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How is beer classified into different types?

Can the types of beer be arranged in a hierarchy with "ales" and "lagers" at the top? Are there beers that do not fall under either category or some that fall under both?

What are the divisions under these categories?

What are the defining characteristics distinguishing one type of beer from another?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 7 down vote accepted

http://beeradvocate.com/beer/101/ has a vast amount of information on beer styles.

To answer your specific question, an ale is top-fermenting whereas a lager is bottom-fermenting. Lagers are generally fermented at lower temperatures than ales.

I believe that lambics would constitute a third category, since they are traditionally fermented by wild yeasts, but opinion may vary on this, I don't know.

There are dozens of styles of ales and lagers and a few different lambics, but the method of fermentation is the main distinguishing characteristic between the three types.

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All (or at least most) of the fruit beers belong with the classification of lambics. –  Mien Apr 15 '11 at 18:20

Another Beer Advocate link: http://beeradvocate.com/beer/style

Those folks make a three-level hierarchy:

  1. Yeast Type
  2. Origin
  3. Style

You can see another structure emerging within theirs, however, in which descriptors are tacked on to a style. For example, you have an ale, a pale ale, an imperial pale ale, a double imperial pale ale, an american imperial double pale ale, etc.

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This is the most meaningful structure to categorizing the beer itself. The yeast will frequently tell you the most about how it will taste up front. The origin/style will tell you a lot about the mouth feel of the beer and what to expect for the majority of the time you're tasting it. Knowing a brewery also often will tell you a lot about a beer (in paticular if you're not referring to American watery-ales). –  mfg Apr 6 '11 at 14:53

The classification of different beer types comes from how they are made. The first distinction is top-fermenting vs. bottom-fermenting, i.e. does the yeast get thrown in on top and work its way down the mash, or is it the reverse.

  • Top Fermenting = Ale
  • Bottom Fermenting = Lager

In general, lager yeasts are more sensitive to temperature control during brewing and result in a subtler and cleaner flavor. Pilsners and most German beers are of this type. Ales tend to have a larger variety of yeast strains used, so don't have as consistent a profile as lagers. (There's exceptions of course, Schwarzbier is as dark and malty as they come.)

All other styles are a result of their ingredients, locations and histories. Most have a specific quality such as Labmics, which are a sour beer that uses spontaneous fermentation. Rauchbier (also known as Smoked Beer) have a distinctive smoky flavor and sometimes are actually smoked before bottling. (And, frustratingly, can be either a lager or ale before being smoked).

Beers that use Wheat as one of their malts tends to make another broad category of ales such as the Hefeweizen and Whitbier.

Not every category is so easy. You'll be hard pressed to find a beer expert who can quote the differences between a Porter and a Stout without speaking in generalities and flavor profiles. Similarly, since the naming of beers isn't regulated everywhere in the world what is one breweries "American Pale Ale" is an others IPA.

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Another aspect are the hops -- lambics don't use hops, which is why they're typically the only beer I'll drink. –  Joe Apr 6 '11 at 4:20
    
Ale was traditionally weak, but the description has more to do with the light style than the strength today. Porter was once a weak red beer, weaker than mild, originally designed for quenching thirst. In France, the only place still making porters of significance, the porter is around 5% nowadays, and the only red one still available is Killian, made according to the original Irish recipe of George Killian Lett. The Lett family ceased production of Lett's Ruby Ale in 1956 and live on the royalties from France. I remember a glass of Guinness porter in Dublin 1970 - can't get that now. –  klypos Jul 21 '12 at 23:33

In order of lightness/colour, with the palest at the top

  • lager, yellow, taste dry and light (yes please)
  • ale, brown, taste earthy and richer (yes please)
  • stout, black, tastes like ashtrays (no thankyou, well ok sometimes a guiness is required)

More here

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There are more types, for instance, wheat and rye beers.See http://www.beeradvocate.com/articles/351/ and http://www.beeradvocate.com/beer/style/12/ .

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