Beer 101: A Basic Guide to Beer

Oktoberfest celebrations are happening in South Florida through October 21, and since beer is a fundamental part of the two week celebration, it may help you to know a thing or two about it.

See Also:

- The Craft-Beer Craze Finally Finds Florida

- Oktoberfest 2012 in South Florida: Celebrations in Lantana, Las Olas, Oakland Park, Boca, and Miami

At the most basic level, there are just two broad categories of beer: ales and lagers. They are defined by the temperature and the type of yeast used in the fermentation process, although they can be further categorized by the color and region from which they are brewed.

Ales are produced with a top-fermenting yeast at a warmer temperature,

between 59 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit, and are ready to drink in as

little as three weeks. What results is a malleable beer with varying flavors and

generally higher in alcohol content. The types of beers within this

category are many, from porters to IPAs to wheat beers. Compared to lagers, ales often have a cloudy appearance.

But, as ancient beer brewers discovered, ales spoiled quickly and thus came the need to preserve beer. Enter lagers, which are fermented longer with at a colder temperature

(between 45 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit) with bottom-fermenting yeast, then

stored -- or lagered -- at a temperature close to the mid 30s. The result

is a pale golden, crystal clear lager beer with an alcohol content of

around 5 percent. Pale golden lagers like Budweiser are the most common

beers in the world.

In Germany, most beers are lagers due to the Reinheitsgebot, or the German Beer Purity Law of

1516, which regulated that all beer in Germany had to be made only with barley, water, and hops. Yeast was added later, with the advent of pasteurization. Despite the law being lifted in 1988, many brewers in Germany still abide by it.

Now, let's take your beer basics a step further. Here's a little more detail about the most common kinds of ales and lagers.

Pale Ales

A category that has grown to encompass everything from amber ales, red ales and India pale ales (IPAs), double IPAs and more. Pale ale was a term given to beers brewed with malt dried with coke, which gave the beer a lighter color. Comparable to lagers, pale ales typically have about five percent ABV, but can be much higher. 

Different levels of hopping and variations of brewing practices over the years have expanded the styles to include American pale ales, English bitters, Scotch ales, Irish reds, lambics, German weiss and French and Belgian wheat beers.

Second to lagers, the pale ale is one of the most widely consumed beer styles in the world.

Brown Ales

Brown ales like Newcastle and Samuel Smiths typically hold a sweeter profile and are lower in alcohol, around 4.5 to 5 percent ABV. They range in color from deep amber to brown. Subtleties in flavor and aroma vary from region to region. For example, Brown ales made in England tend to be malty, nutty and sweet whereas those brewed in North America are drier and more bitter.

North American brown ales are made with domestic varieties of hops, giving it a different body than English-style browns. Some popular brands include Smuttynose Old Brown Dog and Brooklyn Brown ale.

Porters/Stouts (These are also Ales.)

A hoppy, dark-style beer brewed with brown malt, a porter is a type of ale that derives its name from its popularity among porters, or the men and women who provided manual labor in moving heavy objects around for other people.

Stouts are nothing more than the strongest -- or stoutest -- versions of porters, typically around 7 to 8 percent ABV, or more. These include imperial, milk, oatmeal, chocolate, oyster and coffee stouts and porters. Some familiar brands include Guiness Extra Stout, Sierra Nevada Porter and Young's Double Chocolate Stout.

That's enough of the ales. Now, on to lagers ...

Golden Lagers

Otherwise known as a pilsner, this is the most commonly brewed and consumed beer in the world. Josef Groll of Pilsen, Czechoslovakia first brewed this type of beer in 1842 and is most famous for Pilsner Urquell beer. The style then became popular in Germany shortly thereafter. 

American versions of pilsners are produced by Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors. The long fermentation process of lagers converts nearly all of the sugars to alcohol, resulting in a dry flavor.

Bock beers

Bock beers are lagers that are darker in color, lightly hopped, and malty. They were first brewed in the town of Einbeck, Germany in the 14th century. They include eisbocks, doppelbocks and helles bocks, or maibocks.

The term 'bock' is a pun deriving from Einbeck which was construed as 'ein bock', or a goat, and explains why some bock beer labels such as Shiner Bock and Narragansett depict a billy goat.

Oktoberfest beers

Because this is Oktoberfest, it was only appropriate that we mention Oktoberfest beer. It is brewed once every year for the fall celebration and must adhere to three criteria: it must abide by the Purity Law, be around six percent ABV and be brewed by a Munich brewery within the city limits of Munich, Germany.

Festival beer brewed elsewhere is, of course, not brewed in Munich and the colors range from pale yellow to a deep amber.

Obviously this list is over-simplified and straight to the point. Brewers are constantly breaking the limits of beer categories. To get a proper understanding of beer styles and where they fit, have a chat with a beer cicerone, a.k.a. a beer expert.   

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