The beer styles of Europe and beyond

(photo: André Brunnsberg)

Welcome to the most comprehensive guide to the growing range of beer styles found across Europe and beyond – their origins, differences and how to spot the best – compiled for consumers by the European Beer Consumers Union (EBCU).

This guide to beer styles is completely independent, compiled and maintained without assistance from sponsorship or advertising.

European ways of making beer dominated global brewing for centuries before the outbreak of war in 1914, yet by 1975 most heritage brewing had become a thing of the past.  As industrial combines took over the beer trade, the focus turned away from making local beers with flavour, to creating cheaply made, familiar brands.

However, against the odds and led by a consumer push, the last 20 years have seen independent, smaller scale, flavour-driven breweries spring up all around the world.  By Spring 2020 the total was nearing 30,000, of which roughly 30% were in Europe.  Local brewing has returned and character is the new governor of success.

At the heart of this beer revival, and the feature most likely to guarantee its lasting success, is the return of beers made in different ways, some marking the return of authentic heritage beer styles, others the emergence of new ways inspired by all traditions and none.  Become familiar with these and you will understand the world of beer today. 

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WHAT IS A BEER STYLE?

A beer style describes a cluster of beers, with common features that make them similar, while distinguishing them from all others.  These differences may relate to ingredients, brewing method, fermentation, conditioning, strength, or in a few cases, the way they are served.  Put another way ….

A beer style is an informal agreement between a brewer and a customer, expressed through a name on a label, by which the former gives the latter a rough idea of what they are about to buy.  

Some beer styles have been around for centuries, while others come from a moment of inspiration or calculation by a particular brewer that impacted so much that others knew they needed to follow. 

Describing beer styles enables competitions to award prizes to the brewers who make the best, provoking others to go one step better.  It also aids discussion about different types of beer and helps with spotting those breweries that always seem to be good performers.

For both brewers and consumers, being able to talk about beer styles improves the quality of information and encourages diversity over uniformity. 

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GROUPS, STYLES & SUB-STYLES

If you are just starting to explore beer, don’t spend too much time on this site.  Instead, go and find a few good shops and specialist bars, try as wide a range of beers as you can, figure out what appeals to you, take a few notes, then come back here for a guide to your next phase of exploration.

For more experienced beer drinkers, to bring some order to a complicated subject, we have organised different types of beer into a few basic groups, within which we describe numerous styles, many of which have sub-styles

Each group represents a broad cluster of beers that share some fundamental characteristics that setting them apart from the others.  Separating lagers from ales, we describe six in total.  Lagers are divided into “industrial” and “authentic”, to reflect how they are made, ales appear as “session strength”, sampling strength” and “sipping strength” to reflect their alcohol content, and the final group includes “special style clusters”, such as stouts & porters, wheat beers, farmhouse ales and others.

We use the term beer style to bring together a narrower range of beers that have in common more specific characteristics, some relating to shared historical or geographical origins. 

Inevitably perhaps, a successful Style with take on different forms, retaining core characteristics but changing details such as strength, colour, grain profile, hop character, or preparation.  Where such variants have become well-established, we list these as sub-styles

It should be possible for even a fairly inexperienced beer drinker to taste some of the common themes among beers of the same style or sub-style.  Where a cluster of beers show the characteristics of more than one group, style or substyle, we have given it one principle listing and cross-referenced it from whichever others apply.

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LAGERS VERSUS ALES

In contemporary brewing the difference between lagers and ales is more theoretical than practical. 

The German word ‘lager’ translates today as ‘warehouse’ and implies a beer that has been stored for a time to mature.  Allowing beer time to “condition” before going on the market was the norm in the 18th and 19th centuries.  In northern Europe, the best ales would ripen in oak casks for months or years.  The best lagers still condition for a couple of months at 0o to 4o C, while Belgian brewers are adept at developing bottle-conditioned ales by warehousing them in ‘warm chambers’ at 20o C for weeks. 

However, in modern industrial brewing, few beers are allowed to condition for more than a few days – even the lagers. 

The discovery of the nature and actions of brewers’ yeast by French microbiologist Dr Louis Pasteur was followed by the differentiation between ale yeast, or saccharomyces cerevesiae, from lager yeast, or saccharomyces pastorianus. 

Ale yeast work best at room temperature and bring a wide range of volatile flavours, some described as ‘fruity’, to the beers they ferment.  Lager yeast in contrast are most comfortable at around 15o C but can work at any temperatures, having a neutral influence on the beer’s grainy flavour.  Lager yeast at near freezing point are skilled at cleaning up organic by-products of brewing that produce undesirable flavours, which is the rationale behind the lengthy cold-conditioning of traditional lagers. 

Other flavour differences between lagers and ales are accounted for by the choice of hops, some varietals of which are better suited to particular styles of beers. 

Around 90% of the beer drunk in Europe today is made on an industrial scale by producers that ferment their beers as warm as possible to save time, followed by only brief conditioning, whether the beer is technically a lager or an ale.  It follows that for industrial beers, the chasm in character that used to exist between ales and lagers is now reduced to a crack. 

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INDUSTRIAL VERSUS CRAFT

The new schism between two fundamentally different types of beer began to appear towards the end of the 20th century and lies between beers made to “industrial” specifications and those considered more authentic, or “craft”.  While this distinction is key to understanding beer today, neither of these terms is easy to define beyond a rough outline. 

From the very beginnings of commercial brewing, when brews were made on farmhouse stoves to ferment in the outhouse before selling to other villagers, brewers have been caught between supplying two conflicting demands – to make beer that is good enough to savour, while being cheap enough to afford. 

Brewing technology has been improving non-stop since ancient times but the wholesale industrialisation of the beer-making seen today began to emerge in Europe after the Second World War, as US-inspired brewing methods and business models took root. 

The re-emergence of interest in the more complex, fuller-flavoured beers that are now variously referred to as ‘traditional’, ‘heritage’, ‘artisanal’, ‘craft’ or ‘special’ began in the 1970s for a variety of unconnected reasons, and blossomed with the arrival of the internet and social media in the early 21st century. 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, brewing in Europe had reached in interesting position whereby industrial brewers were beginning to realise that in order for beer to maintain its place in the alcoholic beverage market, they needed craft brewers to make beer sexy, while craft brewers were beginning to realise that in order to sell their beers in the market they needed the collaboration of industrial brewers.  Post-COVID, it will be interesting to see how that works. 

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SESSION, SAMPLING & SIPPING STRENGTH

Most wines contain between 10.5% and 14% alcohol by volume (ABV), reflecting the natural sweetness of grape juice.  The sweet liquid, or wort, fermented by brewers is far more flexible, allowing them to create palatable beers with a far wider range of strengths, colours and characteristics. 

It is possible to find impressively flavoursome beers at any strength from 3% to 14% ABV, with a few beyond those limits.  Even among the new low-alcohol (<0.5% ABV) beers a few show promise, though the lack of consistency in the methods of production and the absence of any theme other than being like style X or Y with less alcohol means we cannot define any distinct styles for such beers, as yet.

The beer classification systems designed for brewers or beer competitions all acknowledge the importance of strength, using either numerical rules such as percentage alcohol or in central Europe degrees (o) Plato, or else more loosely based concepts such as ‘ordinary’, ‘best’, ‘special’, ‘strong’ and others. 

We have taken the view that from the consumer standpoint, leaving low-alcohol beers aside, there are three principle strengths of beer, which we term ‘session’, ‘sampling’ and ‘sipping’. 

In most countries higher selling, lighter, mainstream types are known increasingly as ‘session’ beers.  Typically these inhabit the range 4.0-5.5% ABV, though in countries with oppressive alcohol taxation, such as the UK, Ireland and most of Scandinavia the lower limit may be as little as 2.8% ABV.

In Belgium, the beer culture features a huge array of stronger ales (5.5-9.0% ABV), typically conditioned in the bottle, for sampling slowly and individually, in company, sometimes shared.  Belgian brewers are though masters of “balance”, deploying techniques that ensure the grain flavours in these beers are not so heavy as to make them difficult to approach.

Many countries are also seeing growing interest in various styles of beer designed to have fuller flavours comparable with wines, though often achieving this at relatively lower strengths (8% and up).  Some of these are revived styles, while others have taken lighter styles and intensified them.  These are often served in smaller measures (15-33 cl) and are intended strictly for sipping.

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EVOLUTION AND CHANGE

There is no correct way of classifying the world’s beer styles but, for now at least, our classification reflects the divisions described above.

That said, no beer style is set in stone, all are evolving and nowadays few are confined to specific local markets, or beer cultures.

Changes will occur over time due to alterations in the types of ingredients or techniques available, the arrival of different taxation and regulatory systems, or new talents and fashions.  Nothing is static, or ever was – this is how beer grows.

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INDUSTRIAL LAGERS

However encouraging the last couple of decades may have been for consumers trying to  access to more interesting beers, over 90% of what is drunk in the world comes from a narrow range of predictable, see-through, frothy-topped brands, usually blond, that are fermented with lager yeast and produced on an industrial scale to a ‘fast beer’ specification. 

The key characteristics of a successful industrial lager are that it must be cheap to produce, free from production flaws and have enough visual appeal to justify an inflated price.  It is highly unlikely to be lagered in the true sense.

Contrary to popular belief, industrial lagers are not “full of chemicals”, though they can taste that way if drunk at room temperature, as the fuller flavour the warmer temperature brings gives away the cheapness of the ingredients and the speed of fermentation.  This is why many are served as cold as possible.

Though the character of an industrial lager is broadly uniform and intentionally inoffensive, they still come in recognisable sub-groups.

American-style industrial lager

Similar to its European equivalent (below), with the exception that rice is also a frequent malt substitute, sometimes accounting for up to 40% of the cereal in the mash.  Rice was traditionally used to make American beers prior to Prohibition but nonetheless lowers the grain character of the beer.  Typically a product of high-gravity brewing, most are fermented as strong beers before being extensively diluted, up to 60:40 with water, prior to re-carbonation and packaging.  Typically they have a low hop content and undergo little conditioning. 

European-style industrial lager

Some European-style industrial lagers are made from 100% malted barley, though this is usually modified and can be in syrup form.  Many contain wheat and some well-known brands contain up to 30% of processed maize, corn syrup, or starch derived from barley or wheat.  As with their American counterparts they are usually brewed and fermented at high gravity, then diluted, have low hop bitterness and undergo little conditioning.

Light industrial lager

Light lagers are especially popular in the USA like in this country club in Nashville, Tennessee (photo: André Brunnsberg)

North American drinkers, when asked in the 1960s what others sorts of beer they would like to see, decided they wanted beers with less carbohydrate content.  The solution was to increase the amount of filtration and ferment more sugar to alcohol.  The result is an industrial lager with less weight to it. 

Strong industrial lager

Usually featuring much malt substitution, with swift fermentation, this style of higher alcohol beer (7.0-10.5% ABV) is generally designed for impact rather than aplomb.  Some are the high gravity brews that with dilution become popular brands.  Steadily disappearing from Europe markets for their association with alcohol-related health problems. 

Ultralight and ice lager

Thinner forms of light industrial lager.  The attraction of these beers is their low sugar content, the downside being the absence of flavour.  The so-called “Ice” varieties have their protein content removed at a low temperature.  Also known as soda beers. 

