Beer 101: The Basics of Beer
A Rainbow of Beer
Beer can be divided into two main groups: ales and lagers. Ale, the original beer, is brewed in a way that results in fruity, earthy flavors. Lagers make use of more modern brewing systems to be lighter and drier.
Pilsner — a crisp, bitter lager — originated in Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic. If you've had mass-market beer, you've had the pilsner style, but don't write pilsner off. If made properly, it's bright-flavored and snappy, with the backbone to stand up to spicy Asian flavors and oily fish, and an appetizing sharpness for grilled sausage. Check out German- or Czech-brewed pilsners for the old-school pilsner experience. Certain small American breweries have been making excellent pilsners of late as well.
Wheat beers are pale, often unfiltered (thus cloudy) and have fruity, mellow, crisp-edged flavors, well-matched for salads and fish. Look out for "white," "wit," "weiss," or "weizen" on the label; that'll tell you it's a wheat beer. They're originally from Belgium and Germany, though many American producers have begun making them in recent years. Wheat beers are sometimes served with a slice of lemon; you may also see fruit-based wheat beers such as raspberry lambic or kriek in specialty stores and bars.
Pale ale is a classic British ale. It's stronger than bitter ale, with more bracing carbonation, and goes well with everything from bread and cheese to fish and chips.
India pale ale (sometimes called IPA) is a stronger, more bitter version of pale ale, crafted during the end of the 18th century specifically to withstand the several-months-long boat journey from Britain to India.
Brown ale is made less and less these days; it's not as full-bodied as stout, with mellow carbonation and nutty flavors.
Bock beers are strong, dark and flavorful, with yeasty, malty flavors. They've got a roasted, caramely, barley-based sweetness braced with a bitter structure, and are perfect alongside pork and root vegetables. Doppelbock is even stronger, and excellent with bolder cheeses.
Porter started out in the 1700s as a blend of beers, blended for each individual customer according to his preference. As blending caught on in popularity in both Britain and America, breweries started to create their own proprietary porter blends, thus eliminating the bartender-as-blending-middleman concept. Porter tastes like a combination of stout and pale ale; it's less toasty than stout and less bitter than pale ale, and it goes especially well with stews, fireplaces, burgers and cold evenings.
Stout is what you think of when you think about Irish beer. It's black and dry-tasting with toasty coffee and chocolate flavors, a fluffy but solid head and, surprisingly, less alcohol than most other beers. Despite its foreboding appearance, stout is the perfect match for everything from raw shellfish (really!) to dessert. Imperial Stout is to stout as India pale ale is to pale ale: It's a punch-packing version of stout, brewed expressly for Catherine the Great in Russia.