An Easy Guide to Beer: Styles, Terms, History

Next round, know what you're ordering.

Beer: Nectar of the gods. There are as many epithets as there are varieties of the blessed brew.  Men are united in their lust for it and claim it proudly as an icon of masculinity. The discovery of beer was, no doubt, pure revelry and perhaps as meaningful to man’s development as the discovery of fire. Pour some history and brewing jargon into your next pint for an understanding far beyond just knowing what kind of beer you like and think differently about your next bottle.

Man shall not live on bread alone,” a brief history:

Most historical accounts describe the discovery of beer as an accident, 6 to 8 thousand years ago, by the Sumerians. Although, it is believed that during this era similar discoveries were made, independently, throughout the world. It was, no doubt, a heavenly revelation and since then the art has been sophisticated, refined and traveled through the ages like the Olympic torch. Grains (such as rice, maize, barley and millet) were the first domesticated crops. Evidence suggests that beer was born from bread. Damp grains fermented, mixed with wild yeasts in the air and experienced spontaneous fermentation. An “inebriating pulp” resulted and altered the course of history.

Barley is a fermentable carbohydrate and, when malted, is the origin of beer. Barley is offensive as a base for bread, but perfect for beer. Demand for barley (more than other grains) spread rapidly, production increased and one innovation after another led man through the first major era of “civilization”: The Agricultural Revolution. Hunter-gatherers began settling. You could argue that beer was partly responsible for the domestication of man – an amusing irony.

The Sumerians taught the Babylonians, who passed it on to the Egyptians, who taught the Greeks, then the Romans and when the English learned, the beer of then began looking more like the beer of now.


Our primal craving for beer can grow into affection by simply appreciating what it really is, and how it’s made. The definition of beer goes something like this: an alcoholic beverage, made from malted cereal grain, flavored with hops, and brewed by slow fermentation. The English word “beer” comes from the Latin “bibere” meaning, “to drink”. Mainly, beer is made from malted barley, hops, yeast and water.

Barley is a grain, high in starch. Starch converts into sugar during the mashing process. To malt, barley is soaked in water then germinated, rendering modified malt. It is dried and cured, or “kilned”. After kilning it is milled, mashed and brewing begins.

Hops, an ingredient introduced during the middle ages, add flavor and aroma that balance the sugar of malt with bitterness. They function as a spice and a preservative and are ordinarily added during the brewing process.

If dry hopped, hops are added after fermentation to replenish oils lost during brewing.

Yeast is a fungus that produces alcohol and carbonation as it consumes sugar – the process of fermentation. In the 19th century Louis Pasteur explained how yeast works and this led directly to new strains, ushering in the next generation of beer-making. He invented pasteurization to kill yeast, but brewers saw other yeasty possibilities. Yeast controls the final component of the brewing process and determines much of the flavor.

Water is, well…water. Since beer is roughly 90% water, the quality and mineral content cannot be taken for granted.


There are over 100 varieties of beer, and even glassware designed for certain styles to enhance target features, like aroma. America is home to more styles and brands than any other market in the world, truly the land of the free. Each and every one of them falls within 1 of 2 camps (which do not describe color, strength or flavor), determined by the type of yeast: Ales and Lagers.

The styles listed here are a condensed list,–the most common and familiar. The Beer Advocate has a comprehensive style list with descriptions if you’re thirsty for more:

Illustration of common examples of ale beer


Ale yeast gathers and ferments at the top (hence, “top fermented”) of the vessel, at a high temperature so the yeast acts quickly. Some finish fermenting in less than 2 weeks. Ales are rich and complex, with more yeast-derived flavors than lagers.

Pale Ale – Whether American or English, the “pale” was clipped on long ago to distinguish it from the dark color of Porters. American and English styles differ, but generally they are gold or copper colored and dry with crisp hop flavor.

India Pale Ale (IPA) – Pale ale with intense hop flavor and aroma and slightly higher alcohol content.

Brown Ale These distinctively northern English style ales have a strong, malty center and can be nutty, sweet and very lightly hopped. They are medium bodied and the name matches the color of the ale.

Stout (Guinness and Murphy’s are dry Irish stouts) Thick, black opaque and rich. Stouts draw their flavor and color from roasted barley.  They often taste of malt and caramel, with little to no hop aroma or flavor.

PorterVery similar to stout but made from, or largely from, unroasted barley. Sweet and dark brown in color with hints of chocolate and a sometimes-sharp bitterness.

