By far the oldest of the two types of beer, ale production can be traced back more than 5000 years, yielding more intense flavor profiles. Depending on the brewing style, they can be their best when very young (a couple of weeks) to very old (several years).
ALE BREWING STYLES
A variety of strong ales, similar to the Trappist beers, but not made in monasteries although, in some cases, they have been at one time. The term "Abbey ale" refers more to a relationship with a monastery than it does with a specific beer style. The following sub-categories are just as hard to define clearly. There are considerable conflicting viewpoints about what makes a tripel a tripel and so forth. It should be noted that due to the great variety in abbey ales, some of them would not fall into any of the four sub-categories listed below. That said, here's our take on the usual suspects:
Single- Also often referred to as a blonde, singles tend to be the lightest in alcohol. They are usually under 6.5% ABV. Often golden, bottle conditioned, and just a bit dry.
Dubbel-Both dubbels and quadruppels tend to be darker in color, but vary in strength and flavor profile. Dubbels are largely malt forward, with roasty qualities. They typically range from 6.5% to 8% ABV.
Tripel- Probably the most pervasive style of these four sub-categories, tripels are lighter in color, yet higher in strength, usually over 8% ABV. It has been written that tripels use three times the normal amount of malt, dubbels twice as much, etc. True or not, tripels are fine examples of a light color/high strength beer style. Tripels can be very dry to very sweet, showing more range within their category than the other sub-styles.
Quadrupel- As one might guess, quads are the darkest and the strongest, with an emphasis on the malt. They tend to be a little harder to find.
This classic style from Flanders Belgium combines malty sweetness with a sourness gained from several months of maturation (usually in metal tanks). The most complex examples have a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Oudenaarde is the most famous producing town, located in East Flanders. Oudenaarde's water is low in calcium and high in sodium carbonate, which gives a particularly textured character to the beers. Typical examples of Belgian browns come in three ages and strengths.
Often aromatic and fruity-tasting, some of these are at a conventional alcohol content of 4%-5% ABV. Others are stronger. The most famous are the very strong ones like the deceptively drinkable Duvel, at 8.5% ABV. The name is Flemish for Devil. This beer has many competitors, usually with equally Devilish names.
Lambics represent the oldest style of beer (and beer making) found in the modern world. Specific to the Brussels area, this style resembles wine and champagne more than any other beer in the world. The name is most likely derived from the small town of Lembeek ("Lime Creek"), southwest of Brussels in the Zenne River valley. This is the heart of the Lambic region. A handful of breweries around Lembeek practice brewing methods which pre-date the culturing of yeasts. They gain their tartness from a content of at least 30% raw wheat in addition to malted barley, but their defining characteristic is the use of wild yeast, or "spontaneous" fermentation. Wild airborne yeasts, indigenous to the region, ascend upon open brewing vessels in attics of farmhouse breweries, where nature takes its course. It is not uncommon for Lambics to have a fermentation period of two or three years, and much of that time in wooden casks. Most of these beers have a conventional alcohol content, in the range of 3%-6% ABV.
Fruit Lambic- They are beers, and not wines, because the original fermentation is grain based (the definition for beer). The fruit comes later, and is an excellent compliment to acidity of the lambic beer style. In the traditional method, the fruit is added during the maturation of the beer, causing a further fermentation. The best f Belgian fruit beers have the dryness of pink Champagne, rather than the sweetness of a soda-pop.
Gueuze- A champagne style lambic. The carbonation is achieved by blending young Lambic (typically six months old) with more mature vintages (two to three years). The residual sugars in the young Lambic and the yeasts that have developed in the old cause a new fermentation. The most traditional examples will usually have the endorsement label of the organization De Objectieve Bierproevers. References to "old" (oud, vieux, vieille) on the label indicate a minimum of six months and a genuine Lambic process. Without these legends, a Lambic may have been "diluted" with a more conventional beer.
Straight Lambic- Straight Lambic is very rare (and hard to find). Typically, it is tapped directly from the cask in which it was fermented. With almost no carbonation, unsweetened and unblended, straight lambic can seem less like a beer and more like fino sherry.
Mainly from West Flanders, they are the more sharply acidic, reddish, half-brothers to the Brown Beers of East Flanders, with the additional difference that they are often filtered and pasteurized. The sharp acidity and some of the color is derived from aging in large wooden tuns.
