Brewers and drinkers enjoy more variety in their beer options today than at any point in history. The Beer Judge Certification Program recognizes over a hundred distinct styles, many of them mere umbrellas for a wide range of profiles, but increasingly American brewers are treating these style descriptions as quaint suggestions rather than lines they must color within. We recently enjoyed a 7.1% ABV “Imperial Gose” brewed with watermelon, black sesame seeds, black Hawaiian sea salt, Persian lime, and coriander. Go ahead and decide which classic style group that one should fit in. We’ll wait.
While innovation and experimentation have yielded some phenomenal and hard-to-categorize beers, both professional and home brewers should know the rules they’re breaking before they break them. Let’s take a few moments to familiarize ourselves with the most common classic ale styles that have defined modern American craft brewing over the years.
The style that was more responsible than any other for launching the American craft brewing scene began as a vehicle for expressing the one ingredient that truly distinguished the U.S. from the European nations where most of our classic styles originated: our hops. Big, bold American hops were unlike any varieties grown in the Old World, and first wave American craft brewers planted their flag with the expressive citrus and pine aromas of North American hops like Cascade.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale debuted in 1981 with a flavor profile no one had tasted before, with sunny grapefruit and pine snuggled into a bed of pale and caramel malt. Bold but balanced. Expressive but egalitarian. The beer came to define the centerline of American craft beer flavor as the scene developed and matured over the following decades, and pioneered a brand new style, American Pale Ale. While these beers bear resemblance to their English inspiration, the character of American hops shining alone without the (often pleasant) complications of British ale yeast makes them completely unique. In a scene sometimes obsessed with complex flavor matrices and esoteric ingredients, the deceptively simple recipe of pale malt, caramel malt, and one or more American hops, fermented with a clean ale yeast, yields a beautiful pint with various fruit aromas and flavors (depending on your chosen hops), a gently sweet caramel malt foundation, and a dry, moderately bitter finish.
India Pale Ales arrived right along with American Pale Ale in the early days of American craft brewing. Where Pale Ales showcase American hop character in closer balance with malt, IPAs are all about letting those hop aromas and flavors take the spotlight. Big, bold American hops are front and center here, though the pale and caramel malt profile (very similar to that of Pale Ale) should still provide a clean, supportive foundation and subtle, complementary sweetness to take the edge off the hop bitterness.
IPA is the most popular style in craft beer, and doesn’t look to be giving up its spot any time soon. Hops are still what define the spiritual center of American craft brewing, and IPA is the flagship style for this ingredient. The style has evolved and diversified over the years to include nearly two dozen substyles, which range in strength and intensity, levels of hop bitterness, the specific types of hops utilized, the role of the selected yeast in the finished flavor profile, and the possible inclusion of adjunct ingredients. The one consistent, defining trait of all these styles is the supremacy of hops in their sensory profile, though IPA’s newest and trendiest substyle has drastically altered the classic understanding of what that means.
New England or “hazy” IPA was a regional curiosity mostly confined to its titular geographical area until just a couple years ago, when the style exploded into national prominence. The style is defined by several key characteristics that differentiate it from more classic American IPAs. The first is a hazy, cloudy appearance that goes against the standard prescription for clarity in fine beers. Levels of opacity can range from light haze to barely-translucent cloudiness. These beers are not filtered, and their cloudiness comes from a combination of lots of late-addition hops, suspended yeast, and tons of protein from the small portion of wheat and oats that are often used in their recipes. Those alternative grains also contribute to the style’s soft, pillowy mouthfeel.
From an aroma and flavor standpoint, the expression of those hops is worlds away from old school IPAs that feature a high IBU number and lots of perceived bitterness. New England IPAs are brewed with few or even zero hops added early in the boil to extract bitterness, and the finished beers feature significantly lower bitterness levels than traditional IPAs. Instead, the fruity essential oils of hops are showcased, and are extracted late in the boil, during whirlpooling, or later through dry-hopping. Combined with low bitterness and a soft texture, these fruity, hazy IPAs are much more inviting to drinkers who aren’t quite ready for the intensity of more bitter examples. The hops used often display more tropical characteristics than the citrus/pine notes long synonymous with American IPA. The substyle isn’t without its detractors, but it is currently enjoying quite a moment in the sun.
