An Introduction to the Confusing World of Beer Styles

A “beer style” or “style of beer” is typically a term used to categorize beers by considering a variety of factors. Common factors include the appearance, flavor, ingredients, origin, history, and production method. One of the first official styling structures was created by Michael Jackson, the writer not the pop star, in his 1977 book The World Guide to Beer. His work was advanced by Fred Eckhardt in 1989 with the publication of The Essentials of Beer Style.

Types of Beer

Unfortunately, there is no universally agreed-upon list of beer styles which can make it difficult to unequivocally identify certain types of beer. Along with the popular publications of Jackson and Eckhardt, other commonly used style guidelines are based upon popular beer competitions. They include the World Beer Cup, CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale), BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program), and the Brewing Industry International Awards.

Styling by Location

The first way to determine the style of the beer is by looking at its origin. The geographic origin of a beer plays a significant role in determining what ingredients are used, what the original flavor profile is, and may affect the brewing process. For example, there is a noticeable difference between an American, English, and Belgian IPA. The same is true for all types of beers.

Styling By Ingredients & Brewing Process

Another popular way to determine the style of a beer is by focusing on the ingredients and the brewing process. Any number of ingredient combinations can churn out a different beer based upon the brewing process. Similar to styling by location, styling by ingredients in the brewing process can be difficult as well. It has become even more complicated with the introduction of hybrid beers.

A Breakdown of Common Beer Styles

With all this in mind, there are still a handful of different types of beer which are readily agreed upon. Here is a quick look at the most common styles found in the United States (from light to dark)

1. Pilsner

The pilsner is not only the most popular styles of beer in the world, it’s also the youngest. It is a light, clean and simple pale lager. Usually a light to golden yellow, the pilsner features a strong hoppy flavor that is both fragrant and slightly bitter.

2. Wheat Beer

Wheat beers are actually similar to some of the first brewed beers. They are a mixture of barley and wheat grains and have very little hops presence. They are typically cloudy in appearance and the range of flavors is significant depending on the type of wheat used. Traditionally, this style of beer accounts for many popular summer and spring seasonal brews.

3. Brown Ale

The brown ale typically has a dark brown or amber color. Historically, it is an extremely old style of beer whose history can be traced back to un-hot ales. They typically have a higher malt level which gives them an earthier and less bitter flavor. Brown ales may also have a slightly sweet flavor.

4. Pale Ale

The pale ale is one of the most popular beer styles in the world. Made by a warm fermentation method and pale malt, this style has a wide range of flavor and strength. In the UK, a pale ale has a strong malty flavor whereas in the United States it has more hops.

5. India Pale Ale

The India Pale Ale, also commonly referred to as an IPA, comes from the 1700’s when English troops lived in India. Additional hops were added to their typical beer to keep it from spoiling before their ship reached Indian shores. This style is known to have a strong hoppy flavor with a slightly bitter taste. The color of an IPA can range from a light golden yellow to a darker red amber.

6. Bocks

A bock beer is stronger than your average beer. This popular beer style has a robust malt flavor. The bock originates from German monasteries where it was used as sustenance during Lenten fasts, but is now commonly brewed all around the world.

7. Porter

Orginally brewed in London in the 18th century, the porter is a very dark style of beer. A porter includes roasted malts or roasted barley, and are typically mild beers with hints of chocolate and toffee.

8. Stouts

Stouts are always 100% opaque and are consistently the darkest beers. The head of a stout beer is extremely thick and usually brown. They have a controversial history, however it is widely believed that the stout style originally derived from porters. They feature a heavily roasted flavor and often contain hints of chocolate, licorice, molasses, or coffee.

What’s your favorite type of beer? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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Jeff Flowers

About Author

Jeff Flowers has been a self-described beer geek for over a decade now. When he's not chasing his daughter around, you can usually find him drinking a fresh brew and wasting too much of his time on both Google+ & Twitter.


    • Sean says

      Lager has to do with the yeast. Lager yeast ferments from the bottom as opposed to ale which is top fermenting. So lager is not really a style. Whereas a Pilsner is a light lager that usually has a certain type of hops and originated from a particular region.

  1. Walter says

    Where is the Belgian Abbey Ale in all this. Unique by origin, flavour and history. No winter night can be improved more than by sipping a dark Belgian ale by a wood fire

  2. Nate Wahl says

    The article proves to be a good starting point for discussions. It also definitely needs a follow-up article to explore some of the lesser known but important styles, too, as others have mentioned. In fact this would make an excellent topic for a running series.

  3. Rolland Spadacene says

    For the most part, I like just about any styles of beers. I tend to lean towards Stouts. I never have made any homemade beer but I tempted to do so. I could be wrong, I think the quality of water used has a significant effect on the taste. I notice this more from beers produced by the larger breweries that have breweries in many areas of the country as well as the world. Some of my friends do not believe that would have any effect. So I did a blind test, They tested me with Stout made by Guiness, one imported from Ireland and another imported from Canada. Although I could not say where each of the samples came from, I can tell the difference that the 2 samples were not made at the same location. Took the same blind tests with other major brands who has more than one brewery producing the same brand and style. Again, I was able to tastes the difference no matter how subtle it may be. LOL! I was even tested to do the same with Cocoa Cola and Pepsi even though there beverages are not beer. But they do have many places where they produce sodas. Did a blind test with sodas. Same, I could tell the difference in the taste even though it may be subtle. Point is … when the time comes that I start producing homemade beer of any style, is there a rule of thumb concerning the water quality? Does it really make any difference if the water were to be filtered? Treated by the local water authority? Spring water? Etc.

  4. James says

    Porters and Stouts are the way to go. I had an Almond Milk Stout not too long ago that was to simply die for. It was smoother than butter and had absolutely no bite to it. Not saying I mind when a beer bites at me, but this was something else to be had entirely.

  5. Scott Henley says

    I am most definitely a fan of all things “bier”, but I have to say my true style is Wheat… I fell in love with the wheat biers of Germany, during my time in the service. I spent 3 years “studying” every style possible….

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