Today, we're excerpting from the book What's the Difference?: Recreational Culinary Reference for the Curious and Confused by Brette Warshaw. Copyright © 2021 by Brette Warshaw. Published by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
Almost all of the beer in the world can be broken down into two categories: ales and lagers. If you’ve sampled the array of brews on offer at your local bodega, you’re likely familiar with the difference already: lagers are the crisp chuggables like Budweiser and Miller Light, while ales are the richer, more full-flavored beers like stouts, IPAs, and saisons.
While there are many variables in beer-making—including the kind of grains the beer is made with (Budweiser has rice in it!) and the quantity and type of hops (some taste kind of like weed!)—the functional difference between the two categories lies in the strain of yeast used to make them.
Like wine, bread, and pickles, beer relies on yeast for fermentation: it’s how the sugars in the malted grain (grain that’s started to sprout) get converted into alcohol. The yeast used in ales, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, thrives at warm-ish temperatures (around 70°F) and rises to the top of the liquid as it ferments. Lager yeast, Saccharomyces pastorianus, sinks to the bottom of the liquid as it ferments and works slower and at a cooler temperature (50°F) than ale yeast. Lagers were originally fermented in caves during the cold months and consumed in the spring, when the weather warmed up and the yeast was done with its job. That’s why lagers are called lagers—the name comes from the German word lagern, which means “to store.”
The advent of refrigeration and their thirst-quenching capabilities have made lagers the dominant global style of beer. But they’re more expensive to make: you need time, storage, and a cooling system. That’s why craft breweries almost exclusively produce ales—they’re less of a cash suck than lagers and can be fermented, hopped, and canned in just a few weeks.
Now that you’ve got ales and lagers down, here are some of the more common (and confusing!) types of beer you’ll come across.
IPAs (India Pale Ales)
Dudes who fancy themselves connoisseurs love an IPA: a type of amber-colored ale that gets its flavor from hops, a cone- shaped flower related to cannabis. Depending on the type of hops used and when in the brewing process they’re added, they can lend bitter, citrusy, floral, herbal, and/or piney notes to the final product. When it comes to ABV, these beers can get you pretty drunk: the lower-alcohol varieties are around 4 to 6 percent, but double IPAs—which have a higher hop concentration—can get as high as 10 percent. Brace yourself.
Pale ales strike a balance between malt and hops, rendering a more medium-bodied beer. They also have a lower ABV than IPAs—around 4 to 7 percent—which makes it easier to drink more of them.
Saisons (Farmhouse Ales)
Saisons, which range from pale orange to deep amber in color, hail from Belgium. They were traditionally brewed at the end of the cold season before refrigeration was a thing, which meant they had to be both hardy enough to last the summer and thirst-quenching enough to drink in the heat. The result: a fruity, citrusy, perky brew with some malty and hoppy flavors in the mix.
Pilsners are lagers with additional hops, which give them more flavor than Bud Light or PBR. The original pilsners are Czech and are darker and more bitter than the ones from Germany, which are sometimes referred to as “Pils.”
Wheat beers include at least 50 percent wheat in the malt mix, giving the brew a fruity, floral, yeasty flavor. The protein in the wheat also makes the beer cloudy and lighter in color than many other ales. These are on the lower end of the ABV scale— around 3 to 7 percent—and are great summer beers: the citrus- banana notes and relative lightness make them particularly refreshing.
The most famous stout out there is Guinness, the dark, Irish export sucked down in pubs named McGilligan’s and McGinley’s and McGraw’s around the world. But before Arthur Guinness created his namesake beer, he popularized the porter.
The original porter was born in the early 1700s in London, supposedly the result of blending stale beer with fresh, hoppy ales to make something pleasant to drink. The brew was eventually reverse engineered to create a standalone version and made famous by Guinness at the end of the century. These days, modern English porters come in two styles: brown and robust. Brown porters are more malty than hoppy, with hints of caramel and chocolate, while robust porters are stronger, with roasted-coffee flavors and a darker color.
Back to eighteenth-century Britain. In the late 1700s, Arthur Guinness started tinkering with the porter recipe, aiming for something darker, stronger, and “stouter.” The result: stout, a dark brown–to-black beer with more depth than its older sibling, thanks to roasted barley in the grain mix. Now, stouts can run the spectrum of dry to sweet, but you’ll get hints of chocolate, toffee, and coffee in all of them. The carbonation is typically low, so the carbon dioxide gets supplemented with nitrogen, giving the beer finer bubbles and a creamier mouthfeel.
Seems simple, right? Never. Because over the past ten years, people started using the terms “stout” and “porter” interchangeably to refer to any dark, richly flavored style of beer. Now, some robust porters contain a fair amount of roasted barley, and one brewery’s porter could be stronger than another brewery’s stout. Good news: if you’re into one type, you’ll probably like the other, so best to just taste around and see what you like best.