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AUTHENTIC LAGERS

Making a successful industrial lager involves a brewer directing their professional perfectionist streak towards creating something cheap and clean.  Creating an authentic lager in a traditional style involves pointing it in an altogether different direction. 

The best European lagers are made from 100% unrefined malted barley; mashed using the decoction method; hopped with German varieties such as Saaz, Hallertau, Spalt or Tettnang; fermented by a lager yeast strain at no more than 15o C for anything up to two weeks; and then conditioned in lagering tanks at 0o to 4o C for as much as three months. 

This last part of this process adds significantly to the storage space required within the brewery but adds maturity and sees off a wide variety of immature and unpleasant flavours. 

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AUTHENTIC BLOND LAGERS

The homelands of authentic blond lagers are the Czech Republic, Germany and Austria, though the spread of various related styles in the late 19th century encouraged a few classic examples in many other countries.  The best traditionally-made blond lagers may be seen as the world’s most intricately crafted simple beers. 

Bohemian Světlý (or Světlé)

A refreshing glass of Světlé at a brewpub in Prague (photo: André Brunnsberg)

The key quality of a classic Bohemian (or Czech) blond lager is drinkability, achieved by balancing a rich malty character with a noticeable but well-rounded hop presence that is never harsh.  A little diacetyl – a butterscotch-flavoured organic compound considered a flaw in many styles, is allowed provided it is consistent.  The grain base is lightly kilned, unrefined Moravian malted barley and the hops are Bohemian Saaz (locally Žatec).  Decoction mashing is often repeated three times, squeezing maximum flavour from the malt, and cold-conditioning may last three months.  They come in two principle strengths, measured in degrees (o) Plato.  A premium quality 12o beer (4.8-5.1% ABV) is termed Světlý Ležák (pronounced ‘sfet-lay lesh-ack’ in English), while the regular 10 o beer (4.4-4.7% ABV) is Světlé Výčepní (‘vee-chep-nee’). 

Helles (or Hell)

Fermented through to dryness but still classy for being brewed from 100% malted barley, accented with German hops.  Sometimes termed Munchener Helles (4.7-5.1 % ABV), for being the workaday blond beer of Munich, the capital city of Bavaria.  The name can mean ‘blond’, ‘light’ or ‘bright’, each of which is accurate.  The name has proved popular with craft brewers in other countries to mean, who use the tag Helles or Hell tag to mean ‘crafty lager lookalike’. 

German Pils (or Pilsner, Pilsener)

This light bodied, highly attenuated, elegantly floral, blond style, beautiful enough to justify a bouffant head, was seen as the showboat of late 20th century German brewing, yet takes its name from the Czech town of Plzeň (once Pilsen), where blond lager was first sold in 1842.  The first Bavarian interpretations appeared around 1870, more highly hopped, reflecting the harder waters of the region.  It is made typically by infusion or single-decoction mashing, with a brand-specific mix of German hops.  The Pilsener name was deemed not to be copyright by Germany’s supreme Court in 1913.  The style has become less popular in recent years, the more hop-forward versions may now appear as Ur-Pils, implying “original”.

Märzen (or Oktoberfestbier)

A nice, foamy Maß of Märzen at a festival in Rosenheim, Germany (photo: André Brunnsberg)

German Märzen beers are typically darker, maltier and richer than Pils, and typically not as hoppy.  Austrian variants are lighter, with a dry finish.  Although they now appear year-round the style is named for the fact that they used to be made in March, kept over summer in cold caves and finished off at the end of the summer, at events often called Oktoberfest, leading to some being branded Oktoberfestbier. 

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AMBER LAGERS

Beers had been lagered over summer for centuries in Alpine caves before the emergence of factory-made examples in the late 1830s.  While the best known of these new beers were blond, the first, likely predating Pilsener by five or six years, were darker, in varying degrees.

Wiener (or Vienna Lager)

Typically maltier than a blond lager, a Wiener (4.6-5.4% ABV) should be slightly toasted and with restrained bitterness.  The colour ranges from ruddy amber to light brown, its reddish tints used to come from special Vienna malt, though crystal malt is now more common.  The first commercially produced lager in Austria may well have come from the brewery of Anton Dreher at Schwechat, near Vienna in 1841, now part of Brau AG (Heineken).  Its revival in 2014 has fuelled new interest in the style in Austria and elsewhere. 

Bohemian Polotmavý

Zámecký Pivovar Frýlant’s interpretation of a Polotmavý is a tad more reddish (photo: André Brunnsberg)

This Bohemian style of amber lager tends to be more robust than Wiener (below), with the hop character varying between trivial and significant.  A little diacetyl is allowed, provided it is consistent.  The Czech word polotmavý means “semi-dark” and as with its blond equivalent, two levels of intensity are cited, in this case 11o or 12o Ležák (4.8-5.2% ABV) and 13o or 14o Speciální (5.1-5.7% ABV).

India Pale Lager (or IPL)

Riffing off the theme of an IPA, brewers are still experimenting with this lager yeast variant, seeking out which New World hops go best in what tends to be a light amber brew.  As many commercial examples appear to be fermented with ale yeast we question the long-term viability of this style, or at least its name. 

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BROWN LAGERS

In the same year that Anton Dreher made the first factory-made amber lager at his brewery Schwechat near Vienna, Gabriel Sedlmayer made the first dark one at the Spaten brewery in Munich.  The reason that neither began with a blond lager was that at the time the technology that brought pale malts to central Europe was in its infancy, and with the exception of Weizenbier, all German beer was dark. 

Dunkel (or Dunkeles – sometimes Münchner)

Like most of Germany’s breweries also Sperber Bräu in Sulzbach-Rosenberg brews a Dunkel (photo: André Brunnsberg)

The darker session-strength lager style of Bavaria should be a malt-driven, smooth, sometimes chocolate-noted beer often made with caramalt, which combines session strength (4.4-5.6% ABV) with surprising depth.  It should not be harsh or roasted.  Though mostly low on hops some Franconian examples push this boundary.  Though almost as prone to lesser imitations as blond lagers, its popularity has gradually spread across Europe and elsewhere.

Schwarzbier

The black lagers of northern and eastern Germany returned to the fold after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.  Low on hops but high on caramel, the best remain palatably dry despite this, though well short of stout-like.  They were largely a specialty of Saxony and Thuringia Thuringen), in Soviet-controlled East Germany.  Since reunification they are growing in stature.

Bohemian Tmavý (or Tmavé)

The Czech take on darker lager has a caramel roasted in palate with variable hopping, fruity esters adding a dab of plum or dried fruits. Some are described as Černý (or Černé), implying black.  Its two levels of intensity are termed Ležák (11o – 12o) and Speciální (13o – 14o).  A tiny but consistent level of diacetyl is allowed.  The U Fleků brewery in Prague has been making a beer in this style for over 500 years, largely unchanged but for the yeast.

Other European dark lagers

Across Central and Eastern Europe, as far north as the Baltic States, most session-strength beers in the 20th century were lagers of two types, one being pale or blond, and the other brown or black, sitting somewhere in the triangle between Dunkel, Tmavé and Schwarz, their shared role to be “the dark one”.

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STRONGER LAGERS

Craft variants of strong industrial lagers, often termed “Imperial” pils, and the like, have yet to impress.  However, other styles from the back catalogues of central European brewing can be highly impressive. 

See also: Baltic Porter

Dunkles Bock

Brauerei Kneitinger in Regensburg, Germany is famous for it’s drinklable bock beer (photo: André Brunnsberg)

Dark, rounded, heavily malt-driven and with its hops in close check, this stronger lager (6.3-7.2% ABV) become popular as an autumn beer, as maltsters and brewers cleared space in their grain stores for the new crop.  Originally from the north German trading town of Einbeck in the time of the Hanseatic League (13th to 16th centuries), its revival dates from 17th century Munich.  Similar beers termed bok in Norway, and herfstbok (or bokbier) in the Netherlands, are drier, and in the latter case often top-fermented.

Helles Bock (and Mai Bock)

A firm, malt-driven stronger lager (6.3-7.5% ABV), typically somewhat hoppier than its darker autumnal equivalent.  Seeing it either as a pale form of Dunkles Bock or a stronger form of Helles or Märzen is equally acceptable.  Historically Mai Bock was a seasonal beer that started to appear around April in northern Germany.  The name Helles Bock implies a year-round beer.  The Netherlands has a similarly seasonal, slightly lighter and sweeter beer, called meibok or lentebok.

Doppelbock

Perhaps the greatest of all the full-malt beer styles should be lush and warming rather than roasted or burnt.  Strong (7.2-9.5% ABV) and with low carbonation, it is can take on a wide range of colours, from deep golden to dark brown.  The style may have first been made in a monastery in Munich, the beer being so high in grain that it earned the description “liquid bread”.  Modern examples are more attenuated, and tend to take brand names ending in “-ator”. 

Eisbock

The name ‘Ice’ Bock comes from the brewer’s use of freezing some water out of a completed Doppelbock to make this intense style.  Most are brewed from malted barley but a few are wheat beers.  The best examples are almost oily and memorably smooth, while the worst taste like ugly attempts to get a place in that brewery-sponsored book of world records. 

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OTHER AUTHENTIC LAGERS

While the heritage of cold-conditioned beers is not as many-layered as the that of ales, there appears nonetheless to have been a tradition of cold-conditioning some beers going back to the 15th century and it is likely that at least some of these will have been brewed with self-selecting lager yeast. 

See also: Altbier and Kölsch

Kellerbier

Kellerbier served directly from Holzfaß at Brauhaus Gradler in Oberfranken, Germany (photo: André Brunnsberg)

Of the 200+ small independent breweries found in Oberfranken (Upper Franconia), more than half base their businesses on their version of this local speciality, which is fermented with a lager yeast, conditioned in the brewery cellar for a few weeks.  A Kellerbier can be any colour from straw to dark amber and will tend to taste distinctly beery but a bit unrefined.  When racked unfiltered into a vertical cask, called a Holzfaß, and served by gravity, without additional carbon dioxide, it is closer to British cask ale than any other style, though a good bar will finish the cask on the day it is broached.

Rauchbier

Literally ‘smoke beer’, this now much imitated style was until recent years a speciality of the town of Bamberg, the beer capital of Oberfranken.  Some are as subtle as a heavily smoked German ham, while others include but a wisp of woodsmoke against a background of a solid amber or brown lager.  The style is a hang-on from the days when malted barley was dried in wood-fired kilns, leaving it with smoky and burnt residues.  The arrival of coke ovens enabled maltsters to produce much cleaner malt, enabling the creation of paler, as well as smoke-free beer.  For reasons that are unclear, some brewers in Bamberg stayed with the old ways, some still smoking their own malt, while others source theirs from the city’s world-renowned maltsters, Weyermann’s, who now export it internationally.

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THE WORLD OF ALE

Back in 1975 the number of ales produced each year by commercial brewers worldwide was measurable in single figure thousands. Today, the closest we can get to an accurate estimate is somewhere between a quarter and half a million.

Thus far most of the consumer revolt over beer has been about ales. The more obvious reason for this is that traditional ales are easier to produce than authentic lagers, in particular because there is no need for lengthy cold-conditioning. The less obvious reason is that ale yeast are capable of producing firework displays of flavours in contrast to lager yeast’s military parade.