Wheat Beer Germans take their beer very seriously, so much that it is required by law to use top-fermenting yeast in wheat beer. It must be made from at least 50% wheat malt. Wheat proteins contribute to a hazy, or cloudy appearance and are commonly unfiltered, leaving yeast sediment in the bottle. They are light colored, full flavored and the unique yeast strains produce flavors like banana, clove and vanilla.

HefeweisenThe most commercially successful type of wheat beer. In the US they are regularly served with a lemon wedge to cut the intense yeast flavor.

Illustration of common examples of lager beer


Lager yeast sinks to the bottom of the vessel and ferments at a colder temperature than ale yeast, slowing the process down. At a colder temperature, bottom-fermenting yeast produces fewer “esters” (flavor compounds, basically). This creates a mild, crisp and clean tasting beer. Lager is the German word meaning “to store”. Lagering softens flavors and texture.

American Lagersthis can be a sore subject for beer enthusiasts in the home of the brave. Before prohibition the US was respected in the world of brewed libations. Small breweries were all but extinct by the end of prohibition and the large ones kept their heads above water by selling cereal malts.  The 21st amendment repealed the 18th but brewers were slow to pick up production. World War II dealt another heavy blow to the industry – food shortages resulted in the increased use of adjuncts for malt.

Adjuncts are fermentable material used to make lighter beer, for cheaper, in substitute of grains. The 3 largest brewing companies (still largest today) took control of the nation’s reputation for beer, as well as the majority of domestic marketing and production.  Budweiser, Coors, Miller, Michelob, Pabst and the rest are popular because they are affordable, mild, refreshing and considered “smooth”. The elitists in beerdom are quick to dismiss these but every style has its own appeal and audience. Much of the criticism sprouts from corporate distrust and lack of variation between the biggest brands. Some other Pale Lagers, similar to American Lagers are Heineken, Corona and Foster’s. The flavor profiles of other recognizable, mainly German derived, lager types are more defined:

Amber/Red Lager (Yuengling, Killian’s, Brooklyn Lager)More malt and darker than their lighter lager relatives, usually amber to copper colored. Flavor profiles vary considerably between breweries. Nine times out of ten when a beer label says no more than “Lager” it is an amber.

Pilsner (Beck’s, Labatt Blue, Warsteiner, Pilsner Urquell) Conceived in Czechoslovakia, easily the world’s most popular beer style. Pilsners are pale, straw colored and crisp with medium body and more hops than traditional lager, but typically smooth and clean.

Bock (Sam Adams Winter Lager) Of German origin, brewed in the fall to be enjoyed in the winter or spring. A stronger lager with heavy malt, medium to full bodied, lightly hopped and dark amber to brown in color.

Doppelbockor “double” bock is stronger and darker than bock, sweeter with more malt and a little higher in alcohol content.

Oktoberfestindicates the Vienna style of “Marzen” beer, the German word for “March”. These are brewed in the spring and stored to serve in autumn. They have a toasted quality with a sweet tinge, robust malt flavors, and a deep amber hue.

Industry Lingo

Finally, and just to add more complexity, beery terms like “Microbrewery” and “Craft Beer” are cropping up more frequently as attention in America shifts back towards traditional brewing roots. They are oft thought of as synonymous, but distinguishing factors separate them. They emerged partly to create distance from “domestic” beer. Technically, domestic just means produced in the US.  In beer-speak “domestic”, through the omission of specifics like “craft beer”, refers to American lager from large breweries.

Craft brewing is an elusive caption and hard to pin an explicit description on. The classification promotes beer based on quality with criteria for production volume (6 million barrels per year or less).  The idea is that craft beer is distinctive and made with better ingredients. Details can be found here, but a craft brewer is “small, independent and traditional.” A craft beer does not have to come from a microbrewery. Anchor Steam, Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams are all too big to be microbreweries, yet fit in the mold of craft brewing.

A Microbrewery, recently re-defined by the Brewers Association, is a market segment of the craft beer industry and one that “produces less than 15,000 barrels of beer per year with 75% or more of its beer sold off-site”. It is about quantity, not quality. Dogfish Head, Clipper City and New Belgium are all microbreweries.

There you have it–a sketch of what beer was, and is. Next time you’re out, offer up some beer-soaked fun facts and spread the respect around. Its mark in history and cultural significance are matched only by the joy and satisfaction of drinking it.

Jonathan Froehlich

Jonathan Froehlich is the full-time, private chef for his son and writes for both work and recreation. His passion for food and revelry blend nicely into a career in the Finger Lakes (NY) wine and food industry.