Beer Styles Explained, From IPA To Pilsner And Beyond

It's time you learned your IPAs from your Pale Ales.

You’d better know what you’re looking for before walking into the beer section of a liquor store or sidle up to a bar. The options are dizzying, and if you don’t know the difference between a pale ale and a lager there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to walk out with something you don’t really want to drink (or pull a Scott Walker and settle for a commercial beer when there are far superior options).

While you may think “a beer is a beer,” that’s not at all true. There are tons of characteristics that distinguish one type of beer from another, so before you waste another dollar on a beer you don’t like, it’s a good idea to understand the qualities you like and don’t like in each style.

India Pale Ale, More Popularly Known As IPA
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Flavor: A strong hoppy flavor, with a slightly (or extremely) bitter taste.

Color: Usually amber and cloudy, but IPAs come in a range of darker and lighter colors now.

Strength: Typically 4.5-6 percent ABV, but some brewers have tried to recreate the original IPAs with an ABV closer to 8 or 9 percent.

Fun Fact: During the 1700s, when English troops lived in India, the typical pale ale brew most Englishmen drank would spoil before the ship reached the Indian shores. In order to prolong the beer's shelf life, brewers added more hops, which is a natural preservative. And that's how the hoppiest beer style was born.
Pale Ale
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Flavor: In the U.K., this brew has a strong malty and woody flavor. In the U.S., the hops are ramped up during brewing, making it a hoppy beer (but not as hoppy as an IPA).

Color: Pale gold to amber.

Strength: 4-7 percent ABV

Fun Fact: They've been brewed since 1642, when coke was first used as a form of fuel to roast malt. Coke (not to be confused with the brand of soda) is a fuel with few impurities, made from coal.
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Flavor: Strong hops (but not as strong as IPAs), softer malt, fragrant, and pleasurably bitter flavors.

Color: Light golden color and a notable clarity.

Strength: Usually 5 percent ABV.

Fun Fact: Pilsner is one of the youngest beer styles in the world, first brewed in 1842.
Wheat Beer
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Flavor: The flavor ranges greatly depending on wheat styles, but they're typically light in flavor, low in hops and have a yeasty flavor that makes them great summer beers.

Color: Just like the flavor, the colors range in wheat beers but they're typically hazy because of the protein in the wheat used to brew them.

Strength: 3-7 percent ABV

Fun fact: There are so many beer styles that fit under the wheat beer umbrella -- Hefeweizen, Berliner Weisse, Belgian Witbier to name a few -- but one thing that unifies all these styles is that they're made with wheat malt as well as barley malt.
Brown Ale
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Flavor: Brown ales have a higher level of malt, which makes them more earthy and less bitter. Flavors vary from sweet, to slightly hoppy, to earthy and malty.

Color: Dark, dark amber.

Strength: 4-8 percent ABV

Fun Fact: It's a very old style beer, dating back to the early 1700s.
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Flavor: Mild with notes of roasted grains, chocolate and toffee.

Color: Very dark, almost opaque.

Strength: 4-7.5 percent ABV

Fun Fact: Porters had almost gone out of style, being taken over by stouts, until Anchor Brewing Company brought it back in the '70s when it began to brew it again. It was the first American brewery to brew a porter post prohibition.
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Flavor: Heavily roasted flavor with hints of coffee, chocolate, licorice and molasses -- and no apparent hops flavor.

Color: Very, very dark with a head that is usually tan to brown.

Strength: 4-7 percent ABV

Fun Fact: Porters and stouts were interchangeable throughout history, but as porters started become weaker as a result of the World Wars, people began referring to strong porters as stouts. And so this beer style was born.
Sour Beers
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Flavor: Acidic, tart or sour. Sometimes fruity if brewed with fruit.

Color: Color varies greatly depending on the style of sour and what fruit it might be brewed with.

Strength: 4-10 percent ABV, check those labels!

Fun Fact: Wild bacteria and yeast is how they get their sour flavor.
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