What surprises beer drinkers in the 21st century is the extent to which the wave of new-new-new types of beer represents a return to brewing as normal, which is to say before the Prohibitionist tendency and the First World War intervened.

The array of ales that now exists is so huge that in order to follow the differences a wide range of styles needs to be understood. We could have tried doing this by colour, listing White, Blond, Pale, Amber/Red, Brown and Black types, but decided against this as too many styles now span the divides between these.

Equally we could have tried organising this by beer style cluster – listing pale ales, then porters, then barley wines and so on – except that the overlaps and cross-breeding of styles would have caused too many confusing difficulties at the boundaries.

We thought about listing styles by country of origin, but soon realised that the borders between nations are fluid over time and that what historical allegiances are agreed rarely fit neatly with current national identities.

So instead, for now at least, we have ordered the ales primarily by strength, along the lines of session, sampling and sipping beers, defined by intent rather than by fixed and rigid percentages. We have then added special sections to cover Porters & Stouts, Wheat beers, Farm-Brewery styles, Spontaneous & Mixed Fermentation beers, and Regional specialties. By adopting these somewhat oblique distinctions we hope we have made a necessarily contrived listing look like a rather more neat and orderly way of seeing things than the subject perhaps deserves.

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SESSION STRENGTH ALES

Historically, in most ale-drinking cultures, beer appeared in three strengths. The lightest (up to 3.5% ABV) were made mainly for rehydration, the boiling that occurred during production making them a safer drink than the water supply – a role in which they were unrivalled until the coming of tea and coffee.

Most of the beer drunk in the world today is relatively low in alcohol (3.5-5.0% ABV). At this strength few will impress through the intensity of their flavour. Rather the trick is to create beers that entice subtly through more delicate but catchy attributes. The best are welcome companions to a session in conversation.

Successful session styles often feature methods found by brewers and maltsters to squeeze the maximum grain flavours out of malted barley during mashing, lacing the beer through with additional character from fruitier yeast strains and spicing with either complimentary or sometimes high-performance hop combinations.

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BELGIAN SESSION ALES

While Belgium is famed for its stronger ales, it also has a heritage of lighter one.  Given its reputation for inventiveness, more varieties may well emerge. 

See also: Witbier, Saison Légère, Grisette

Spéciale (Speciaal or Belgian Pale Ale)

The beer café Oud Arsenaal in Antwerp, Belgium is a cozy place for enjoying a glass or two of Spéciale (photo: André Brunnsberg)

A soft, gentle form of pale ale (4.8-5.5% ABV) in which hopping is typically low and spicing is absent, lacking the Belgian tendency to challenge while retaining the principle of balance.  Its origins are obscure but it was boosted in the early 1900s – some brands using the date 1900 in their names. 

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BRITISH SESSION ALES (English)

The Churchill Arms in London serves many cask-conditioned ales (photos: André Brunnsberg)

The unique fingerprint of draught ale in the UK is cask-conditioning, a technique that rose to prominence between 1860 and 1885, due to a variety of changes affecting the UK brewing industry and legislation affecting the licensing of pubs and the ways that beer was taxed.

In cask-conditioning, a partially filtered draught beer is racked into a barrel, or cask, at the brewery and delivered to the pub cellar with some live yeast still working the ale within.  By convention, such conditioning is regulated to ensure that the CO2 in the beer is kept at a level just above saturation, creating a beer that is low carbonation.  For best results it should lie undisturbed for a week or more.  Once opened, the cask should be emptied within 48 hours.

Beers design for cask-conditioning are generally malt-driven, with hop combinations that complement the grain flavours rather than dominating them.

See also: British Porter, Milk Stout, Oatmeal Stout

English Pale Ale

The earliest spotting of term Pale Ale is 1704, in a British newspaper.  By the 19th century Pale Ale was of regular strength (4.5-6.0% ABV) and might be bottled or draught.  Classically, the style showcased English hops in a beer mashed from 100% pale ale malt.  Its flavour by repute was clean and assertive, grassy but perfectly balanced, lacking the cruder hop kick of its more fêted sibling, India Pale Ale (IPA) .  It remained the favoured beer of gentlefolk well into the 20th century, served in an iconic stemmed and tapered balloon glass that showed off its polished appearance.  By 1960 it had virtually disappeared.  Its recent revival comes on the coat tails of American IPA, and current usage is more associated with craft-end Bitter, or paler ales with an English hop profile.

Bitter

The flagship beers of the late 20th century British pub were called Bitter.  The term first appeared in the early 1800s, when it was used interchangeably with Pale Ale, though restricted to draught beers.  Right up until the 1960s, it was less popular than Mild and often the preserve of middle-class drinkers.  Its lightest form (3.3-4.1% ABV) first appeared during the First World War.  The best are easy-drinking, hop-leaning but not hop-forward session beers, typically served in pint (568 ml) measures.  Brewed from pale ale and crystal malts, flavoured with English hop varieties such as Fuggles and Goldings, it should be both fermented and conditioned by an English ale yeast.  Invariably best when cask-conditioned, its USP is the amount of flavour packed into such a low-alcohol beer.

Best Bitter

The slightly stronger form of Bitter (4.0-5.0% ABV) is nowadays sold as the premium form of cask ale, with dabs of caramel, biscuit, fruitiness or lightly toasted malt.  In the past few decades it has experienced style creep, as “Blond”, “Golden” and “Amber” forms have appeared that can be indistinguishable if tasted blind.  Bitterness sometimes reaches 40 IBU and non-English hops appear more often than in regular Bitter.  Invariably best when cask-conditioned, its key feature should be drinkability.  Paler draught beers of this strength did exist before the First World War but were not mainstream. 

Strong Bitter (or Extra Special Bitter)

In the UK, ESB is a trademark for a fuller sort of beer made by Asahi.  Meanwhile in the rest of the world a style often termed Extra Special Bitter, or ESB where trademark issues allow, is growing in popularity.  Balanced and drinkable despite its higher strength (5.1-6.2% ABV), it should showcase English hopping and impresses most when there is a background taste of dark, thick cut marmalade.  It reflects more accurately the nature of Bitter beers in the 19th century. 

Mild

Malt-focussed and usually quite sweet, these relatively rare beers tend nowadays to be light in alcohol (3.0-4.0% ABV), though a few stronger examples remain.  In the time before the vogue for cask-conditioning, when most beer was left to mature in oak tuns for up to three years before release, the term “mild” mean “young”.  By the end of the 19th century Mild Ale meant a draught beer, usually brown, with relatively low hop content and typically around 4.8-5.6% ABV.  The alcohol content halved in the First World War and never fully recovered. 

Brown Ale

Sweeter than porter or stout and lacking their roasted character, or the hop presence of its American cousins, an English brown ale tends to major on caramel flavours.  Until recent years these were mostly bottled beers, some a residual form of the brewery’s dark Mild.  More characterful brown ales are starting to appear that have more in common with early 20th century Mild (4.0-5.4% ABV). 

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BRITISH SESSION ALES (Scottish)

Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh, Scottland brews traditional Scottish ales (photo: André Brunnsberg)

Most Scottish beers follow the style rules found in the rest of the UK.  However, a distinctive but elusive thread has run through Scottish brewing for centuries, influencing various styles.  The revival of older Scottish brewing traditions has been led by brewers in continental Europe and the Americas, who have created classifications of Scottish and ‘Scotch’ ales that many Scots find alien. 

The Scottish habit of naming beer styles by a price in pre-decimal coinage derives from a 19th century system of classifying beers by the cost before tax of a 54-gallon (± 250-litre) cask, or ‘hogshead’.  The Seventy Shilling (70/) style was a late 20th century hybrid that did not stand out from softer forms of British Bitter.

Scottish Light (Sixty Shilling or 60/)

Dark-coloured but light-bodied (2.8-3.5% ABV), this malt-based style with minimal hopping can have butterscotch, caramel, bready and lightly roasted notes.  Peaty and smoky flavours are nice but not traditional.  Rarely found nowadays in Scotland. 

Scottish Heavy (Eighty Shilling or 80/)

This malt-focussed, rich and grainy pale-amber style of session beer (3.8-4.8% ABV) may have slicks of caramel and toasted breadcrumbs, and a dab or two of butterscotch.  Hopping is restrained.  The style is slowly reviving in Scotland itself and is being mimicked elsewhere.  It is much improved by cask-conditioning. 

Scottish Export (Ninety Shilling or 90/)

Entirely malt-focussed with the role of hops limited to giving a bit of balance, this stronger offering (4.6-6.0% ABV) will usually feature grainy, toasty, caramel and fruity flavours.  Roasted and peated character are modern additions.  After re-appearing in North America it has enjoyed a slow, somewhat chaotic re-emergence in its home country in the last decade. 

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FRENCH SESSION ALES

Bière Brune

Regular French bière brune (4.0-6.5% ABV) differs from its English counterpart by being less sweet and way more estery, with bigger roasty, coffee, chocolate and liquorice flavours.  Traditionally a specialty of Northern and Eastern France, the best-known brand is Pelforth, from Alsace, which although considered in France to be an everyday drinking beer comes in at the top of the range in strength. 

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GERMAN SESSION ALES

While Germany is strongly associated with lagered beers, until 1919 many of the leading styles of beer in its northern half were ales.  After German unification in 1871 pressure mounted to bring these under the Reinheitsgebot stipulation, which was challenging. 

The German ales that have survived include to that after primary fermentation go on to be cold-conditioned for a time, plus a cluster of wheat beers. 

See also: Berliner Weisse, Gose, Grodziškie, Lichtenhainer, Dunkelweizen, Hefeweizen, Kristallweizen

Altbier

This clean, lively, well-attenuated, amber-copper beer (4.5-6.0% ABV) is associated with the Rhineland city of Düsseldorf.  Its malt intensity ranges from moderate to high but should be balanced with the bitterness.  It is found at its best in its home region, especially when served uncarbonated from an upright cask.  Some brewers create a subtly stronger version called Sticke, once a year, and a couple make strong bottled variant called Doppel Sticke (8-8.5%).  As with Kölsch (below) it is fermented at room temperature by an ale yeast before being cold-conditioned like a lager. 

Kölsch

The beer of Cologne (Köln) looks like a blond lager but drinks more like a light ale.  Because Kölsch is fermented by an ale yeast it is subtly fruitier than other blond brews, while lagering smooths it out somewhat.  The style is subject to a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), so the only beer that can be sold in the EU with that name must be made in a specific region around the city.  As with Altbier (above) and Kellerbier[TW8]  it is best appreciated locally to where it is made, served uncarbonated from an upright wooden cask called a Pittermannsch, into 20 cl tall glasses that are constantly replaced until you cap the flow with a beer mat. 

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IRISH SESSION ALES

Centuries of traditional Irish brewing were swept away in the 20th century by multinational brewers, all but erasing the memory of local beer styles.  From the 1960s to the start of this century, Irish beer was session strength blond lager, black stout or reddish ale.  Even the first wave of new independent breweries, founded in the 1990s, mostly emulating this range.  The most Irish have styles are the ones that diverged away from their English predecessors. 