Seasonal beers for the summer, but available all year round. It was once a poor-man's blend of several beers, designed to be a thirst-quencher for local farm workers. At 5% - 7% ABV, Saisons are regarded as "light" summer specialties (yeah well, compared to the typical strengths of Belgian beers...). They are usually amber to orange in color, and often quite dry, with a citric, peppery, quenching quality. This can be attributed to hard water, heavy hopping, spicing, or deliberate souring. Saisons are largely local to the French-speaking part of the country, especially the western part of the province of Hainaut. Many small breweries in the French-speaking part of Belgium make similar beers, not necessarily identified as Saisons. The style does not exist in the Flemish speaking part of the country.
(also Dutch) This term is properly applied only to a brewery in a monastery of the Trappists, one of the most severe orders of monks. This order was established at La Trappe, in Normandy. There are seven Trappist breweries, six in Belgium and one just across the Dutch border. Trappists who left France after the turbulence of the Napoleonic period established all of them. The Trappists have the only monastic breweries in Belgium, all making strong ales with a re-fermentation in the bottle. Some gain a distinctly rummy character from the use of candy-sugar in the brew-kettle. They do not represent a style, but they are very much a family of beers.White (Wit) Bier:
Witbier was originally popularized in Hoegaarden, a small town in a wheat-growing region east of Brussels and Leuven. This style is usually made from equal portions of raw wheat and malted barley, spiced with ground coriander seeds and dried orange peels. The fruitiness imparted by the wheat blends well with the orange and coriander. The style is further characterized by the use of noble-type hops. Wheat beers are identified as being "white" in several brewing nations. Wheat beers can be filtered, but less easily than those made from barley malt. They usually tip the scale around 5% ABV.
Originally a term for a top-fermenting beer. Classic Dusseldorf examples are copper in color, mashed only from barley malt, fermented from a single cell yeast, and cold conditioned, with an alcohol content of 4.7% ABV.
The lightest of all the German style wheat beers. This highly carbonated, low alcohol (3%-3.5% ABV), low hopped beer is most famous for its tartness, due to the combination of a yeast and lactic acid bacteria fermentation. Fruity esters are evident as well.
"Dunkel" means dark. "Weizen" means wheat. In addition to clove and banana-like esters, these wheat beers are also famous for raison and caramel flavors. More common in southern Germany, this style of wheat beer is highly carbonated with low hop character and brewed using at least 50% malted wheat. They're usually unfiltered, and if so would include the prefix "Hefe" on the label. They tend to be of medium strength, but can be as high as 8% ABV.
"Hefe" means "unfiltered" or "with yeast". Clove and banana-like esters produced by particular strains of brewing yeast are signatures of this style. German style wheat beers are highly carbonated, have low hop character and are brewed using at least 50% malted wheat. Sometimes they are called "Weissbiers", or white beer. This is a reference to the light color of the beer and head.
These breweries produce them: Westvleteren, Rochefort, Orval, Westmalle, Achel, Chimay, La Trappe Weizen Bock. All bocks were ales in the beginning. Weizenbock is the only member of the family that is still an ale, although it is usually lagered... yet not a lager. Those are two different things. Lagering a beer that has to do with cold-temperature aging (the German word "lager" means "to store"). Just about any beer can be lagered. But it's the yeast type that still dictates whether a beer is classified as ale or lager. Whew! Anyway, weizenbocks are amazingly complex beers, with cloves, bananas, raisons, and caramel in the flavor, and often over 6% ABV. As wheat beers go, they are stronger than most in alcohol. They range from buckwheat to toffee in color.
Often considered the most prized of all ales. With the strength of wine and the complexity of cognac, these beers show extraordinary richness, depth, and alcoholic warmth. Like fine wines, they benefit from aging, which allows their intense flavors to marry and deepen. Barley wines are very similar to English strong ales, but are usually set apart by more assertive hop bitterness and a high residual malty sweetness.
The classic style of British draught ale. Bitters range from gold to copper in color and are characterized by the presence of English hop varieties such as Fuggles and East Kent Goldings.
The lightest of the style generally having low to medium hop aroma, flavor and bitterness, low to medium malty character. These bitters aren't really bitter, with IBU’s usually around 20-35. Their strength is typically 3%-4% ABV. Sometimes also called "cream ale", when nitrogen is used to aerate the beer and create the "cascading effect" popularized by such beers as Boddingtons, Cafferey's, and Green King Abbott.
Tends to be more robust than ordinary bitter, often with a pronounced dryness. This is due in part to higher IBU's (28-46) and a bit more alcohol (4%-4.8% ABV).
