Although every beer is unique, beers are typically grouped together under a "style" designator. Beer styles are defined by set characteristics including flavour profile, colour, alcohol by volume, as well as any special techniques and ingredients used.
At the end of the day however, brewing beer is a mixture of science and art, and while some brewers may stick to traditional style guidelines, others revel in experimentation, and aim to create unique brews that push the boundaries to what beer can be.
Styles are helpful for brewers and drinkers alike. For brewers, styles can act as an initial blueprint for a new brew, and help the brewery efficiently communicate the beer’s concept to their fans, while the beer drinker benefits from knowing what to expect. Styles are also important in the beer competition world, to ensure that a beer is being judged fairly against similar brews.
BUT WHAT MAKES A STYLE?
It’s clear that a stout looks and tastes different from a golden lager, but what makes a West Coast IPA different from a New England IPA?
It all comes down to the beer recipe. At its simplest, beer is made up of grain, hops and yeast water, and the amounts and varieties of those used can affect the flavor, color and ABV of beer. Every single beer – even those within the same style – is unique due to the composition of their original ingredients. On occasion however, a brewer goes beyond established norms and creates a beer that’s difficult to categorize.
An innovative beer doesn’t instantly become a new style. For a style to become established, other brewers need to adopt the innovation, and create their own versions, until a popularly recognized style is established. In many ways, beer styles develop in the same way as genres of music and films. Brewers build on the innovations of those who came before them and create offshoots of established styles.
HOW DO ALE AND LAGER FIT INTO THIS?
While there are many, many variations of both, every beer you’ve ever had is either an ale or a lager. These beers are defined by the family of yeast strains used to ferment them.
Ale yeast strains produce a faster, warmer fermentation while lager yeast strains like slower, colder fermentations. These yeasts can create subtle differences in the final beer, but there are a number of misconceptions about ales and lagers. Lagers for example, are not always light and crisp, and ales are not always dark, heavy, and strong.
Tommy’s Lager, Pirogue Pils, Jumbie and Zeppelin are all lagers despite their varied colours and flavours, while Shipwreck, Stowaway, Steelpan and St. Benedict are all ales.
The Brewers Association is the main organization that keeps definitions of beer styles up-to-date, and officially designates styles for new innovations, such as Brut and New England IPAs.