enough uniqueness to please craft beer fans. While I’m not much of a lager fan, I can appreciate the flavor ranges in well-crafted lagers and I’ll take a Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold any day of the week. And besides, who says I’m too old to throw ping pong balls at plastic cups?
Ale is the second of the major beer categories and one Ross and Mike clearly had no interest in debating – if lager was too confusing for them, just think of all the head scratching and encyclopedia-shuffling ale would have brought about. Like lagers, ales made their debut in the Middle Ages. They’re usually brewed with malted barley and brewers yeast with a warm fermentation, making them hoppy and diverse in flavor. This is distinctly different from lagers, which generally exclude a high quantity of hops (and thus are excluded among my favorite beers). Ales are smooth, full-bodied and generally fragrant, making them a preference for a wide variety of beer fans.
I love a good ale outside in the summer, or inside in the winter, or pretty much any other time. Although ales made with more hops, like India Pale Ales, can take some getting used to, they are highly sought after by beer lovers simply for the craft that can go into the process. For a few possible reasons, the India in “IPA” is actually where it was originally sold (not brewed) as an export from England. IPAs are my personal favorite – there’s something refreshing and wonderful about a sharp, bitter beer with a great underlying flavor. The same can be said of pale ales in generally, although IPAs are usually brewed with pure malt, giving them a strong flavor. It’s not hard to win me over – pass me a Great Divide Hercules Double IPA and we’ll probably be best friends for life, or at least until my glass is empty.
Porters and Stouts
This branch of the beer tree resides in ale land but has a life of it’s own. After all, this is a category of two of the most loved beers and one that includes Guinness, one of the best loved beers of all time. Originating in Europe in the 1720s, porters are made from either roasted or unroasted barley. Stout, much more often containing roasted barely, is often darker. They are both deep, rich beers with bold flavors, making them prized by aficionados but frequently disliked by those new to the beer scene. According to some, at one point in time “stout” was the name for the strongest varieties of porter, usually labeled “stout porter,” meaning strong porter, although the two have since broken off into unique varieties of beer. It’s hard to find where porter ends and where stout begins, causing many bar discussions on the topic.
Porters are generally thick beers with a higher alcohol content and are almost entirely opaque in color. They can be quite bitter and heavy, often in a way that doesn’t taste strongly like a “traditional” beer. Like porters, stouts are dark and full-bodied, usually with a deep color and flavor. Both porters and stouts are praised for carrying bolder flavors than other varieties of beer, giving them the potential to be diverse and immensely flavorful.
As heavy beers, some stouts and porters are a little too heavy for everyday drinking, although are great for relaxing with friends. Personally, I find a good one to be outstanding, but I’ve learned better than to order a porter or a stout with dinner – I’ll be full before my meal even makes it to the table. That said, you could probably talk me into just about anything for a Young’s Double Chocolate Stout.
I could probably write a whole novel about this topic. Within each category there are dozens of subcategories, and dozens more within those. Each category serves it’s purpose, allowing beer to be one of the most versatile beverages on the planet. So, the next time you head for the bar and enjoy a craft-brewed lager on tap, take note of the fact that you’re enjoying a brew with a thousand-year history and sip that beer with pride. After all, you’re carrying on a tradition.