How to Talk About Beer Like You Know What You're Talking About

January  5, 2016

If you recently walked into a bar or a beer store and had no idea what you were looking at as you eyed the menu or the long refrigerated cases—and maybe thought, almost desperately, I just want a beer!—you are not alone.

"Because of the changing landscape of beer, we rely on education," John Lapolla, the founder of the home brewing education center and store Bitter & Esters in Brooklyn's Prospect Heights neighborhood, told me, citing the endless boom of craft beer. But there's a beer for everyone out there, he urged; you just need to know how to ask for what you like. Resolve to make 2016 the year you really learn beer. Crack open a cold one and start reading—here are the words you should know:

Photo by James Ransom

First, know your ales from your lagers:

If you learn nothing else, learn the differences between the two main kinds of beer: Almost all beers can be filed under a "lager" or "ale" label.

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Ales are very flavorful—think IPAs, porters, brown ales, and stouts. A commercial example is Newcastle. But the most popular style in the world is the lager, which includes pilsners and bocks (commercially, think Budweiser), and are crisp and clean-tasting.

So how are there so many different kinds of beers, if they're all essentially ales or lagers? Yeasts! Different strains of yeasts convey different flavor profiles; for example, hefferveisen, an ale, owes its clove and banana flavors to its particular yeast strain.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Then, know what you mean when you ask for...

Dark beer vs. light beer: People tend to be afraid of dark or "brown" beers because they don't know what to expect of them—or think that they have a higher alcohol content, or are heavier. These things actually depend on the beer itself—and the darkness comes from the toast and roast of the grain (just like coffee!). A darker beer will have a deeper flavor, but it won't necessarily be heavy.

Malty: First of all, almost all beer contains some malted barley—and when a beer is "malty," it just means it has higher levels of difference kinds of malts, which are often rich—and almost umami—in flavor. And while "malty" is often used in contrast to "hoppy," beers can be both malty and hoppy, though many styles veer in one direction more than the other.

Hoppy: Many of us associate hops with a bitter beer, but almost all beers are made with hops, and a beer can be hoppy without being bitter, since hops also add "head retention, mouthfeel, aromatics, flavor," said John. "They're basically a spice, [and] there are over 250 varieties." So if you try one "hoppy" beer that you don't love, keep trying!

Bitter: Bitterness in beer can come from hops or malt—but the more hops there are, the more bitter it will be. If you don’t like bitterness, turn to a pale ale—or choose something very dark, like a porter.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

IPA: John calls IPAs (India Pale Ales) the gateway drug into craft beer. If you like pale ales but want to try something bigger, try an IPA, which are just hopped-up, super-flavorful pale ale.

Double IPA: Another style of IPA—but with double the alcohol and double the bitterness. It's very hoppy, and very flavorful.

Sour: Wine-drinkers tend to like sour beers because they are often a punchy, fruity, and bright (and refreshing!).

Wheat beer: Wheat bears (often called whit or white beers) are almost always ales and are made from a combination of malted wheat and malted barley. "The yeast is very important," said John, "and creates these really cool flavors—called esters—that’ll give you banana or clove notes." They're often brewed with orange peel and coriander. You'll generally find super-flavorful German or Belgian styles, or cleaner-tasting American styles.

Saison: Saison is a French farmhouse-style ale and is brewed to have very particular flavors often described, said John, as "funky": They tend to be peppery, sour, full-flavored, very yeast-forward, and not too hoppy.

Pilsner: A light lager from the town of Pilsen in the Czech Republic (many European beers are pilsners). Sometimes made with rice and barley, they're lighter on the palate, pale yellow, and very flavorful.

Porter: A fairly hoppy dark ale made with malt. John loves porters: "If you like darker foods, like coffee, you’ll probably like porter," he said.

Stout: A dark ale made with hops and roasted barley or malt. They're often described as "heavy," and are very similar to porters. Guinness is one of the most famous stouts.

American ale vs. Imperial ale: "Imperial pretty much just means high alcohol," said John. They're very similar otherwise.

Heavy: "Heavy" can describe both how beer feels on the palate and on the stomach. "The more malt flavors, the more protein and non-fermentables, and the more heavy the beer will be," said John. "There will also be more mouthfeel—it might actually feel thicker on the palate." A heavy beer does not necessarily have more alcohol content.

Fruity: Some beers are made with fruits, but you don't need to make beer with fruit to have a fruity beer. A beer's "fruitiness" usually refers to its esters—which come from yeast. The main fruit flavor you'll get is banana (in Belgian or German styles). Yeast can sometimes make a beer taste fruity (think plum or apricot flavors), as can hops (citrus, grapefruit, or strawberry flavors), said John.

Rare beers: A "rare" beer is often limited release. "Some kinds of beers age well—like sour beers and lambics," said John, "but because aging is expensive, you can't make much beer, so that makes them rare. Beer is best fresh, so a fresh rare beer is just one that's a limited release."

Aged beer: Some beers are aged just like wine—usually barley wines, lambics, geuze, Belgian beers, sours, and beers with higher alcohol. Hoppy beers aren't good aged because the hops oxidize and you lose the beer's aroma.

"Summer" vs. "winter" beer: Why are some beers marketed as "summer" beers, and some as "winter" beers? Seasonally, people like lighter-flavored beers for summer because they're thirst-quenching, while in the winter, we tend towards heavier flavors and higher alcohol for the feeling of warmth. But "Traditionally, beers have been brewed for the palate and for when it could actually be brewed," said John. "'Oktoberfest beers' are traditionally dark lagers because they were brewed in March and stored in caves until October."

What was the last beer term that stumped you? Will you print out this list of terms and carry it around in your wallet, like the author has? Tell us in the comments.

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Writing and cooking in Brooklyn.


Quinton J. November 12, 2016
This one of the BEST articles on craft beers, I am sharing it with my team ASAP.
Heather K. June 16, 2016
Lambics? ...and Geuze?
stevestroud January 10, 2016
Sorry, you lost me at "hefferviesen".
[email protected] January 8, 2016
Great article, but sooooo many grammar and spelling errors! Y'all need a copy editor!
Sandy C. January 5, 2016
You didn't say much about the difference in lagers and ales -- that the use different strains of yeast (rising to the top or settling to the bottom during brewing), and are fermented (and are traditionally drunk) at different temperatures.
Caroline L. January 5, 2016
thank you for this, sandy! yes, john did talk to me about how ales ferment at room temperature and lagers at a cooler temperature—i had no idea that lagers are a fairly new beer because of this (the advent of modern refrigeration)!
Sandy C. January 5, 2016
While 'lagering' in caves (and the bottom formenting yeast strains) Winter Sale&utm_campaign=Winter Sale Reminder Dec15 USA&discountCode= back to the 15th century, modern refrigerated lagering of beer started about 1860 (thanks Wiki).
Sandy C. January 5, 2016
Not sure how that link got into my post, can't edit it