Ah beer. We all have a different relationship with this malty, hoppy substance. This can range from it’s just beer bro, to I’m sensing a floral, honey-like aroma, with just perhaps a hint of burnt rubber.
There are beers made for funnels and beers made to sip on in the chunnel. Whatever it is you’re after, it’s sometimes hard to know what you’re drinking, and why it tastes like it does. Moreover, with the craft beer revolution, it can be challenging to know what to order when so many bottle shops and bars offer so many different styles.
We here at Inkerman don’t pose to be beer experts (we save that level of knowledge for vegetable tanned shoes), we have racked up some knowledge over the years and want to share it with you all. This way, you can drink what you have in the fridge in a proper order, and know what you like and don’t like and why.
Let’s start with the fundamentals
Beer, at its core, is four ingredients: water, malted barley, hops and yeast. The proportion and the variety of these four ingredients offers the breadth of flavors and styles we know today. Many brewers will add different ingredients to the core four such as coffee, chocolate and even gushers (see Threes Brewing), while others will not, for, you know, purity’s sake (see Germany’s Reinheitsgebot).
The first step in making beer is determining the barley profile you will utilize. These range from a base malt, which is the lightest malt you’ll see (think lagers), to roasted malts which are far more darker (think porters and stouts). Now there is a lot of nuance here, as, for example, a dark lager is made up utilizing primarily base malts, with just a hint of roasted malts which add to the darker color, without overly affecting the flavor profile. For the sake of this article, we will try not to dive too deep.
The second step is to extract the sugars from malted barley, and dissolve that into water at which time the brewer will add hops. Hops are added at different times in the brewing process, and as a rule of thumb hops that are added at the beginning will offer more of a bitter profile, those that are added in the middle will capture more of the hop profile, meaning that it will be more citrusy, floral, earthy etc, and those that are added towards the end will add the aroma—i.e. the smell that is offered when you first take a waft.
Once the hops have been added, what is now called the wart cools down, and the brewer will add yeast, which is what ferments the sugars and creates the alcohol content we all know and love (for better or for worse). Yeast can also affect the flavor profile, depending on which type is utilized. Temperature plays a big part in this next step, with a lower temperature fermentation process (think around 50 degrees fahrenheit) creating lagers, and a higher temperature (think around 50 degrees fahrenheit) creating ales.
Which leads us into part two: different beers for different peers.
Beers can generally be categorized into two categories: lagers and ales. The differentiation comes, most notably, from two aspects of the brewing process: the temperature of fermentation, and the time the beer is given to ferment. A lower temperature, and a longer fermentation process will produce a lager, while the opposite is true for ales. There are a number of different beers that fall underneath each category, but some of the more common ones, for example, are pilsners (in lager the family) and pale ales (in the ale family). Now let’s dive into the family hop tree ( in order of light to dark [ish, sorta])
Light Lagers (lager)
Ah, America’s beer. You can almost hear the U.S.A. chants in your mouth when taking a sip. These beers simply have less of all of the ingredients: i.e. higher water proportion relative to malts and hops. As it is a lager, it is brewed at a lower temperature and for longer. While these beers are very common in the U.S. (think bud light) they are modeled after German Pilsners, which are also lagers, but have a bit of a different flavor profile due to the “pilsner” malts that are utilized.
Think day drinking, baseball games, volume, chug chug etc
Boston lager anyone? Think I saw one parked in the car in the harbored yard. These are light lagers older brethren, with a higher proportion of malts, hops and yeast in relation to water. The malts tend to be base malts, with a darker lager offering a hint of roasted malts to add the darker color without overly affecting the flavor profile. These tend to have a slightly higher alcohol content (think around 5-6%).
Think day drinking, hanging with pals, light and crisp, aprés ski etc
A Kolsch is a German beer that historically has stood by the purity test: only the four core ingredients. A Kolsch is a hybrid that uses ale yeast, but ferments at a lower temperature. Kolsch beers are similar to champagne in that proper kolsch beers are found and only brewed in and around cologne. There are about 20 breweries that actually make these, however many other brewers have taken up a Kolsch-style beer to brew a similar beer.
Think low ABV, day drinking, the alps, good vibes, crisp and refreshing, best of the lagers (hot take), thirst quenching etc
Gose (or sour) (ale...sorta...its own kinda thing)
Gose’s are an amalgam of a number brewing methods and flavor profiles. Gose’s are a blend of three different years of lambic beer, or Belgian beers, that are brewed normally, but subsequently put in large vats to cool. When the beers are cooling, whatever is in air falls down and inoculates the beer. This spontaneous fermentation process gives the beer a sour taste—stemming from lactic acid (think sauerkraut and greek yogurt) and acidic acid (think lemon and vinegar). These beers tend to be super sour, and very low in ABV, due to the different fermenting process.
Think sour, bitter, puckering, drinkable-but not overly so, low ABV, summer time chilling, sour patch kids etc
Berliner Weisse (ale)
A German beer that originally was fermented by whatever was in the air, before yeast started being to ferment the sugar. This made Weisse’s extremely volatile beers, where no two batches tasted the same, and ultimately offering a sour, tart taste. Now, with the yeast, the beers still pay homage to their past by utilizing lactic acid which adds the sour taste the Berliner Weisse so often have.