See also: Irish stout 

Irish Red

A sampler of Irish Red at the Cotton Ball brewpub in Cork, Ireland (photo: André Brunnsberg)

Historically, pale ale brewing in Ireland differed little from that in England.  The roots of Irish Red can be traced to the 1961 consolidation of three breweries into a single entity owned in effect by Guinness.  Recipes became sweeter, prompting beer writer Michael Jackson in 1976 to suggest these might constitute a style of their own that he dubbed ‘Irish Red’ (4.0-4.8% ABV).  Larger brewers and some first wave independents still market this in Ireland.  Newer, smaller independents are less keen, though some have riffed on the concept and variations can appear with all-Irish ingredients, up-hopped, stronger, or even barrel-aged. 

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NORTH AMERICAN SESSION ALES

Session strength in the US is interpreted more liberally than elsewhere, as American beer lovers from the craft era are not great session drinkers, preferring to sample or sip their beers.  US listings typically quote 6.2% ABV as the upper limit. 

To a European palate the four main sub-styles – Blond, Pale, Amber and Brown – differ most obviously in colour, though brewers are starting to match different grain bills to particular hop varieties as assiduously as some chefs and sommeliers approach food and beer pairing, floating them off in different directions. 

The craze for haze that began on the US East Coast has impacted on disciple brewers in many countries, seeing beers deliberately hazed up with starch, proteins, dead yeast, hop residues and other adjuncts.  This undoubtedly alters the character of a beer but opinion is divided about the extent to which it raises or flattens it.  Marketeers often refer to these beers as “juicy”, for the similarity in appearance to fruit juices and the citrus or tropical fruit flavours from some hops. 

See also: American Porter, American Stout, American Wheat Beer

American Pale

Hoppy and refreshing are the keynotes of this session- to sampling-strength style (4.5-6.2% ABV), though in contrast to most IPAs a clear malt presence should balance things out and make the beer more accessible.  The hops used should be more aroma and flavour focussed, with less bittering, thus creating less of the full-on hop punch of an IPA. 

Session IPA

Differs from other IPAs by being weaker, with an upper limit around 5% and no lower limit.  The key distinction is that they feature high hopping, usually with bitter aromatic varietals, even when they are near to 0.0% ABV.  They vary in quality, dependent in large measure on whether the brewer manages to produce a firm enough grain base to support the IBUs. 

Cream Ale

With up to 40% adjunctive maize and sugar, this light-bodied, delicately hoppy style (4.2-5.6% ABV) is not seen as “craft”, even ardent fans describing it as a lawnmower beer for people who don’t like to be seen drinking lager.  It is the ale that survived the Prohibition years in the US. 

American Amber

Darker in colour and reasonably robust (4.5-6.2% ABV), the malt base nudges towards light caramel, while the hopping, which varies a lot in intensity, will tend to favour piny, resinous, dark fruit and floral varieties.  Balance is the key, the best being cheerful rather than shocking.  Some are termed Red Ale. 

American Blond

This gentlest of modern American ale styles (4.0-5.2% ABV) should be easy-drinking and approachable with initial malty sweetness, balanced and refreshing, making any individual statement through use of characterful fruity, hoppy or malty notes. 

American Brown

Set apart from other genres of brown ale by being noticeably though not aggressively hoppy, an American Brown should nonetheless at the same time be malty with chocolate-caramel flavours.  There is a range of strengths (4.3-6.2% ABV). 

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SAMPLING STRENGTH ALES

Before the global assault on beer drinking by anti-alcohol campaigners, the regular ales used in most cultures tended to be 5.5-8.0% ABV, sometimes stronger.  At this intensity a brewer to show off their skills to consumers seeking fuller flavours. 

Such ‘sampling strength’ beers have seen impressive growth during the beer revival of the last twenty years, though no longer drunk from large glasses.  The nature of these beers nowadays is determined by a complex interplay between European heritage styles, new North American trends, and the efforts of consumer groups, beer writers and social media to spread knowledge about what is out there. 

See also: Extra Stout, Sahti

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BELGIAN SAMPLING ALES

Belgium is rightly famed throughout the world for its beer culture, earning a place on UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.  Its many styles are often delicately spiced and cover all strength and varieties. 

See also: Flemish Old Brown, Saison, Witbier

Belgian Blond

Belgian blond ales are a fairly recent development, starting to arrive in the early 1990s.  They tend to be around 5.5-7.0% ABV, their character varying from intensely spicy to balanced and delicate.  Most are enhanced by refermentation in the bottle.  Ironically perhaps, they post-date the so-called ‘Belgian-style’ beers that American home brewers had started making by the 1980s, aping the spicy nature of some Belgian beers that were being imported, and dependent for their spicy flavour on specific yeast strains.  While neither style has much historical authenticity an interesting cross-pollination has occurred over time, with many Belgian brewers now using the same yeast strains to replace direct spicing of their beers. 

Dubbel (or Double)

Expect rich malty flavours, a bit of fruitiness and/or chocolate, caramel and a few well-behaved phenols in this brown beer (6.3-7.5% ABV) that is best enjoyed in bottle-conditioned format.  The term implies that double the malt is used in the mash, though 50% extra is more realistic. The style resonates with beers from other parts of Europe, such as British Double Brown and Italian ‘doppio malto’ beers. 

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BRITISH SAMPLING ALES

Before the First World War a typical British beer was ±6% ABV.  Temperance-supporting politicians used the declaration of war as an excuse to diminish beer; the inter-War period brought punitive taxation; the Second World War reduced production once more; and austerity in the 1950s staunched their revival.  A few styles survived these predations into the 1960s but only barely.  Only now are they showing glimmers of revival. 

See also: British Porter, Milk Stout, Oatmeal Stout, Extra Stout

English IPA

The essential components of the original IPA (5.5-7.2% ABV) were pale ale malt, English hop varieties and longer-attenuating British ale yeast, bringing a full, rounded character and grassy, herbal notes from the hopping.  The single heritage example, Worthington White Shield, is a notoriously phasic beer and British brewers more generally failed to exploit the rising interest in IPAs from the 1990s onwards, but for a few making attempts at the American style.  A few larger British breweries still use the letters to describe beers in the style of 20th century light Bitter. 

Double Brown (or Strong Ale)

A Double Brown (6.0-8.0% ABV) should be heavy, rich, malty, medium-dark, well-attenuated and enhanced by English hops but lacking the roasted character of Porter, the aged edges of Old Ale and the sweetness of a Scotch Ale.  In addition to suffering the indignities imposed on British beer in the 20th century, the style suffered further when the word “Strong” was banned from advertising in the 1960s, unnecessarily slapping down a style that can be a brewing masterpiece.  Early editions of Tynt Meadow, the new English Trappist beer, replicate the style. 

Burton Ale

Britain’s greatest forgotten beer style was championed on old pub mirrors that read, “Bass Pale and Burton Ales”.  Pre-dating even IPA.  Typically dark amber, fruity, full-flavoured beers (5.5-7.0% ABV), they ducked the assertive hopping of IPA, the caramel of brown ales and the roasted character of stouts, their key traits appearing in nuanced form in Strong Bitter. Their revival is long overdue.

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FRENCH SAMPLING ALES

The French brewing scene has advanced rapidly in recent years, with the country now possessing as many if not more breweries than Germany.  Ale brewing is now found across the whole country, following every tradition and none.  However, ale was traditionally the beer of north eastern France, produced mainly in the region between Strasbourg and La Manche (The English Channel) and featuring a particular style cluster found in a tricolour of forms. 

Bière de Garde

Bière de Garde translates roughly as ‘stored beer’ and is a term first coined in the mid-20th century to distinguish traditionally made French ales from the emerging industrial lagers.  This is not a style defined by colour, character or content, but rather by method. Beers tend to be of medium strength (6.0-8.0% ABV), to be all-malt and to share the common thread that after fermentation is complete, they are conditioned at cellar temperature – a sort of tepid lagering – for a minimum of 21 days under French law and often for longer.  This creates a smooth texture and fulsome maltiness that lasts through to the end.  Any sharp edges from ageing or cellar-like mustiness comes from poor keeping rather than intent. 

The Brune (brown) form of Bière de Garde tends to be malt-driven, the Ambrée (amber, occasionally Rousse) form tends to sweet and fruity, while the Blonde (blond) versions are more likely to be hop-enhanced.  A special, typically strong-end variety called Bière de Mars, traditionally made in March to see off residual grain stock, is intended for immediate consumption.

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NORTH AMERICAN SAMPLING ALES

See also: American Porter, Smoked Porter, American Stout

North American craft brewers, experimenting in the 1980s with assertive hop varieties from Yakima Valley, fell in love with the story of India Pale Ale (also known as IPA), the high-hopped beer exported from Burton-on-Trent to Bombay at the height of the British Empire, and took its name for a new breed of assertively hop-forward pale ales, brewed with attitude for an emerging and gratefully impressed band of beer fanatics. 

The beers created have little else in common with historic IPAs but became the standard bearer for North American craft brewing, so much so that a wave of spin-offs, some inspired and a few lamentable, has seen the IPA “brand” commandeered for use in hop forward styles of beer that variously feature darker malts, alternative grains, spicy yeast or just different volumes of water.  In the alphabetical list that follows we have ignored those made with fruit syrups and other adjuncts, as they appear to have disappeared as soon as swiftly as they arrived. 

American IPA

At its best an American IPA, sometimes distinguished as West Coast IPA, is an engaging, attractive, outspoken, classic style of hop-forward, resinous, sometimes slightly fruity, usually floral, sampling strength pale ale (5.9-7.5%) – a beer good enough to take on the world’s best drinks.  Some of the better-known brands have fallen to global brewers, whose over-employed cost controllers insist that brewers use cheaper hops, an attitude-defining tendency that distinguishes profit-sweating breweries from value-driven ones. 

New England IPA (or NEIPA)

This wonder child of the last decade began life in Vermont, as a deliberately hazy, khaki-coloured ale loaded with fruit esters derived from both hops and yeast.  As time has passed examples become so muddy that the term “Milkshake IPA” has been used for some, and the original complexities have been replaced by marketing efforts to create an alcoholic soft drink.  The hop recipes major on adding fruitier hops towards the end of the boil to avoid bitterness.  More characterful malts are avoided or kept low.  Some brewers have taken to hazing up their NEIPAs with starches and other adjuncts.  Some even add fruity substances. 

Black IPA

Originally known as Cascadian Dark Ale, the first dark IPA of the modern era was brewed around 1990 and sparked a flurry of interest and experimentation, particularly on the US West Coast.  Some can be tantalisingly close in palate to American Porter and American Stout, while others feel much more like a lightly caramelised IPA.  Where the style will sit in the longer term is unclear. 

Brown IPA

The genesis and future of Brown IPA are even more tenuous than those of Black IPA.  The difference between Brown IPA and American Brown Ale appearing to be the hop recipe – only. 

Red IPA

This mid-Atlantic take on Irish Red Ale is hopped up with American varieties and of a higher strength (5.5-7.5% ABV), with prominent toffee, caramel or fruity edges.  The name Double Hoppy Red Ale is starting to appear, poignantly lacking those three little letters, which could avoid a definition overlap problem. 

Belgian IPA

This hybrid style encompasses both IPA and Double IPA strengths (5.5-9.0% ABV), emerging almost simultaneously in Belgium and the US, as small independent breweries experimented with using spicy yeast strains to ferment IPA wort.  Early efforts were mostly horrible but some newer ones emerging from collaboration brews are better. 

