by Mark Dredge Beer and Travel Writer of the Year 2016
How to decode beer stylesThere are 150 styles…
One hundred and fifty. That’s about the number of beer styles listed in the 2017 edition of the Brewers Association’s Beer Style Guidelines. 150. That’s a lot of different kinds of beer and there’s a lot on the list which might leave you more confused than informed. What, for instance, does a ‘Breslau-Style Pale Schöps’ taste like? And I’m not sure the last time I saw an ‘Adambier’ on tap.
From over 150 to under 20
At Beerwulf, the styles have been knocked down into 19 different categories to collect together similar-tasting beers.
- Amber/Red Ale
- Barley Wine
- Belgian Blond
- Blond/Golden Ale
- Belgian Dark Ale
- Strong Dark Ale
- Brown Ale
- Traditional English Ale
- Fruit & Flavoured Beer
- India Pale Ale (IPA)
- Trappist and Abbey
- Lager & Pilsner
- Pale Ale
- White, Wit and Wheat beer
- Session Beer
- Low alcohol
Beer is fluid, it’s always flowing and changing with the bends of creativity and popularity. It’s something to explore, to drink within and beyond, to drink curiously and to be able to better understand the ways in which different beers can be put together into similar-tasting groups. There will be broad variety within those groups but something – some essential characteristic, whether it’s the hops, the grain, the yeast or combinations of them – will make them come together. And for me it’s fascinating to drink broadly within different beer styles to try and understand what makes different beers vary in taste, to see how brewers interpret styles – to see if they make it lighter or fuller, more aromatic or more bitter, to see how they use the hops or the malt or the yeast, and to taste if it’s ok, great or amazing: two similar-sounding IPAs might taste vastly different but part of the fun of beer is figuring out those differences.
By the way, for those wondering, a Breslau-Style Pale Schöps is a doughy, bready wheat beer fermented with an ale yeast and with almost no hop character. There’s also a Dark version. No, I’ve never had one either.
For the casual drinker, for you and I, the ones who go down the pub and scan the taps, who look over the real and virtual beer shelves in bottle shops and online retailers, for us drinkers who know what we like, what we don’t like, and are also interested in trying new brews, how do we decode beer styles?
Pasta, Pop Music and Pale Ale
It’s a little like listing Pasta, Pies, Sandwiches, Pizzas, Steaks, Brunch, Pub Classics, Snacks, Salads, Sweets, and whatever else on the menu. You can browse that top line list based on what you want and get an idea what you’ll find, but look closer and you’ll see a broad variety within it – the tomato pasta or the carbonara, the pancakes or the eggs. Beer styles work similarly. They let us group similar things together and then allow us to be more specific. Music is the same. Pop, rock, funk, jazz, house or whatever else you want to hear at that time. There’s a lot of variety in the category of pop just like there is in pasta or Pale Ale, but at least we’re looking in the right place for what we ultimately want.
Beer styles are bases to work from. They’re taste profiles to help try and explain a beer or collect it with others which might have similar characteristics. If a brewer makes a 6% golden beer with loads of Citra hops then they might not want to call it an IPA but it’ll certainly help the person buying it if they do at least give a style to tell them what to expect (and even if it’s meant to be a strong American-hopped Kölsch, perhaps IPA just makes more sense to more people). And I think beer styles are important for drinkers. It helps us to make choices, to be able to work out what we fancy drinking, to get an idea of what the beer we’ve ordered might taste like – even if a list of a dozen IPAs might all taste very different.