Think sour, tart, relaxed, low ABV, drinkable but not continued drinkability etc
Hefeweizen or Witbier (ale)
A beer that nearly fell into extinction in the 50s has resurged and come to make up ⅓ of the market today. A hefeweizen is another German beer that utilizes 50-70% wheat in the barley malt makeup, giving it a hazy, opaque look and a slightly sweeter taste. These are the beers that are sometimes served with an orange or lemon garnish, and are, for many, the gateway craft beer into the universe of hops.
Think wheat, orange garnish, sports games, Allagash White (iconic), a good intro craft beer etc
Saison or Farmhouse (ale)
These are the beers that seem to taste like springtime (yum… pollen). These beers could originally only be brewed during a specific time of year, as they are extremely temperature sensitive. Like their German Hefeweizen (or Witbier) cousins, these are beers that utilize a large proportion of wheat in the brewing process to give it that springtime-like taste. The yeast of these beers sometimes does not saturate entirely into, or flocculate, the beer, leaving some residue at the bottom of the bottle or can.
Think wheat, slightly sour, butterflies and dandelions, outside porchside chilling, mowing the lawn etc
For some time I thought these beers were spelled Boch, and that the monks that have historically brewed these beers just had a taste for classical music. This beer dates back to the 1630s, and is simply a very malty lager. They are often more alcoholic than general lagers and pilsners, and are far more holy. In the 17th century monks would liquid-fast for lent, and give up everything but bock beers, making the process far more enjoyable. If you want a slightly heavier bock, there are double bocks and even ice bocks, which can range from 9-12%. An ice bock is a bock that is frozen, with the ice subsequently being scraped off the top to heighten the flavor profile and consequently (or not) the ABV.
Think holy, drinkable but strong, lent, crisp and cool but also dry and heavy
Belgians are known for their fruity and spicy aroma and tastes—think baked pears and apples, rather than pineapple and citrus (we’ll get there). Similar to IPAs, DIPAs, Imperial and TIPAs, Belgian beers also have a system to indicate the amount of ingredients utilized in proportion to water, and thereby and ultimately the alcohol content. These are commonly referred to as dubbels, tripels and quads, with the amount of grain and the proportional hops and yeast increasing along the line.
Think fall, changing seasons, pumpkins patches, New England leaves etc
Pale Ales (ale)
The little brother to the IPA. Not much additional knowledge to know here (assuming you read the IPA snippet) other than a small proportion of ingredients to water.
Think haze, drinkable, tropical fruits, citrusy, somewhat bitter etc
(... here we go) What many of us probably have been waiting for. This brand of beer has, in the past decade or so, come into a resurgence and revolutionized the craft beer market. When IPAs first started to be brewed, they were very bitter and hard to drink, though over time people started using hops for flavors and less for bitterness (placing hops in during the middle and late stage processes—think haze). I’m sure many of you have heard the old wive’s tale about IPAs being crafted to survive the boat trip from England to India. This is in fact a fallacy, but does in fact hint at a lot of truth. IPAs are brewed with a large amount of hops—being added at the beginning of the brew for more of a bitter, west coast style, and towards the middle of the brew for more of a hazy, New England style. Hops are a preservative, hence the boat tale, though they do lose their flavor overtime. An IPA, or any of its related brethren, should be drunk as soon as possible in order to get the best flavor profile. DIPAs, Imperials, TIPAs etc have a larger amount of hops, and therefore the proportional amount of malted barley, yeast and thereby alcohol content. They tend to be far heavier beers, and can range anywhere from 7-15%+.
Think breadth, hazy (NEIPAS), bitter (West Coast IPAs), drinkable, can be heavy, opaque (NEIPAS), best drank when fresh etc
Brown Ales (ale)
An ale primarily with lighter and middle grains, with just a bit of roasted grains to alter the color and taste ever so slightly. Much lighter on the palate than stouts.
Think early winter, daylight savings and an early beer for the evening etc
On the darker end of the ale family—uses darker, roasted grain. Flavor profile is more similar to a lager than a stout some might argue, but with stronger notes of chocolatey, darker flavors that the roasted grains offer. These beers can be dry (think about the taste in your mouth after eating a grape rather than a cherry) and acidic.
Think pre-dinner beer, lighter than a stout, drinkable, medium ABV levels, late winter—snow has started to stop coming down as much
These beers fall on the farthest end of the dark spectrum (think Darth Vader in ESB). Brewers can make a pure four ingredient stout, or add some other ingredients, such as dark chocolate or coffee, to enhance the flavor profile of the darker, roasted malts. Stouts, like IPAs, can have a huge variety, and range from 6%-20% ABV. These beers have a head that looks like chocolate milk, and are nearly always opaque. Oftentimes brewers will add nitrogen to the brewing tanks giving the beer that thick, molasses-like texture (think about the texture of a Guiness). Many brewers will also age stouts in bourbon barrels for years, adding the liquor to the flavor profile of the beer. These beers tend to be far more alcoholic, and tend to offer smoky aromas. The increased ABV is due to the increased malts of the beer, not the fact that they’re aged in barrels. Unlike IPAs, these sit well with time, and should sometimes be enjoyed down the road a bit.
Think snow storm, fireplace, post-dinner, steak and potatoes, cozy, filling etc