Brut IPA

This dry variant of IPA rose rapidly, if only for novelty.  The original concept to ferment an IPA using a Champagne yeast or its equivalent, to create a naturally dry and intensely hoppy ale was sound.  However, the “equivalent” soon became an excuse to trial enzymatic fermentation rather than specific yeast types, leading to its popularity nose-diving not long after take-off. 

Rye IPA (or RIPA)

Replacing 15-20% of the malted barley with malted rye changes the grain character more than you would think, somehow allowing more aromatic hops to shine more clearly and accommodating even quite striking bitterness in this slowly growing, enticing style (4.5-7.0% ABV). 

White IPA

Deploying more citrusy hops to a higher strength wheat beer (5.5-7.0%) made with spicy Belgian yeast and dried citrus peel was intended to merge the appeal of IPA and Belgian Wit.  In reality the best are reminiscent of neither, a stand-alone style emerging slowly.

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SIPPING STRENGTH ALES

It is possible to brew and condition beers up to a strength of ±16% ABV without resorting to distillation, fortification or freezing out their water content.  However, brewing, fermenting and conditioning beers to above 8% ABV involves either compromising their quality or using clever, complicated or time-consuming techniques. 

Strong beers fall into two main categories – those brewed with simple sugars for the purpose of intoxication and those of great complexity, often with their origins in specific local traditions or market circumstances.  Here we concentrate on the second type. 

In the northern hemisphere most of the new grain harvest needs to be malted and then warehoused between August and October.  Traditionally this meant that grain stores needed to being emptied of excess old stock, so in many countries, traditions grew of harvest time or autumnal beers of sampling strength, and of Christmas, New Year and winter brews of high strength. 

Those beer styles that survived beer’s lean 20th century include many that are among the world’s most distinctive beers.  As lager yeast functions but does not impress at higher alcoholic strength, with the exception of Doppelbock, the best of these styles are all ales. 

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BELGIAN SIPPING ALES

Tripel (or Triple)

The name of this light golden, spicy-edged, malty, stronger (7.5-9.5% ABV) style of ale was not cited until the 1930s, but unlike Dubbel (Double), which has equivalents across much of Europe, is firmly Belgian in origin. The best are conditioned in the bottle and even the most highly revered have their body thinned by adding sugar to the mash.  Substitution of 15% of malt by sugar can be absorbed without ill effects.   The style is credited to Henri Verlinden, a brewer who assisted the Trappist brewers of Westmalle.  He began introducing Pilsner malt into the production of strong ale, Westmalle Tripel eventually becoming the first established beer of the new style. 

Strong Golden

Strong Golden ale usually sports an innocent-looking pale blond colour, but is more highly attenuated, effervescent and subtly complex.  The best examples feature floral hops and are bottle-conditioned.  The strength (7.5-10.5% ABV) is often deceptive.  The difference between beers in the Strong Golden and Tripel (Triple) styles extends to the habit of applying unholy names like Duvel (devil), Lucifer or Judas to the former and saintly names to the latter. 

Belgian Strong Dark (or Quadrupel)

The thumbprint of this impressive style (8.0-12.0% ABV) is huge complexity built of malty richness, dark fruit flavours, spicy edges but little obvious hopping.  Despite their weight, the best of these are dangerously drinkable.  Brewers in Belgium have made strong dark ales for centuries but by 1980, the most celebrated were associated with the Trappist breweries of Chimay, Rochefort and Westvleteren.  The term Quadrupel was taken from the brand name used by Koningshoeven abbey in the Netherlands for a beer first made in 1991. 

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BRITISH SIPPING ALES

Although punitive taxation on beer in the UK limited originality of its brewers in the 20th century, the country has nonetheless a rich heritage of creating stronger ale styles, a history revived nowadays more abroad than in its home country.

Central to that history was the largely defunct tradition of storing stronger beers in large oak barrels, or tuns, either at the brewery or on premises owned by beer merchants.  These became known as ‘keeping’ ales and were often designated by the abbreviation ‘K’.  Older beers became KK or KKK, roughly in line with their age in years, paralleling an older system of marking beers as X, XX and XXX depending on their strength.  The longer aged the beer, the more likely it would be used primarily for blending with younger beer prior to barrelling, a technique that survived on a small scale in one UK brewery and a few Belgian ones, and is starting to be revived. 

See also: Imperial Stout

British Barley Wine

A British barley wine (8.0-12.0% ABV) should possess great richness of character, with vinous or even port-like notes, though they lack the full-on aged elements of an Old Ale.  Their core can be earthy, floral or marmalade-like.  Most are dark, though exclusive use of pale malts can mean some manage to be deep golden. The best will age gracefully in the bottle for many years, and may be vintage-dated.  Hefty beers have long been produced in the UK, though the term Barley Wine has not been spotted before 1872, when Bass launched their No. 1. 

Old Ale (or Winter Warmer)

A proper Old Ale (6.0-9.0% ABV) should be dark and malt-driven, with some characteristics of aging, such as port or Madeira-like notes or even some lactic acidity.  Old Ales used the oak-aged versions of Mild Ale, in the days when these were typically ±6% ABV, the older versions being conditioned in oak for anything up to three years, developing a tart, vinous character from the build up of lactic acid and other products of ageing.  In 20th century Britain the term ‘Old’ became used as a marketing term for some slightly stronger dark Milds, which is misleading.  A few examples of the original style still exist but struggle due to the cost of maintaining a temperature-controlled chamber of oak tuns and the lack of familiarity of modern palates with aged flavours. 

Scotch Ale (or Wee Heavy)

Rich, malty and caramel-sweet with little hop presence, a full-strength Scotch Ale (8.0-10.0% ABV) makes a great dessert beer.  Originally malt-flooded, the 19th century likely saw it absorb caramelised sugars from new sugar refineries on the banks of the Clyde.  Peaty and smoked flavours are not an authentic feature of the style and most bottle-conditioning is inadvisable.  Strong dark ales have been sold in Scotland since the late 1700s and survived the 20th century in the export trade to Belgium and France.  The best-known domestic brand started as ‘12 Guinea Ale’ (or 252/) and became Fowler’s Wee Heavy, meaning ‘small & strong’.  The first new example came to Scotland with the opening of Traquair House brewery in 1965, arguably the world’s first ‘craft’ brewery. 

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NORTH AMERICAN SIPPING ALES

American friends and colleagues assure us that many of their fellow citizens take the view that if something is good then a bigger or bolder version will be better.  So it is with American sipping ales, which tend to be strong examples of other styles, versions with particular characteristics accentuated to an extreme, or else established foreign styles with lashings of American hops. 

See also: Wheat Wine 

Double IPA

Double IPA (7.5-10.0% ABV) should be hoppy, bitter and resinous, a fuller form of IPA in every sense.  Emerging from American craft brewers in the mid-1990s, it is not however without historic precedent, some 19th century British IPAs reaching the lower end its spectrum.  The oft-quoted hop content of a Double IPA is 60 to 120 IBUs, though above 100 perceived bitterness does not coincide with measured bitterness.  The terms Triple IPA and Imperial IPA, which appeared for a time, are falling out of usage, for adding machismo without meaning. 

American Barleywine

The American take on this classic English style (8.0-12.0% ABV) is significantly different from the original.  While the intense malt is still there the layered richness tends to be absent, extra dimensions coming instead from assertive use of floral or resinous hops.  Frank bitterness is not uncommon.  The conflation of the words barley and wine is deliberate. 

American Strong Ale

Hop forward, sometimes aggressively so, but balanced against a firm malty base, this heavy style (6.5-9.0% ABV) is best described as a like any modern American ale, only bigger.  It should lack the intensity and depth of Barleywine, have less bitterness and greater balance than Double IPA but be hoppier than the rest.

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SPECIFIC STYLE CLUSTERS

The range of beers that it is open for a brewer to create is almost infinite but to create both inspiration and direction, and to assist consumers with selection, inevitably perhaps particular clusters of beer start to exist and expand, earning themselves a special status for retaining a common theme while crossing into many classes of beer. 

Those that we include here are defined by their malt (Porters & Stouts), their base grain (Wheat Beers), their yeast (Lambics & Wild Beers), or their acidification (Aged & Sour Beers). 

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STOUTS AND PORTERS

Porter was brewing’s first rock star beer style.  First emerging in London in the early 1720s, the popularity of this dark brown, roasted ale transformed the nature of commercial brewing from a trade into an industry.  By 1800 it had spawned many forms and was exported around the globe.

Experts differ about whether there are or should be definable differences between a Porter and a Stout.  The latter word had long been used in brewing to mean a stronger beer but by 1750 was synonymous with stronger Porters and by 1800 on mainland Britain the types of beer named Stout and Porter were indistinguishable, though in other places, not least the island of Ireland, they continued to be used separately for different styles, though not always for consistent reasons.

Conventions invented since the gradual revival of Porter since 1975 cite it is lighter in alcohol and colour, and perhaps fruitier, with Stout more often featuring roasted barley, though historical precedent for this rarely survives examination.

One sub-style we refuse to list other than as a warning is Oyster Stout.  Different stories of its origins have it as a 20th century brew designed for pairing with freshly shucked oysters; a beer of Victorian origin rendered dry by filtering through crushed discarded shells; or either a true story or inspired hoax from New Zealand in the 1920s that had it brewed with shellfish as an ingredient.  Whether it should be sweet or dry depends on your preferred truth.

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PORTERS

British Porter

The modern British style of Porter has elements of ale-like fruitiness with a restrained level of roasted bitterness, ending with a prominent malt character and dabs of toffee, caramel and chocolate.  Its revival in the UK can be traced to Penrhos Court brewery in Herefordshire in 1978, the first recipes relying mainly on digging out memories and a few brewery records.  Some divergence between lighter (4.0-5.0% ABV) and more robust versions (5.1-6.2% ABV) is now occurring. 

Baltic Porter

Stallhagen, a brewery on the Aland Islands, brews a Baltic Porter with a hint of smoke in the flavor (photo: André Brunnsberg)

London brewers began exporting strong porter to the Baltic port of Danzig (now Gdánsk) in the 18th century, prompting brewers in Sweden, Finland, Poland and the Baltic states to start mimicking the style with varying degrees of success.  The Finnish version has always been top-fermented, as was the Polish until well into the 20th century.  From 1870 however bottom-fermentation became the norm in Poland and the Baltic States.  Modern versions (6.5-9.5% ABV) are rich and heavily caramelized with dabs of roasty bitterness.  Danish variants, at the lighter end, are sometimes termed Stout.

American Porter

Porter was certainly made in the US, particularly on its East Coast, prior to Prohibition, and maybe a lot longer.  It was revived in the early 1970s by Anchor Steam brewery in San Francisco.  Its modern version owes much to the enthusiasm for ‘more’, in this case meaning more grain, more brown malts than black, and more aroma hops, ending a tad stronger than others (4.8-6.5% ABV). 

Smoked Porter

Every now and then a brewer does something simple and creates a modern classic.  It this case it was the Alaskan Brewing Company, where a fraction of smoked malt was added to their Porter experimentally in 1988.  Since then as interest in craft beers has spread and groups of enthusiasts start testing out their palates, this unusual style (5.5-6.5% ABV) will sidle in as if it had always been there.  Whether smokiness was a feature of 18th and 19th century porters is far less clear.

