The binary of "beer or light beer" has long since been made obsolete. The American craft beer boom has inserted dozens of styles into the popular consciousness, and more and more styles are being inserted without much of an explanation.
Some of these have taken off among beer fans, becoming favorites at local breweries. But for the general population, a craft beer menu can sometimes read like a foreign language. If you're not a neck-bearded hophead, you might've seen these names around, but that doesn't mean you know anything about the styles.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Beer culture is about inclusivity, not exclusivity, so we've gone ahead and created a Rosetta Stone. Here's our layman's guide to hipster beer styles.
What it's like: Twice — or sometimes triple or quadruple — the hoppiness of your traditional IPA. Also, a much stronger alcohol flavor. "Imperial" is just a beermaker's word for "it has more alcohol," so this explanation applies to any and all styles bearing that adjective. It just sounds more prestigious than "extra boozy."
How it's made: In the simplest sense, you're doubling all the ingredients. You need twice (well, probably closer to 1.5x) the malt to balance out the bitterness of twice the hops. Columbus, centennial, chinook, and cascade hops are most commonly used for their acidic flavor. Low-temperature fermentation helps keep off flavors from developing, and the brew often takes longer (see Dogfish Head's 90 Minute IPA).
Local examples: Steel Toe Size 11, Summit 30th Anniversary Double IPA, Big Wood Bad Axe
West Coast IPA
What it's like: Tastes like a liquefied lawn in San Bernardino. Grassy and refreshing. Malt character is an afterthought.
How it's made: Citra, amarillo, and cascade hops are the main ones called upon to make these floral beers. Base malt can be substituted for other sugars to ensure that the piny flavors overpower. Lotta hopping late in the brewing process.
Local examples: North Loop Brew Co. Foto, Badger Hill Traitor, Bauhaus Wagon Party (OK this one's technically a lager)
American black ale
What it's like: Also called a dark IPA or a cascadian dark ale and a cousin of the Schwarzbier, the black ale is not an officially recognized style yet. Often found on nitro taps, black ales mimic the velvety richness of porters and stouts without including the breadiness of the body. Black ales also draw from adjuncts like coffee, cream, and chocolate, much like stouts.
How it's made: Brewer's Friend notes that a black ale isn't simply a "hopped up porter or darkened IPA." Northwest hops are balanced with darker grains. Bittered with noble (that means European) hops.
Local examples: Bent Paddle Black Ale (and any of its permutations), Surly Blakkr, Indeed Midnight Ryder
What it's like: Hazy and thick, but the defining characteristic is the salt. Strong coriander aroma. Gose is technically a sour beer, but we'll get into what that entails a bit further down.
How it's made: Built off a pilsner malt, since this is a classical German style, after all. Rumor has it the Germans who invented this style originally brewed it with salt water, but now un-ionized salt is added to the end of the boil. Spontaneously fermented with Lactobacillus (again, see below).
Local examples: Bent Brewstillery Salinity, Excelsior MinneGose, Schell’s Goosetown Gose
What it's like: One of the strongest styles on the market, these beers co-opt the term "wine" because of their high ABV — typically 8% to 12% — and high degree of fruitiness. Goes down thick and with plenty of resin. All About Beer went long on the specifics.
How it's made: Brewing a barleywine calls for triple or quadruple the normal ingredients. Mostly simple, pale malts are used, since brewing with that much raw material is already a chore. A long boil drives the ABV up to where it needs to be. If you add a bunch of wheat to the mash, you get a wheat wine, which is a similarly burgeoning style in the United States.
Local examples: Lift Bridge Commander, Urban Growler 10,000 Plums, Fulton Patience
What it's like: Effervescent. Lots of fruit flavors. Cherry, blueberry, — shit, even pineapple — are common flavors to pick up in a sour, even if they're not brewed with the actual fruit. As the name suggests, there is a definitive pucker that comes with the beer, especially in the finish. If done right, this should be a dry, satisfying finish. If done wrong, it can wreck your palate for the afternoon.
How it's made: Flanders red ales, lambics, and Berlinerweisses are common varieties of sour beers, but any beer could be soured. Sourness is not a style but more of a characteristic, like bitterness or maltiness. Sour beers are wild or "spontaneously" fermented by wild yeast that lives around an unsealed vessel. Because of this, souring is unpredictable and needs to be carefully monitored for sanitation. This has led many breweries to "kettle sour" beers by introducing a colony of Lactobacillus yeast to a closed vessel and letting them up the pH therein. This results in a lower ABV, but the turnaround time is much quicker, and the other beer in the brewery is protected from outside microbes.
Local examples: Boom Island Oude Funk, Borealis Rood, Fair State Raspberry Roselle
What it's like: Similar to goses, smoked beers — or, in German, rauchbiers — have an ancient flavor profile that's making a resurgence. Like sours, smoked beers are not a style but a technique that can be applied to any beer, most commonly porters. Obviously, there's a degree of smokiness, not unlike a cured ham in some instances, that pervades. The Growler has more.
How it's made: Brewed with malted barley that's dried or smoked over an open flame as opposed to in a kiln, smoked beers are prepared in a way that's similar to southern-style barbecue or Scotch whiskey. Fancy-ass traditionalists may use hot stones to boil the wort to caramelize the beer, but that method is rarely used on the commercial scale. Non-fancy-ass corner-cutters use liquid smoke before the addition of yeast.
Local examples: Bank Beer Smoke Bomb, Mantorville Stagecoach, Lakes & Legends Preservation
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