Characterized by medium to strong hop aroma, bitterness (30-55 IBU), and a richer maltiness than special bitter. The combination of both the stronger malt (4.8%-5.8% ABV) and the higher hop value make ESBs the most complex and full-flavored bitter style.
AKA-"The lighter side of dark". They have a medium body, dry to sweet maltiness, and very little hop flavor or aroma. Often called nut-browns, though they contain none, they are typically around 5% ABV.
England: The stars of the hop world. As with a number of brewing styles, IPA was born out of necessity. When the British were colonizing India, the beers they sent down to their troops kept spoiling during the long sea voyage. With an extra healthy dose of hops and alcohol (40-65 IBU and 5% -7.5% ABV respectively), both having great preservative value, their problems were solved, and the world had another distinctive beer style. Today, American craft brewers do more than emulate the style. They continue to push the envelope with strength and bitterness. Curiously, it's much harder to find a true IPA from England these days, with a few notable exceptions, which we will feature.
Traditionally golden to copper in color, pale ales have low to medium maltiness, with English hop varieties providing flavor and bitterness. Pale ales are not really "pale". The term was originally used to distinguish these ales from porters and stouts. They tend to have a bit more assertive flavors than most beers in the "Bitters" category.
Porters were the first beer style in the world to achieve national distribution, due to the industrial revolution. The style can be dated to the early 1700's. It has been argued that porter takes its name from the train porters who used to sell their beer throughout the early British rail system. Another notion is that porter was first produced on a commercial scale in London on the River Thames, where it was sent out on ships bound for other port towns. The darkness of the beer covered up cloudiness and the roasty full flavor helped mask flavor defects. These were helpful beer style characteristics during a period when problems with consistency in brewing were commonplace. Today, porters range from 4% -6.5% ABV, and 20-40 IBU.
Medium roasted malt and caramel/chocolate character, moderate bitterness, and generally a mild oatmeal flavor. The addition of oatmeal to a stout sometimes produces a silky texture. 4%-6% ABV on average.
A style which has only about 3.75% ABV in its domestic market but more than 5% in the Americas. Sweet stout usually contains milk sugars (lactose), and is a soothing restorative. Very low hops (15-25 IBU).
Often referred to as old ales due to a long aging process that smooths the alcohol flavors and maltiness. Strong ales range from amber to brown in color, and can reach potencies of 11% ABV.
Fairly high in alcohol (6%-8% ABV) and flavor intensity. Scotch ales are overwhelmingly malty and full-bodied, with a clean and balanced alcohol flavor, and very low hop profile (25-35 IBU). They are often peaty or smoky in character and may have a fruity aroma or flavor.
Similar in appearance, but much lighter in body and strength than their big brothers, the Scotch ales, Scottish ales are golden amber to brown in color and are characterized by malty caramel flavors.
Light in body, low in alcohol, very low bitterness (9-20 IBU's)
Stronger malt character and slightly higher in alcohol than Scottish light ales (3.5%-4% ABV), heavy ales are balanced with perceptible bitterness.
More robust than Scottish heavy ales. (4.5% ABV, 15-25 IBU's)
Lower in alcohol (3.8%-5% ABV), exhibiting a dry roasted bitterness in the finish from roasted barley. They are famous for their head retention. Dry stouts sometimes contain roasted unmalted barley. This is the style most commonly associated with the nitrogen-cascading head effect.
Bier de Garde:
Often bronze or amber. Originally a strong, top-fermenting, bottle-conditioned brew intended for cellaring. May have caramel flavors from long boil. Today, they are often bottom-fermented and filtered. 4.4%-7.5% ABV.
Like Irish dry stout, there is very little hop perception, even though the IBU's might be substantial (30-60). There is a little dry-roasted bitterness from the malt. The alcohol is considerably higher, at 6%-7.5% ABV.
Typical alcohol contents exceed 8% ABV, with an extremely rich malty flavor balanced by assertive hopping, and a fruity-ester character. Originally brewed as a winter warmer, for sale in the Tsarist Russian Empire. It is medium dry and distinguished by its great strength.
Countries vary: Generally amber to brown in color and are brewed with ale or lager yeast. They are brewed seasonally as a way for the brewerS to express their appreciation and love of beer. Winter warmers often exhibit strong and complex maltiness along with low to assertive hop characters. Spices and other special ingredients are often added to increase complexity. They are typically rather potent.