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Introduction to beer styles


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As the modern range of beer styles has grown, so has the variety of sometimes quite beautiful bottles it is packaged in, as seen by this selection of Italian craft beer from Chicago’s Spiaggia Cafe.

By: Stephen Beaumont


As red and white are the main families of wine, so are ale and lager the principal families of beer.


Commonly differentiated by type of fermentation – warm- and top-fermented for ales; cool- and bottom-fermented for lagers (see What’s in a Beer: Yeast) – they are both generalized and occasionally overlapping families, but do serve as simplified categories for those new to beer. (The “overlapping” part arises when brewers force ale yeasts to ferment in cooler conditions, as would normally be reserved for the working of lager yeasts, and vice versa.)


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Just a few of the vast number of beer styles widely available today: (l to r) Belgian abbey-style ale, pilsner, porter, brown ale and hefeweizen.


Ales are the more ancient of the two families, having been in existence since the dawn of brewing, in comparison with lager’s 1,000 to 1,500 years of understanding, it not having been discovered until Bavarian brewers began storing their beer in ice caves near the foothills of the Alps sometime around 600 to 1,000 A.D.  Ales also tend to be rounder and fruitier in character, as compared to the leaner, more restrained flavours and aromas of most lagers.


As one might expect from their name, the word lager originating from a German term meaning “to store,” lagers traditionally require longer periods of conditioning than do ales, normally 4 to 6 weeks rather than ale’s 2 to 4 weeks. (Some breweries, both large and small, have been known to accelerate these periods, so that lagers are “fast-conditioned.”) The result is that even stronger, malty lagers tend towards crisper flavour profiles than would their ale equivalents.

With the exception of certain rare varieties of beer that are fermented by wild yeasts and the handful of styles that employ a hybridized sort of fermentation, all beers fall broadly into the ale or lager family.


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