Stouts and Porters share a common lineage, and drinkers and even brewers can still sometimes struggle to disentangle the two style families. Let’s look at the shared ancestry of these styles.
Porters were the first beers to receive the factory-esque brewery treatment of the early Industrial Revolution in England. A popular origin story claims the style’s name came from the London transportation workers who loved the brown beer, but the fact is folks from all walks of life loved it, and it’s very difficult to establish how the beer got its name. What can be established is that Porter was a big deal in late 18th century London, and, by extension, the British empire, being exported far and wide. Wherever it landed, whether relatively close to home in Dublin, Ireland, or farther afield in the Baltic states or Caribbean islands, it changed to suit the tastes and ingredients of its new home. Strong versions of the beer were referred to as “Stout Porters,” and eventually came to be known as merely Stouts.
Prior to 1817, these beers were made with copious amounts of inefficient brown malts, but Daniel Wheeler’s invention that year of a drum roaster than allowed malt to be roasted very dark without being burned changed the way Porters and Stouts were brewed. New recipes were comprised primarily of efficient pale malts and judicious amounts of these new dark malts to create the color and flavors desired.
Today Stouts enjoy a wider style diversity than Porters, with examples ranging from the light and dry Irish Stout to the big and heavy Imperial Stout. Porters still tend to be every-day, no-nonsense drinking beers, paying homage to their past. While brewers disagree about the primary difference between American Stout and American Porter, the general agreement is that Porters should utilize a lower amount (if any) of roasted barley or black patent malt, allowing for a mellower roast character. You can buy a clone kit from us to recreate Sierra Nevada Stout here, and Deschutes Black Butte Porter here!
Modern Brown Ales are a 20th century development. While brown ales have been enjoyed in England since well before 1900, the modern interpretation of the style bears little resemblance to those historical beers. The current iteration of English Brown Ale is a fairly mild beer with caramel-focused malt flavor that lacks the roastiness of Porters and Stouts.
American Brown Ale took inspiration from the British version, but diverges widely from its ancestor. The style gained early popularity with American homebrewers, and remains a staple of craft brewing. American Brown Ales tend to be both hoppier and roastier than the English versions, with the hoppiest versions bleeding into a style called Brown IPA, while the roastier versions are closer to being mild Porters than classic brown ales. How you interpret the style will dictate the ingredients you need, but you’re welcome to buy our clone kit for Big Sky Moose Drool here.
Amber or Red Ale is another style that developed early in the American craft brewing movement, primarily to provide a balanced, easy-drinking option for newcomers alongside the more aggressive styles that defined this new world of flavorful beer. It gained popularity on the West Coast, and eventually became a stable of brewery tap lists across the country. You can brew your own Alaskan Amber Ale by getting our recipe kit here!
The name of the style is an indication of its malt profile, which is based on simple pale malt but features medium to dark crystal malts to provide color, caramel flavor, and a moderate initial sweetness. The balance between hops and malt in this style varies widely from brewery to brewery, with maltier options showcasing that mid-level caramel character, while hoppier versions begin to edge into Pale Ale territory, with assertive American hop character. Extremely hoppy beers with this malt profile ultimately belong in the Red IPA style.
While both American Wheat Ale and German Hefeweizen share a similar wheat-focused grain bill and so, correspondingly, a similarly lightly bready flavor profile and fluffy mouthfeel, the similarities mostly stop there. The big differences between these styles come from the yeast and hops used in each.
Hefeweizen hails from Bavaria in southern Germany, and has a fascinating history stretching over centuries that we don’t have the space to get into here. Was makes it truly unique within a traditional German beer landscape mostly known for clean lager styles is its expressive yeast strain. All ales (with some exceptions within the sour and mixed-fermentation family) are fermented with the same yeast species—saccharomyces cerevisiae—but there are numerous strains that have different fermentation characteristics and generate different levels of aroma-producing esters and phenols. Hefeweizen yeast produces a lot of the ester isoamyl acetate, which comes across most commonly as banana or bubblegum, and the phenol 4vinyl-guiacol, which tastes like cloves. Because of Hefeweizen’s low hop character, these yeast notes are the defining flavors of the style.
American Wheat beers (they can occasionally be lagers, but are most commonly ales) are fermented with cleaner American yeast, and don’t share their inspiration’s banana-and-clove eccentricity. Many examples make up for this with significantly higher hopping rates, showcasing fruity American hop aromas.
