In early March of 2015, I found myself on a mountain, sharing a hot tub with nine other guys after a long day of snowboarding. It wasn’t long before the conversation organically found its way to beer. They talked about IPA’s, lagers, stouts, pilsners, and porters. They used words like “hoppy” and “dry.” Also, I had no idea what the hell any of them were talking about. It was just all beer to me. So, I did what any self-respecting NeverNoob would do: my homework.
Turns out, there are really only two categories of beer: LAGER and ALE. But, to understand what’s different about these, we first need to talk about exactly what beer is made of.
Up to 97% of your average beer is actually water. And, the mineral profile of the water used actually has a significant impact on how the beer is made. Water with higher mineral content (“hard” water) has a higher pH level, which calls for more acidic, darker grains, which produces something more stout-like. Softer water can be used with lighter, more alkaline grains to make lighter beers like pilsners.
Barley is the most commonly used grain for the production of beer; but wheat, rye, and oats are often used as well. And, probably other grains that I didn’t have the patience to hunt down. “Malted” simply means the grains underwent a process in which they were germinated in water for a short time and then kiln dried. This process allows the grains to produce enzymes and sugars, which will come in handy later.
Hops are the pine cone-shaped flowers that grow on the vines of the Humulus Lupulus plant, a member of the Cannabis family. Whereas the malted grains provide the sweet and smooth qualities in beer, hops provide the sharp, tangy spice.
In case you didn’t know, yeast are actually living organisms in the fungus family. The fancy-schmancy word is “metabolize,” but the truth is that their role in all of this is to eat the sugars off the grains and then poop out the alcohol and CO2. And then die.
The difference between an ale and a lager really comes down to two key differences: the yeast and the aging. That’s really it. Lager yeast ferments between 45° and 55° Fahrenheit, and is aged (a.k.a. “lagered”) for months on end, between 32° and 44°. Ale yeast ferments between 65° and 75°, and is aged for only a couple weeks at most, at temperatures between 40° and 55°. I think. Hang on, let me fact check that. Do-do-dooooo…yes. I was right.
I love it when Wikipedia tells me I’m not an idiot.
So, why does that matter? The higher the temperature, the more the fermentation process yields things like esters and phenols, which make the beer taste and smell more…yeasty. So from here, you should be able to tell what a beer is just by looking at it, or at least have some sort of ballpark. No? You want more? Well, just because I’m in a good mood, here’s what you need to know about the heavy hitters:
One of the most common beers around the world, this is exactly what it sounds like. It’s an ale (high fermented yeast – more fruity, clove-like tones), and it’s pale, which means its malted grains were only lightly kilned.
This stands for “India Pale Ale,” and originated in the 1700’s when breweries in England began exporting their pale ales to India. But you didn’t come here for a history class. IPA’s are basically super hoppy pale ales. And now you know what “hoppy” means.
If you see “weizen” or “weisse,” that means “wheat” or “white” in German, respectively. Wheat beers have a much higher wheat/barley ratio (up to 65%) than traditional barley beers. You’ll know them by their crisp, almost grassy flavor, copious amounts of carbonation, and tall, thick crown (read: a lotta foam). Lambic beers also fall into this category.
Stout / Porter
This is a dark, full-bodied beer. What’s the difference between a stout and a porter? It depends on who you ask. Just know that they’re basically synonymous and you can use them interchangeably. And if anyone argues with you about that, just ask their opinion on the Oxford Comma and quietly sneak away while they’re distracted.
Pilsners originated in the town of Plzeň, Bohemia, Czech Republic. Pilsners are made from Bohemia’s remarkably soft water, and their local Saaz hops, which give them that famously golden complexion and grassy undertones. I have no idea what I just said.
Originating in Germany, a bock is a type of lager that’s traditionally stronger, darker, and maltier than other lagers. After the aging process, some breweries will actually freeze the beer and remove the ice that forms, producing an even stronger bock. Because that’s totally necessary.
I think I hit all the high notes on this one. What?? You want more? Well, here are two more quick beer tidbits, but then I’m done. DONE, you hear?
Why beer is better on tap:
Basically, it’s fresher. They don’t have to pasteurize it like they do with bottled beer, because it’s kept cold in the keg and doesn’t travel as far to get from the brewery to your glass. Also, it’s force-carbonated, so it’s more aromatic and foamy, which makes for a better overall experience (they have to load up bottled beer with extra sugar and yeast to make sure they’ll still be carbonated when they get to you).
Why microbreweries are popular:
Let’s be honest. For the most part, people drink craft brew because they want to be people who drink craft brew. There’s no getting around that. But it IS better, for the same reason the special effects in Jurassic Park still hold up more than two decades later: the motivation behind it. Big beer companies have one goal: make a shit load of beer and market the hell out of it. Craft breweries have another vision: make great beer. Need I say more?
That’s it, you grabby knowledgemongers. If you came to this article as ignorant as I was, sitting in that sausage stew in the Colorado Rockies with a Rolling Rock in my hand, hopefully by now you’ve got enough of a foundation under you to hold your own when beer comes up in conversation at the next awkward social engagement you find yourself trying to figure out how to sneak out of. Now take your beer-savvy self out for a night on the town and start a fight with an Irishman. Or whatever people do at bars these days.
…or just join the beer conversation on Facebook. You know you want to.