Beer Styles of the World
Last Updated : 30/05/07
ere, for your delectation, I lay down my take on the beer styles of the world. This kind of document was almost never seen up until the 1980's when Michael Jackson wrote his thoughts on the subject and set off arguments which would rumble around the globe for years to come - is "Scotch" really a beer style, for example, and are the beers made with smoked malt really Scotch in style or are they just Rauchbiers... see what I mean?
America seems to be the place to discuss beer styles - being a relatively new brewing nation they seem to want to categorise everything that flows and there are very strict guidelines in use for judging beers over the pond - guidelines which, to a lot of Europeans, make little sense at all as they are written for Americans and not the people who actually invented the beers in the first place and know what they taste like! Have a look at the BJCP ones for instance...
However, it's getting more common in the UK to discuss what category(s), if any, beers fit into and so, to that end, I have decided to put down electronically what I think the categories mean drawing on my experience and that of a few trusted others. I think that those who are commencing their discovery of the gigantic range of beer styles which exist outside the UK will also find this helpful, mainly in a broad sense in working out what types of beers they will come across on their travels, and as I travel more and learn I will continuously update this page - if you think I've made any monumental balls-ups then please let me know!
Please note that this page is "work in progress" and will be added to regularly; I'll mark which bits are new and which have been updated as I go along.
Section one - Ales (top fermenting).
This style is realistically unique to the city of Düsseldorf in Nord-Rhein Westphalia in the west of Germany, and is a hybrid style in that (usually) the malts used are lager malts but the yeast is an ale one which gives the beer a very fruity – frequently peardrops – taste and complex finish gained from a moderate lagering time; couple that with the generous amounts of bittering hops which should be used and you have a very interesting brew. Unfortunately, a lot of large breweries make very poor renditions of the style which do it no favours at all.
|Colour : Deep brown||Body : Medium to light||Flavour : Toffee, sweet, bitter|
|Bitterness : Moderate||Sourness : None|
|Quirks : Easily supped, easy going, like a lager with a subtle fruitiness|
Classic examples : Zum Uerige, Zum Schlüssel, Schumacher and Im Fuchschen are the four brewpubs in the city and all make different, if very good, examples. Uerige’s is probably the bitterest whilst Fuchschen make a deliciously toffeeish and mellow example. All are good. Examples such as Diebels should be avoided as they have none of the proper character of an altbier.
Closely related to the Altbiers of nearby Düsseldorf, this distinct style of beer can only be legitimately called Kölsch if made in the city of Köln in Nord-Rhein Westphalia in the west of Germany; the brewers of the city succeeded in drawing up a “Kölsch convention” and registering the style with the European Union as a regionally-protected product; the stipulations of the convention are as follows –
Basically, it’s a pale beer brewed with lager malts but, in the style of Altbier, fermented with an ale yeast and lagered to develop some characteristics of both styles – a clean flavour with some hints of fruitiness. It’s not, in my opinion, as interesting as Altbier but there are some distinct variations on the style as described below.
Classic examples : There are four distinct styles within Kölsch; the bitter one brewed by Päffgen, the hoppy one by Früh am Dom, the malty one by Malzmühle and the new, hazy, micro-style of Bräustelle. None are world-shattering in flavour but all are worth trying; to me, the Päffgen one is the best with a lovely balance but lots of bitter hoppiness in the finish. There are, unfortunately, a lot of very poor examples brewed (mainly by the big brewery in the city) which taste like cheap lager.
|Colour : Very pale||Body : Light||Flavour : Lagery|
|Bitterness : Low to Medium||Sourness : None|
|Quirks : Can be hoppy or bready, but mainly easy-going.|
Belgian Flemish Sour Ales.
If you believe some people then there are two distinct styles within the umbrella of “Flemish Sour”, namely Vlaamse Bruin and Rood, or Flemish brown and red to those without a grasp of Dutch. I see where this idea comes from, but with the loss of many examples over the last 20 years – the beers are simply too expensive to make, needing six months minimum maturation in oak tuns, plus the changing tastes of drinkers who simply want something with a name they’ve seen on TV and without too much challenging character – I’d say it has become far easier to lump them all together under the Flemish Sour category and let the slight differences speak for themselves; to be honest, there’s not a great deal of noticeable variation between the beers anyway!
The basic premise of a Flemish Sour is that it’s a deep amber brew made from (ideally) plenty of Vienna malt and very little in the way of hops taste although there is some bitterness lurking in the background which shows hops are doing here what they were originally intended to do in keeping the beer infection free (although this may seem a strange thing to say in a style which actually tries to introduce some measure of lactic infection into the beer…!).
The major flavour, however, isn’t the usual malt/hop combo which we expect in most beers but a sour, woody (ideally the beer is matured in wood, but not all are these days) and quite musty character derived from a minimum six-month rest in a wooden cask or tun; obviously the larger the tun the less woody tastes the beer will have, but all should have this woody twang to some degree. Some measure of sourness is also imperative for any Flemish Sour (kind of obvious by the name, but I’m covering all bases with this) but the beer shouldn’t be as sour as a Gueuze, for example; the sourness should simply be one more part of the complex jigsaw which makes up these multi-faceted, interesting and sadly rare beers.
The rest of the flavour components vary between brewers but should include a touch of acidity (lactic preferably, although a little acetic is okay), a gentle sweetness with toffee from Vienna malt, and maybe some tannins from the wood casks – whatever the end result, if made properly these beers are some of the most complex and underrated in the whole world and one of my personal favourite styles. The predictable modern trend towards “speeding up” the 6-month+ process by chemically adding the sourness (it’s usually obvious as a harsh, caustic taste), using oak chips or even “oak extract” (harder to tell) and then by high-temperature fermentation and then short conditioning in the wood (if wood is actually used at all) has had the result of demeaning the entire genre of Flemish Sour and making a mockery of several brewers which used to produce good examples, such as Liefmans, but that’s progress for you.
|Colour : Deep brown||Body : Heavy, sweet||Flavour : Sour, complex, toffee|
|Bitterness : None||Sourness : Some, with acidity|
|Quirks : Intensely complex and challenging beers, yet soft and inviting. World classics.|
Classic Examples : There are plenty of beers claiming to be Flemish Sours, but not many that I'd want to drink. Liefman's Odnar is an improving weak brew for the local market, Rodenbach is still variable but can be nice and tangy, although I'd have to say that no-one can lay a finger on Verhaeghe for sour brown ales with any of them being decent, but a few are outstanding such as Vichtenaar and Duchesse de Bourgogne (provided it's aged at least a year).
Section two - Lagers (bottom fermenting).
Section three - Lambics (spontaneously fermenting).