The Beer Necessities

June 14th, 2011 by in Beer Culture

This is probably not necessary for most readers of this site, but I decided to spend some time going through the beer basics.  Specifically what the differences are between all the different types of beer and why you sometimes get weird looking glasses to drink said beer out of.

If you know all of this stuff, feel free to ignore this post completely, it won’t hurt my feelings (because I won’t know you skipped it.  If I knew, it would crush me).  I’m not going to go into crazy detail, which is weird for me, but just a brief description and the key differences.  Behold my beer-nerdness (different from my regular nerdness, which is also rampant)!

As any self respecting beer guy will tell you, there are really only two types of beer: Ale and Lager, and I am a self respecting beer guy (please feel free to replace “guy” with snob, dork, or –coholic).  The difference between them is the yeast; Ales use a yeast that rises to the top of the liquid during brewing (top fermenting), while Lagers use a yeast that sinks to the bottom (you got it, bottom fermenting).  In addition, Lagers ferment in colder temperatures and take longer to make than Ales.  These temperature differences meant that each type of beer flourished in a different section of Europe.  Ales being brewed by the English in their temperate climate, and Lagers being brewed by the Czechs and Germans in their chilly mountains.

This is probably the point where you are thinking I’m an idiot because there’s WAY more than two types of beer (what? You were thinking I’m an idiot before then…fine, be that way).  You are, of course, correct; within each of those two main categories there is a litany of different styles and I’m about to roll through the most popular ones.  Let’s go.


Pale Ale – The classic English ale.  Despite its name, it is not always pale, but a nice rich amber color (the name is a comparison to the really dark beers).  Pale Ales are known for their balance of malty sweetness, hoppy bitterness, and fruity undertones.  Most micro-brewed Ales (and most Ales in general) are in the style of a Pale Ale.  Variations of the Pale Ale include American Pale Ale (Sierra Nevada), English Bitter Ale (London Pride), and Brown Ale (Newcastle).

India Pale Ale (IPA) – This gets its own category because there are lots of these, especially among craft brewers.  This is a heavily hopped beer and all those hops give it the name.  You see, when the English were traveling back and forth to India for what I assume were pleasant vacations, the extra hops in the beer kept it from spoiling on the long journey.

Porter – A dark, reasonably strong ale that was originally created as a mix of expensive, aged “old” ale and darker, milder, cheaper brown ale.  Sounds delicious, no?

Stout – A descendent of Porter, this very dark beer uses some unmalted barley that gives it a slightly coffee-esqe flavor.  The name is a synonym for strong and was actually used as a descriptive marketing gimmick originally.



Pilsner – The name is derived from the Bohemian city of Plzen, where it was first brewed.  True European Pilsners are strong and have a sharp, bitter flavor.  The Czech and German pilsners were later brought to America and whipped into submission, where they became…

American Pilsner / Lager – Originally brewed as a traditional pilsner, corn and rice were later used in brewing to mellow out the taste for a post-prohibition American public that apparently liked to drink crappy beer.  All the best selling American beers are in this category and you may be surprised to learn that I think this category needs to be sent to a level of hell that is usually only reserved for people who cut in line at Walt Disney World (see I mentioned WDW, that counts right?).

Marzen – Some of you may not recognize the name, but you know it. Usually Marzen beers are referred to as Oktoberfest brews.  Amber, smooth, and malty but well balanced, martzen’s are some of my favorite beers (interested in the Oktoberfest story?  Well, you’ll have to wait until I do my Hofbrau post).


Wheat Beer

Wheat varieties can be either an Ale or a Lager and simply use some amount of wheat in the brewing process.  Usually cloudy and fruity, wheat beers are seen more and more in the US.
A quick word on carbonation:  Normally beer is carbonated using sugar and residual yeast from the
brewing process.  Major brewers add CO2 to beer to reach the desired level of bubbliness.  Awesome beers such as Guinness and Boddington Pale Ale use a mixture of CO2 and nitrogen to achieve a creamier head and smoother body (much more on both in future posts…ooh, teasers everywhere today).


Barware (what you drink beer out of) – not to be confused with Barwear (beer shirts) or Bare War (fighting naked).

I wanted to take a few words (or few hundred, you know me by now) to discuss drinking glasses.  Nothing grinds my gears like going to a bar or restaurant that brags about their fantastic specialty beer selection and then serves me my Belgian Trippel in a Miller Lite pint glass.

So here are the different types of glasses and why you should use them (other than to impress your friends).  Sorry, I don’t own all of them, so they don’t all have pictures:

Shaker-style Pint Glass:  What everyone uses (including me most times).  The real reason these are everywhere is because they’re easy to clean and stack, which is important for a bar.  They are easy to drink out of, but because of the wide mouth the aroma diminishes quickly, which makes them best for a light beer.

Imperial Pint Glass:  Looks just like a regular pint glass except that there’s a little bump running around the glass about a quarter of the way down from the top.  The little bump prevents glasses from sticking when stacked and improves grip.  Yes, that’s it…really.  These are what you’ll see in pubs in England.

Irish Stout Glass:  The wider mouth encourages a frothy, stable head while holding the narrow base limits the amount of heat transferred from your hand to your beer.  Perfect for Irish Stouts…obviously.

Handled Mug:  Again, the handle limits heat transfer and the thickness of the mug withstands rowdiness associated with German beer halls.   Great for a strong German lager.

Pilsner flute:  A narrow glass that tapers from the bottom up to a slightly wider top.  The narrow, conical design helps flood the
aroma into your nose as you drink.

Snifter:  The wide bottom actually increases the heat transfer from your hand.  Thus, you only want these for a strong, complex beer that you can savor such as a nice craft beer or heavy Belgian brew.  The narrowing top increases the amount of head and focuses the aroma.  If you really like to taste beer I suggest picking up one of these.

Wheat “Vase”:  What traditional German wheat beers are served in.  Are you going to argue with the Germans about beer?  I didn’t think so.





That’s all the knowledge I’m going to drop on you right now and yes, I know there is plenty of beer styles that I missed.  I’m going to warn you now that there may be some delays in my postings in the near future since my wife is insisting on having a baby (our 2nd) sometime in the next 10 days.  Don’t worry, I won’t lose sight of what’s really important, like writing posts about beer for free (wait, are my priorities messed up…no, that sounds right).

Feel free to chastise me in the comments below.  As always, you can find me on Twitter @brian_mcnichols where you can come not to praise me, but to bury me (what? A vague Shakespeare reference…yes I did).

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