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SWEET STOUTS

Until 1847 those campaigning against alcohol misuse in the UK were mostly opposed to drunkenness, which they linked to the consumption of ‘ardent’ (strong) spirits, seeing beer drinking as preferable and broadly harmless.  The next few decades saw them become more successful hard-line lobbyists.  By 1875 brewers were producing styles of Stout that were lower in alcohol and sweeter for not being fully fermented through.  Some were termed Invalid Stout. 

Oatmeal Stout

The use of oats in brewing dates back to earliest times, despite them bringing a sticky, porridge-like mess to brewing kettles.  The fleshy part of the grain adds a floury sweetness, while its husks can bring acrid bitterness.  A method of producing stouts and porters using oatmeal was patented in London in 1890.  Relatively light (4.2-5.6% ABV), fruitier, grainier, fuller bodied and more coffee-and-cream accented than Milk Stout (below), Oatmeal Stouts also take aromatic hopping better, explaining perhaps why they are enjoying a comeback in recent years.

Milk Stout (or Cream Stout)

Officially, Milk Stout was invented by food chemist William Melhuish and first produced by the Mackeson brewery at Hythe, in Kent in 1909.  Its name and sweetness both came from the inclusion of the non-fermentable lactose, or so-called milk sugar, in the mash.  Dark, sweet, full-bodied and roasted, Milk Stout (3.0-6.0% ABV) is one of the few British styles to rise in strength, and fall in sweetness over time. 

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DRY STOUTS

In Ireland, Porters and Stouts dominated the beer market by the end of the 18th century.  The Irish versions began diverging from their English equivalents in 1820, when brewers, including one Arthur Guinness, became early converts to the use of recipes based on pale malt supplemented by black malts produced in a new type of roaster, instead of relying on brown malt.  This difference largely accounts for why Irish Stout became drier, the more so after the use of roasted unmalted barely became legal in 1880.

Irish Stout

Known throughout the world via its archetype, Guinness, modern Irish stout (4.0-4.5% ABV) settled into its dry, black and fairly light-bodied form over the course of the 20th century, gradually dropping its typical strength from over 7% in 1914 to under 5% ABV by 1950, and just over 4% ABV by the early 1980s.

Extra Stout

To describe Extra Stout as a stronger version of a regular Irish stout is tidy but inaccurate.  Its higher strength (5.5-6.5% ABV) enables more breadth and depth, showing in a jet-black body, dark roasted graininess, moderate hop bitterness and a dark chocolate character that lasts to the end.  The backtastes might include biscuit, black coffee and caramel but it should not be fruity.  It suits a bottled format.

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STRONGER STOUTS

London brewers had begun exporting stronger porters and stouts by the mid 18th century and by the early 19th were regularly despatching these via the Cape to India, Australia and South-East Asia, to the East Coast of North America, and via the Baltic Sea to Russia, Poland and Scandinavia.  It was only a matter of time before European variants took root in the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Poland and the Baltic States, with others eventually arriving in West Africa, South East Asia and Australasia.

See also: Baltic Porter

Export Stout (or Foreign Export Stout)

Stronger stouts in the Irish tradition (5.6-7.2% ABV) can smell as sweet as molasses yet are dry on the palate.  Rich, almost to the point of oiliness, the flavour is strong and roasty, without tasting burnt.  Chocolate and coffee notes are fine.  They work best in a bottle or can, due to the higher carbonation.

Strong Export Stout (or Tropical Stout)

Richer than Export but lacking the weight of Imperial, this higher strength Stout (7.0-8.5% ABV) should display a dark, sweet, roasted, caramel-laced, sometimes fruity and overtly alcoholic character, with subdued hopping.  Legacy versions of this style, sometimes simplified and fermented with lager yeast, are to be found in the Caribbean, West Africa, Sri Lanka, Singapore and the South East Asian Pacific coast, being one of the stranger legacies of Europe’s old empires.

Imperial Stout

Närke Kulturbryggeri from Sweden is famous for their Imperial Stout (photo: André Brunnsberg)

Intensity is the key word in trying to summarise the character of what for some is the emperor of beers.  The best examples are not simply strong (8.0-12.0% ABV), rather they arrive with all guns blazing, melding together rich and complex, multi-layered, roasted graininess, English-pointing versions majoring on complex esters while American-pointing ones allow significant hop presence.  The history of the style is the stuff of legend, mostly.  Whether and when they ever enjoyed a significant home market is unclear.  The success of the style has in large part been the result of being seen as the ultimate challenge for a modern-day craft brewery seeking to explore its limits.

American Stout

Deep brown, highly roasted and unquestionably hoppy, American Stout (5.5-7.5% ABV) is unafraid of dark chocolate and coffee grounds backtastes.  Its full flavour can defy a lighter than expected body and its head should last to the end.  The boundary with American Porter is blurred.

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SPECIALTY STOUTS & PORTERS

Quite how far the tastes of 21st century consumers will go in allowing the revival and expansion of sub-styles of Porter and Stout is anyone’s guess, at this stage.  A wide variety of new sub-styles already exist, with a few appearing to have staying power.  A skilled brewer can pick ingredients that conjure the flavour and aroma of chocolate, coffee, vanilla, liquorice or even plum.  Others pitch in syrups and essences that do the same thing. 

For now the subdivision of these beers into specialist styles seems premature, as they represent either a skilfully accented form of an existing style, or else an existing style with stuff put in it. 

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WHEAT BEERS

In the beginning most beer was brown – but not all.  Some beer was white, or rather it was known as white.  Brown beer was brewed from malted barley, while a white beer mash contained a high proportion of malted or unmalted wheat. 

As well as for changing the colour, wheat in a mash brings a distinct grainy sweetness when fresh, dissipating with storage to leave a thinner, drier body.  Unfiltered, a wheat beer will sport a hazy suspension of flour.  In any format it will leave a sticky mess in brewing equipment, which can be difficult to clean off and risk infection.

The main wheat beer diaspora spread from northern France to Poland and south through modern Germany and Belgium as far as Austria, with a range of wheat beer styles that was almost as broad as of barley beer.

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SESSION STRENGTH WHEAT BEERS

See also: Berliner Weisse, Gose, Grodziškie, Lambic, Lichtenhainer

Hefeweizen (or Hefeweißen)

The Schneider & Sohn brewery of Kelheim can be seen as the origin of modern German wheat beers (photo: André Brunnsberg)

This distinctive style of virtually hop-free, cloudy wheat beer (4.4-5.6% ABV) is memorable for its banana, clove and nutmeg character, which comes from special yeast.  Wheat beers have existed in Bavaria for at least 500 years, the Bavarian Beer Purity Order (or Reinheitsgebot) of 1516 being prompted by brewers and bakers squabbling over wheat supplies.  At what point the specialist yeast were developed is less clear.  The modern forms of wheat beer owe their origins to the Schneider brewery of Kelheim, which began as a specialist producer in 1856 and now leads the world in creating new forms.  This cloudy version started to gain popularity in the 1960s.  In German, Weizen means wheat and Weiss (or Weiß) means white, the latter referring to its hazy appearance.  An interesting French variation is emerging that adds saison-like notes to the character.

Kristallweizen (or Kristall Weiß)

If you filter Hefeweizen you will remove its flour suspension, proteins and, many would argue, much of its character.  It looks a lot nicer though. 

Dunkelweizen (or Dunkles Weissbier)

German wheat beers are typically loaded with banana-like esters and clove-like phenolic edges, the darker ones carrying some light caramel or bread crust but roasted flavours should be absent.  The same strength as Hefeweizen (4.4-5.6% ABV) but likely more typical in colour to wheat beers of old, the colour being determined by the 50% or more the grain bill that is made up of barley.  Some German brewers distinguish between amber and brown varieties but we are not convinced this distinction helps.

Witbier (or Bière Blanche, Tarwebier, Bière de Froment)

Wit and Blanche mean white, while Tarwe and Froment mean wheat.  This simple quaffing ale (4.0-5.5% ABV) is made hazy by wheat flour and spicy by additions from the spice cabinet.  Common spices include dried citrus peel and coriander, though beers can be found in Belgium and elsewhere that contain many others in some degree.  Its revival came in 1966, when brewer Pierre Celis of Hoegaarden, east of Brussels, recreated a beer he recalled from his childhood.

American Wheat Beer

While German wheat beers are yeast led and Belgian ones a mix of doughy and spicy, an American wheat beer should be simple and light (4.0-5.5% ABV) with great drinkability, offering a platform for low-dose but nonetheless noticeable and delicate hopping.  There should be no banana, clove, coriander or citrus peel character.

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STRONGER WHEAT BEERS

See also: Schoeps

Weizenbock

Weizenbock (6.5-9.0% ABV) is a relatively recent arrival, in German brewing terms, dating from the early 20th century.  It shares the grain-driven body of a Dunkles Bock , but takes a banana and clove character from its wheat-pointing ale yeast.  These are not easy beers to make, the avoidance of cloying sweetness relying on decoction mashing and the fermentation temperature needing careful control to avoid a phenolic character.  That said, a well-made one keeps far longer than a typical wheat beer.

Wheat Wine

First brewed in 1988 in the US, in contrast to other wheat beers Wheat Wine can take a high hop content and taste frankly hoppy without going weird on the palate.  The best are complex and robust sipping beers (8.0-12.0% ABV), some good enough to withstand ageing in oak.  Its roots are in American wheat beer, with more than 50% of the mash likely to be malted wheat, though its ambitions are aimed firmly at American Barleywine.  It is not a style that has travelled much – though it should. 

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BEERS FROM OTHER GRAINS

See also: Oatmeal Stout, Rye IPA, Sahti

Just as wheat brings different qualities to a beer from barley, so it is with oats, rye and other cereals. 

The extraordinary German polymath, Abbess St Hildegard of Bingen, extolled the virtues of oats in brewing as far back as the 12th century and brewers in numerous countries around the Baltic Sea historically dependent on rye for brewing. 

The sweetness from oats can be more intense than from wheat, while rye can bring bring a spicy heartiness and balance out even the most assertive hopping in a way that barley does not always manage. 

German Roggenbier, from a rye lager, has enjoyed a small revival in recent years and in Estonia, where brewers historically used local brown rye for centuries, every craft brewery has at least one rye beer in its portfolio, with examples that include blond and dark lagers, brown and red ales, clear and cloudy beers, barrel-aged stouts and many more.

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MIXED FERMENTATION STYLES

After the new generation of beer lovers reacquired an appreciation of hops through the onslaught of IPAs originating in North America, and knowledge of the power of grain, through the emergence of stouts, wheat beers and others, the turn came for yeast to take the stage. 

The obvious common theme between Saison, Lambic and Oak-Aged beers is that their recent origins are Belgian.  The less well appreciated but more scientific link is that in different ways their fermentation and conditioning involves at some point bugs other than saccharomyces yeast. 

Naturally occurring, so-called ‘wild’ yeast are found everywhere.  They are even carried on the wind and land on surfaces.  Traditionally made wines and ciders would be fermented by the wild yeast caught in the skin of the fruit.  Working inside an oak cask, alongside bacteria such as lactobacilli and pediococci, the flavours that they can develop are variously sharp, tart, musty, tangy, rustic and indefinably ‘vintage’. 