Belgium is a wonderland of diverse and unique beer styles. Many of the world’s rarest and most esteemed beers come from this small country, including 6 of the world’s 12 Trappist breweries. While Belgian brewers as a group generally prefer to eschew strict style guidelines in favor of freedom of expression, the most popular Belgian beers imported to this country tend to fall into a few common styles.
The most approachable of these beers is Belgian Pale Ale. Generally around 5.0-5.5% ABV, these relatively easy-drinking beers are brewed with mostly Pilsner or pale malts with small proportions of Vienna or Munich malt. Expressive Belgian ale yeast provides some noticeable fruitiness and mild spiciness, though neither is as elevated as in some other styles from this country. A graceful hand with Saaz, Styrian, or English hops allows for some subtle floral, herbal, or spicy background character.
With styles like Dubbel and Tripel, we enter the prestigious world of Belgian abbey ales. These beers have their roots in the country’s monastic brewing traditions, and some of them are still brewed at monasteries (the Trappists, for example) or in conjunction with active abbeys or historical abbey preservation groups. Many, of course, are brewed without any connection to these institutions at all.
One of the curious ironies of these venerated, high-gravity beers has to do with their sources of fermentable sugars. Dubbel, Tripels, and Quadrupels (which are similar to Dubbels in character but stronger) are all brewed with a good proportion of adjunct sugar, typically in the form of candi sugar or candi syrup. Yep, these hallowed brews use plain old sugar to reach their desired alcohol level without needlessly increasing the body of the beer. Dubbels and Quads can even take much of their brownish color from darker sugars.
Abbey styles all showcase expressive Belgian yeast characteristics. Dubbels and Quads also showcase complex specialty malt profiles, while Tripels can often display some regal continental hop character.
There is a tremendous amount of romance surrounding Saison and the “Farmhouse Ales” inspired by it. The popular origin story for Saison has the beer developing on 19th century farmsteads in Wallonia in southern Belgium. According to lore, farms were responsible for providing beer for the seasonal field workers who brought in the harvest, and during the winter they would brew with the ingredients they had on hand, holding the beer over till it was needed in the summer.
It’s a lovely story, but unfortunately there is limited historical support for its veracity. Beer was undoubtedly brewed at farms in Belgium at the time, as it was all over Europe, but the beer we know today as Saison is most likely a twentieth century commercial creation.
Nonetheless, Saisons and Farmhouse Ales have found tremendous popularity in the last few years as consumers continue to seek greater authenticity and proximity (or the appearance of such) in the production of their food and drink. The best examples are both rustic and refined, balancing expressive yeast character and moderate hopping with a dry, quenching finish.
The grist for Saison is pretty simple, consisting mostly of Pilsner malt and occasionally some specialty grains to riff on the rustic, agrarian image of the style. Hopping rates with continental hops are relatively low, but the hops tend to be fairly expressive in the finished profile due to the style’s extremely low finishing gravity (in classic examples). The style’s most tell-tale attribute is its unique ale yeast strain that ferments at a higher temperature than most ale yeasts, producing peppery phenolics and surprisingly subtle esters. A related style from France known as Biere de Garde is generally maltier and fuller, with subtler yeast notes.
Kolsch originates in, and takes its name from, the city of Köln (Cologne) in southwest Germany. The easy-drinking style is brewed with ale yeast at cooler-than-normal temperatures, and then lagered, or cold-conditioned, for several weeks. What results is a sort of honorary lager with subtle ale yeast fruitiness. The recipe is fairly simple—German Pils or pale malt, German hops, and a clean ale yeast that will attenuate the beer to a nice, crisp finish. The lagering results in one of the most brilliantly clear of all ale styles.
In the United States, a Blonde Ale has often filled the role of gateway beer for macro drinkers just beginning to dip their toes into the craft beer pool. The style can actually be brewed as either a lager or an ale, but the latter is more common, and ale yeast used for Kolsch is often employed. The grist is generally Pilsner or pale malt, though wheat is occasionally added. Hop rates are generally low to keep the beer approachable.
There are numerous more ale styles we haven’t covered here, but we hope this primer helps organize the major styles in your mind and reduce the confusion of a very diverse beer world. Browse our catalog to find the equipment and ingredients you need to brew these excellent styles.
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