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Beer School: A Cheat Sheet to Popular Beer Styles

March 19, 2020

By October Staff, March 19, 2020

In our first installment of Beer School, we tackled beer basics such as hop varieties, the importance of proper glassware, and whether or not beer goes bad. (And ever-important question in the age of self-isolation.) Our next subject is style—the breathtakingly diverse family of beers from across the world, and their variations, which often blur the lines of what a given beer “should” be.

Because of this blurring, you could hardly fault a casual drinker for not being able to tell the difference between a kettle sour and an ale traditionally soured in a barrel, or for not having any earthly clue what even defines an IPA anymore.

Read on for the answers to everything you wanted to know about common craft beer styles.

A Regional (& Historical) Guide to American IPAs

In the kingdom of craft beer, IPA unquestionably reins. Although the modern style originated in the 1970s, few beer lovers began drinking it until the past couple of decades, and since then it has mutated into highly divergent (if not always consistent) characteristics. This article tackles four main regional styles.

Pilsner Goes Global: How American Brewers Are Updating the Classic Style

The beer that’s synonymous with Czech brewing has spread all across the world and found a new life in the New World. “In the early days of the US craft brewing movement, many beer makers avoided the Czech style as well as its German counterpart, choosing instead to focus on piney pale ales, roasty porters, and caramel-tinged ambers,” writes Ben Keene. “But as the industry grew and matured, American brewers not only found their way back to Pilsner, they began to give it their own spin.”

Dubbels, Tripels, Quads: How to Tell Them Apart

It will come as a surprise to many drinkers that there are no hard and fast definitions for Dubbels, Tripels, and Quadrupels, and that the latter term is more commonly used in the US than in Belgium. The names also don’t necessarily reflect alcohol content. So how can you tell the difference?

From Monastery to Mainstream: Belgian Beer 101

The abbey tradition is only one aspect of Belgian brewing. Farmhouse ales, saisons (think Brasserie Dupont) and sour ales are just as important as the Trappist stuff. Check out this article for a rundown on all that Belgian beer has to offer.

Kettle Sours Versus Traditional Sours

In short, a kettle sour is one in which the brewer adds lactic acid-producing bacteria to the mash tun (or kettle) before continuing the brewing process, as opposed to mixed fermentation—a blend of “clean” and wild yeasts that add sour character over a longer period of time.

Go Wild: The Science Behind Spontaneous Beers

“Spon” beers take mixed fermentation a step further by relying on wild yeasts that ride through the air, letting nature do its thang. As Anthony Gladman notes, “Spon beers are sour but they're also complex, not like the quicker kettle sours which can seem thin and one-dimensional in comparison.”

Farmhouse 101: Uncovering the Roots of the Rustic Style

As Aaron Goldfarb points out, from the beginning of time, all beer was, in a way, “farmhouse ale.” You took the ingredients you grew, you created the beer where you could. Saison is the best-known farmhouse style, but many brewers have embraced the idea of the farmhouse ale to capture a sense of place, using local fruits and other ingredients in their rustic brews.

In Cologne, Everyone Speaks Kölsch

While it’s still a bit of an underdog style in the US, American brewers are turning to this light, crisp German brew more and more. Take a virtual trip to Cologne, the birthplace of kölsch, where the beer is served in dainty 200-milliliter glasses to prevent it from getting warm and flat too quickly.


Photo by Evan Dvorkin on Unsplash

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