Up until the latter half of the 19th century, these sorts of flavours featured routinely in stronger beers.  During the next hundred years, possibly driven by the arrival of cheap sugar from colonised lands in the tropics, public tastes changed to preferring sweet tastes over sharp, and only the very best survived.

The new-style “sour” and “wild” beers that have been trending in recent years, despite many tasting pretty horrible, derive their inspiration from these older styles, but by and large not their production methods.

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SAISONS

One of the earliest forms of commercial brewing involved the creation of breweries based on or near farms where barley was grown.  The addition of a brewery made sense economically, not just for adding value to the crop but for providing employment year-round.  In summer, when fermenting beer in open vessels would be prey to insect life, brewing ceased and brewery workers became farm hands.  After harvest they became maltsters and brewers once more.

Saisons by Brasserie de la Senne in Brussels brews traditional saisons with a postmodernism twist (photo: André Brunnsberg)

Saison is a so-called ‘farmhouse’ style of beer, which survived in various forms in southern Belgium and parts of Eastern France.  It would be brewed in the Spring for consumption by the workforce toiling in the fields in summer, for hydration, and likely some regular strength beer was held back for consumption between Harvest and beers from the new season becoming available. 

Being stored in sealed oak tuns for up to six months was not enough time for slower acting yeast like Brettanomyces to bring proper ageing, but other microorganisms will have had time to bring enough rustic edge to be noticeable.

Saison Légère (Light Saison)

The beer made to rehydrate workers toiling on the fields on hot summer days was likely so light (2.5-3.5% ABV) that it may well have been made from second runnings, the wort produced when boiling water is sparged through spent grain.  The dry version from rural Hainaut, which has a prominent hop character, likely has a completely different history from one with a sweet base of unfermented sugar, from Liège and other parts of 19th century Belgium’s industrial belt.  

Saison (Belgian)

This copper-blond ale style (5.5-6.5% ABV) is dominated by a hop-yeast combo that fuels grass and hay aromas, and encourages flavours that capture rurality in a bottle.  In modern times its fortunes changed in 1975 when the most appealing of the heritage brands, the recently reformulated Saison Dupont, made with five types of yeast at a brewery based within a cute-looking farm in rural Hainaut, caught the attention of early beer writers and US importers.  This spawned a new generation of Saison beers, held by some to have influenced the whole American beer revival. 

Saison (Craft)

Recent years have seen the emergence of a swathe of beers (4.0-6.5% ABV), described as Saison, employing a narrow range of specially cultured yeast and intricate production rules to create a slightly musty, occasionally frankly acidic beer that has taken on a life of its own.  Many have little in common with the 21st century Belgian classics, though some are good enough to spark some optimism and a sort of cultural exchange between this and the Belgian version is becoming obvious. 

A fad for adding fruit extracts to Craft Saison is fading (thankfully!), having distracted from rather than adding to the style.

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LAMBICS

The Lambic beers of Brussels and Payottenland, the mixed suburban-rural area to its West, have no known parallels in brewing history, to the extent that Lambic can be seen as beer’s “Third Way”.  Where Lagers are fermented by one type of cultured yeast and Ales by another, Lambics are fermented by naturally occurring yeast. 

Wild yeast are gathered by pouring wort into a large shallow vessel called a koelschip (literally cooling vessel) and allowing it to cool overnight by air being passed over it, before running it into oak casks, where it goes on to ferment for anything up to three years.

The naturally occurring saccharomyces yeast lead the fermentation, then handing over to lactobacilli and pediococci bacteria bringing a sharp lactic acid and citrus edges, before slow-acting Brettanomyces yeast strains bring rustic and vintage aromas and flavours often described as “old book shop”, “hay barn” and “horse saddle”. 

Draught Lambic is the base beer for a whole family of variants.  These simple brews with complex palates were for centuries the workaday beers of the Bruxellois, earning today’s producers a Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) protection order within the EU, ensuring that the terms ‘Oud / Oude’ and ‘Vieil /Vieille’ may only be applied to Lambic beers that are made by tightly prescribed traditional methods. 

The spirit of these designations translates into English as ‘Authentic’. 

Oude Lambic (Authentic Lambic)

A glass of Oude Lambic at Brouwerij Boon in Halle, Belgium (photo: André Brunnsberg)

Oude Lambic (4.5-6.0% ABV) is the building block from which the family of Lambic beers are created.  It is brewed between October and March as a wheat beer, using a large quantity of old hops that have lost their aroma, flavour and bitterness but retain their antioxidant properties.  After mashing, it cools overnight (as above), attracting microorganisms to its surface.  After six months in an oak cask it tastes like a musty cask-conditioned ale, going on with further ageing to become more wine-like.  While most of these beers are used to produce other forms of Lambic beer, they are sometimes found on draught, mostly in the area where they are produced.

Faro

The original principle of Faro (4.5-6.0% ABV) was that a small amount of sugar was added to a draught Lambic to provoke further conditioning and take the lactic edge away, and it is still possible to find a few such beers in specialist cafés in Brussels and Payottenland.  Most modern Faro is youngish Lambic, sweetened with brown sugar to make a slightly musty form of session brown beer, usually bottled.

Oude Gueuze (Authentic Gueuze)

Oude Gueuze (5.0-8.0% ABV), sometimes Geuze, or Vieille Gueuze, is perhaps the most astonishing beer style in the world.  Approach it unprepared and it may come as a shock.  The best pour clear and feature shards of tangy citrus against a sharp background, offset by those rustic and musty aromas.  Describing the character of Oude Gueuze in beery term does not work.  It is better to see it as a sophisticated form of dry, spritzy drink, akin to sparkling wine or the finest dry ciders, with grain substituted for fruit.  Oude Gueuze is made by blending draught lambics from different seasons, then bottling the blend in Champagne-style bottles, with a drop of liquid sugar to prompt some refermentation.  The bulk of the blend will be Lambic brewed 6 to 12 months previously, with the character coming from smaller slugs of beers from the two previous seasons.  Unquestionably it is an acquired taste, but one that once acquired is rarely lost.  Further, in the acquiring it, your understanding of the world will expand a little.

Oude Kriek (Authentic Kriek)

Oude Kriek (5.0-8.0% ABV) is another extraordinary drink.  It is made by steeping a large volume of whole cherries, with their stones, in a large cask of lambic for between four and 12 months.  The addition of the cherries, ideally one of the harder, slightly bitter varieties, has numerous effects.  Their fermentable sugars spark refermentation; their unfermentable fructose (fruit sugar) adds a little sweetness; the beer takes on an impressive deep red colour; cherry flavours and aroma shine through; and more subtly the stones bring almond-like elements.  Even the most heavily cherried, in which fruit take up 40% of the volume, will end dry to tart.  Oude Kriek is thought to be as old as Lambic itself, the habit of adding fruit being another way of adding value to a harvest that is notoriously short.  Its allure and rarity have sent prices sky-rocketing in recent years but have also underwritten its once fragile future, as the finest style of fruit beer in the world.  Note that beers labelled Kriek, without the word ‘Oude’ in their name, are from different and usually lesser breeds. 

Framboise (or Framboos)

The other fruit that has long been added to Lambic to form its own beer style is the raspberry.  Framboise (5.0-7.0% ABV), or Framboos in Flemish dialect, is not protected in law, simply because at the time it was made few authentic examples remained.  The principles are much as for Kriek, with whole fruit being significantly superior to juice, and incomparably better than syrup or extract.  The fruit is less easy to handle, for the lack of stones, and the colour fades fairly swiftly but its delicacy is a great asset.  Sadly, most Framboise beers are made by adding syrup to industrial lambic or other beers. 

Other fruit lambics

There are examples of top producers making authentic Lambics using apricots, blackberries, red and white grapes, plums, strawberries and other fruits, though there are far more examples that are made from syrup and industrial beer.

Industrial lambics

Mid-20th century corporate thinking concluded that the emerging public taste for simple, sweet things was a permanent change, so beers from a folk-craft tradition were often replaced with cartoon versions.  For Lambics, the result was a generation of beautifully presented, sticky-sweet, underpowered drinks retaining the name but few of the characteristics.  These are easily accessible and unusual drinks, which will likely last a little longer, but they do not showcase proper lambic brewing. 

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OAK-AGED ALES

The practice of ageing brown ales in oak casks has likely been around since soon after the introduction of hops to brewing, many centuries ago.  Before the days of hops beer would be oxidised to malt vinegar.  With the arrival of hops, brewers found that beers were better preserved, and even if they still turned acidic stored in oak, it took some months and when it happened, the tang was from the much more acceptable, tasteless and odourless lactic, which is produced by the action of anaerobic bacteria called lactobacilli. 

Even with the advent of paler malts, most aged beers have remained brown, as in the right amounts the pairing with background caramel and malt flavours found in stronger brown ales is far more interesting. Some variants do not see wood but instead get a light tang from the use of an open cooling vessel, with some exposure to ageing in steel, leaving them less complex. 

The examples that oak-aged beers that survived beer’s dull, homogenising, 20th century of uniformity were typically aged for up to two years in temperature-controlled cellars, eventually being blended with fairly fresh beer of the same type to create a skilfully complex balance.  Most of these were located in East or West Flanders, the westernmost part of Belgium. 

Flemish Old Brown (or Red Brown)

The shared characteristics of the aged brown and red-brown ales (5.5-7.0% ABV, from respectively East and West Flanders is that of a sampling strength brown ale with a distinct lactic tang.  Buttery caramel is fine, lightly sherried notes are allowable but any hint of vinegar should be barely perceptible.  The beers are aged in an oak tun (foeder or foudre) for between six and twenty-four months, at which point the brewer or an expert blender will mix the contents of two or more together and prepare the beer for bottling, usually by filtering and adding a small amount of unfermentable sugar.  Yeast is not added to the bottle as its job is already done. 

Other oak-aged ales

While a few oak-aged pale ales have been produced successfully, experience continues to suggest that it is sweet brown ales of sampling strength and darker beers of sipping strength that gain most from these efforts.  More experienced brewers in the field suggest that for the most positive results oak-ageing needs to occur for no less than six months and usually no more than two years.  One or two other heritage examples exist of blended beers featuring one aged in oak.  Recent years have seen brewers in many countries experimenting in reviving the arts of ageing and blending, some going to extraordinary lengths to build up a stock of oak casks and learn the skills and pitfalls of this ancient craft. 

Wood-aged ales

One of the common themes to the older arts of beer making, such as the deployment of microorganisms other than saccharomyces yeast in fermentation and conditioning, is that the phrase “not fully understood” crops up quite often.  This has not stopped some brewers believing that if you pitch netted bags of wood chips into a beer for a few weeks, it will mimic oak-ageing, because some recent scientific paper said it did.  Many tasters do not believe that is correct.  For now, such beers are termed, by convention, wood-aged. 

Barrel-aged ales

A novice may be forgiven for thinking that a barrel-aged beer will have been put in a barrel for the purpose of ageing.  This is not correct.  It means that a beer has been put into a barrel that previously contained some form of spirit or strong wine.  The effects of this depend to a significant extent on what kind of spirit had been there and how much remained.  Leaving a gallon of single malt in an old cask will certainly add pep to a beer, though whether this is any greater in quality or quantity than it would be were the same amount of single malt simply poured into the beer from a bottle is unclear.  Doing the same with casks formerly used for wines, fortified or otherwise, is far more hit-and-miss.  If the lees of old wine remain in the cask when the beer is racked into it, the result can be uniquely vile.  The jury is still out on whether or not beers racked into drained and dried wine casks develop characteristics from the action of residual wine yeast lodged in its walls. 

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OTHER SOUR & WILD BEERS

The current fad for sour and wild beers is a rebellion against standardisation.  While it is currently in full flood, what roots it eventually puts down are yet to be seen and much will depend on ironing out problems with rogue acids such as acetic (i.e. vinegar), butyric (rancid butter), capryllic / octanoic (stale goats’ cheese) and isovaleric (parmesan), flavours that rarely if ever taste good in a beer.

Heritage beer styles that have perfected the use of sharp edges, musty aromas, citrus tang and sherried flavours to enhance and complement more regular beer flavour components have mostly been around for a couple of centuries – which is a lot of practice time.

The main purpose of the various new methods of producing sour and wild flavours is that they cut past the time-consuming, risky and highly skilled parts, and allow use simple, easily replicated techniques to get roughly inside the zone.

One exception to the cost-cutting rule is the recent elevation of Kveik beers, as a category of beer made utilising a mixed yeast culture deemed to be representative of those used in a disparate band of farmhouse ales, mostly in Scandinavia and around the Baltic rim. 

Many international beer judges and writers hold the few heritage forms of traditionally acidic beers in the highest regard.  Equally they tend to acknowledge that there are a few newer beers that have started to show some promise, albeit inconsistently.  What is less pleasing is the fact that their creators appear intent on charging the same for these fast beers as are charged for their much slower and more accomplished role models.

Kettle Sours

One of the things that gets industrial brewing a bad name is the habit in large companies of prioritising cost saving over taste making.  While craft brewers are usually of the technical-authentic persuasion, the complexities, skills and sheer expense of using oak casks to age beers makes corner-cutting highly appealing.  Kettle-souring is a technique in which boiled wort is acidified, cooled, worked on by cultured microorganisms for a couple of days, sterilised and then returned to the fermentation vessel.  This is said to emulate the souring that occurs via the slower, woodier route and in some ways it may.  While a few kettle-soured beers seem nearly as good as authentic versions, thus far at least, many frogs need to be kissed before the occasional prince emerges.

Fruit Sours

Adding sweet things to sour things to soften their impact or mask flaws is a well-known principle in the food and drink business.  The latest example of this is the fruit sour fad.  With additives and extracts becoming evermore convincing, and sometimes delicious in their own right, we suspect it will not be the last. 

Brett Beer

The twin origins of the word ‘funk’ are from late 17th century England, meaning a strong or bad smell, and late 20th century North America, meaning jazzy, trendy or cool.  This double meaning helps when trying to describe the key characteristics of this new category of beers in which fermentation relies mostly on cultured Brettanomyces yeast.  They are definitely funky, though many to date feature acids that would persuade a maker of authentic Lambics  to pour the beer away. 

Kveik

Kveik beers came into being in 2019, following painstaking research by Norwegian beer writer Lars Marius Garshol, who has traced dozens of local, originally farm-based beer cultures in northern Europe, which depend on making beers from locally available grains, fermented by yeast that is skimmed and reused.  In the wild, as it were, they are often made to highly specific local rules but sharing a loose common theme of using much-recycled mixed yeast cultures for fermentation, often containing a soup of only partially recognised strains.  Whether this is transferrable to commercial craft equivalent remains to be seen. 

Blended or ‘cut’ beers

Many countries have or had lengthy traditions of blending beers of different styles, as opposed to different vintages.  For example, in Flanders, the term versnijbier (sometimes versnijdbier or mengbier) most often refers to a beer made by blending a Lambic with an Ale, with the aim being to capture aspects of two different styles that would be difficult to conjure through a single production process.  These are usually worth sourcing and trying. 

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REGIONAL SPECIALITIES

One of the virtues and curses of the internet age is the speed with which local traditions become global property.  There is likely no known local beer style that is not being reproduced as you read this, in home- or craft-brewing kit somewhere between Alaska and Tierra del Fuego, or Lisbon and Nagasaki.  However, while traditional local beer styles may lack formal protection from imitation or abuse, this does not stop geographical associations continuing. 

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BELGIUM

It is said that the reason Belgium, a nation of 10 million people, has so many different brewing traditions is that its lands were occupied by invaders over 40 times between the 11th and 20th centuries.  As a result many different ways of brewing were learned, without developing a collective sense of any ‘right way’.  Only its lagers are generally disappointing, 

See also: Blond, Dubbel, Flemish Old Brown, the Lambics, Saison (Belgian), Saison Légère, Spéciale, Strong Dark, Strong Golden, Tripel, Witbier

Grisette

This emerging light summer beer (2.5-4.0 % ABV) lacks much written history but is claimed to have the same rustic origins as Saison Légère but with a wheat base and likely a younger second cousin to a defunct, lighter form of Lambic, called Meerts.  it is said to have been popular in southern Belgium and parts of northeast France in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  The search for tasty light beer styles may spark its reinvention. 

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FINLAND

Sahti

This ancient Finnish style of home-brewed beer (6.0-8.5% ABV), often brewed with rye, enjoys the rare distinction of being a heritage beer style found mostly in only one country.  Typically it has little or no carbonation, is somewhat turbid and contains few if any hops, meaning that its relatively brief shelf life restricts its availability to its home region.  It varies in colour between yellow and dark brown and includes banana, juniper, rye and clove flavours, due to a combination of yeast effects and being filtered through juniper branches.  Light tartness is acceptable, sourness not.  It is distantly related to some of the other folk beers of the Baltic rim, more obviously Estonian koduõlu.

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GERMANY

From the time that Bavaria joined greater Germany in 1871 efforts were made to make all German brewing subject to the provisions of the Bavarian Beer Purity Order, or Reinheitsgebot.  In practice this was not achieved until 1906 and then broken again in 1919, though this is still credited outlawing a number of historic beer styles made locally in other parts of Germany.  As with much of history, this accusation may not be entirely accurate. 

See also: Altbier, the Bocks, Dunkel, Kölsch, Grodziškie, Helles, Märzen, Pils, Schwarzbier

Berliner Weisse

This light, tart style of wheat beer (2.5-4.5% ABV) comes, as its name suggests, from Berlin.  It is fermented through to dryness, with a distinct lactic edge but little hop presence.  It had been on the verge of extinction in its city of origin until revived by home brewers and craft producers.  The “tradition” of adding coloured syrups to it is a modern affectation, not dissimilar to adding a dollop of lime or blackcurrant cordial to an industrial lager. 

Gose

This sharp, session-strength wheat beer (4.2-4.8% ABV) owes its dryness to having salt added to the mash, though this is offset by judicious use of a little coriander.  It is believed to have been exempted from the Beer Purity Order in 1919 and remained available in Leipzig into the 1960s.  It spluttered into revival in the years either side of the fall of the Berlin Wall since when international imitations have proved more popular, ones with added fruit or vegetable extracts tending to be lower in alcohol, making effective thirst quenchers, and arguably worthy of a separate style.

Lichtenhainer

This light, sour and smoky session strength wheat beer (3.5-4.7% ABV) appears always to have been local to Thüringen (Thuringia), in central Germany, before and after the arrival of purity in 1871.  Mashed from lightly smoked barley and 30-50% unmalted wheat, it used to develop lactic ageing, revivals in recent years achieving this by an infusion of lactobacilli. 

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ITALY

The beer revolution in Italy has taken a distinctly different path from that in America and northern Europe, with birra artigianale (craft beer) being designed for the table more than the bar.  What began with a tendency to ape foreign styles with local tweaks, has developed in various ways, not least by using unusual ingredients with increasing aplomb. There is no fear of doing things differently. 

For example, since 1996, some Italian brewers have been dry-hopping blond lagers, with more recent variations using fresh hops, experimental hops and in some cases hops grown for special ‘terroir’, leading to the term “Italian Pilsener” gaining credibility in the US and elsewhere.

Also, if a single beer can lay claim to being a style, then Xiauyù and its variants, from Italy’s Baladin brewery, an intense barley wine main with three cycles of fermentation, ending virtually free of carbonation and with the of fortified wine, can make that claim. 

Birra alle Castagne (Chestnut beer)

Along with a few French breweries, the Italians have mastered the use of chestnuts to create rounded, sweet and nutty but earthy back tastes, offering a broad palette on which to build beers from mainstream to whacky. 

Italian Grape Ale (IGA)

A new Italian specialty that may well prove last the distance better is ales brewed with up to 40% whole grapes in the mash.  The style remains a work in progress, with experiments thus far including beers made with grape must, grape flowers, juice and occasionally wine itself.  The background beer may be made from a variety of grains and fermented by lager yeast, ale yeast or wine yeast.  The style is already being sub-divided into Red, White and Sour varieties.  A good one will show features of both wine and a beer, with neither drink dominant.  Character depends in part on the grape variety used.

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POLAND

Poland has one of the most vibrant and growing beer cultures in Europe.  Its brewers are gradually creating one of the broadest rages of stouts, porters and smoked beers anywhere, with more to come. 

Grodziškie (or Grätzer)

Pronounced ‘grow-JEES-kee-uh’ this light wheat beer from the Polish city of Grodziškisz Wielpolski – known as Gratz it was German-speaking – was brewed traditionally from 100% lightly smoked malted wheat, the character of which was offset by a sizable dose of Saaz hops.  The version made prior to its demise in the 1990s was typically 2.5-3.3% ABV, though the revived form tends to be slightly stronger.  International interest has grown, and with the demand for characterful lower alcohol beer styles may well continue to do so.

Schoeps

This heavy wheat beer (6.0-7.0% ABV) hails from the Polish city of Wrocław, formerly German-speaking Breslau.  Despite being brewed traditionally from a base of 80% malted wheat, it tends to have more of malty rather than wheat character, with little hop presence and none of the German banana-clove elements or Belgian spiciness. 

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REST OF EUROPE

Small production, traditional farmhouse-style beers have been preserved better in the Nordic and Baltic countries than elsewhere in Europe, though the tradition also spills over into the earthy, coarse-grained Dutch Kuit (also Kuyt or Koyt), a beer that can appear in a variety of forms. 

 

Pihtla Ölleköök on the island of Saarenmaa in Estonia brews both traditional koduõlu and more modern beer styles. (photo: André Brunnsberg)

On the Estonian island of Saarimaa, light, blond, milky, spicy Koduõlu bears a resemblance to Sahti , while the Swedish island of Gotland has smoky, bittersweet, juniper-infused Gotlandsdricka.  Lithuania has different types of earthy Kaimiškas, made with a fast-fermented mash to which a hop tea is added – some breweries using bread-like baked malt for the mash in a sub-style called Keptinis.

Norway has a tradition of farmhouse beer styles, collectively Gardsøl, with local names like Heimabrygg, Kornøl and Stjørdalsøl, tracing their origins to the time when the Gulating law obliged all grain farmers to brew ale.  The ancient much-recycled yeast clusters with which these are brewed are called Kveik, which has given its name to a trending craft style. 

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