Our guide to some key beer styles and how to drink them

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Do you know your ale from your stout? Or your IPA from your saison? We’ve all drunk a range of different beers – but what defines some of the key styles?

Here at Skinners we love a good bit of beer chat – so here’s our guide to some of the key types of beer, the best glasses to enjoy them in and food to pair them with.

Ale or lager?

The first thing to remember is that there really two main categories of beer. And everything else forms an orderly queue behind these two.

The key difference between these two categories is yeast. Ales use top fermenting yeast (ie. it ferments on top of the brew) while lagers use a bottom fermenting yeast  that ferments on the bottom of the brew and typically at a cooler temperature).

This process means ales retain the fruity aromas and flavours of their ingredients, particularly hops, whilst lagers have a cleaner, crisper flavour that mostly comes from the malt. Simple.

Styles of ale

IPA beer

IPA stands for India Pale Ale. But that doesn’t mean it was originally brewed on the sub-continent. In fact, it was originally brewed in east London around 175 years ago. The story goes that George Hodgson of the Bow Brewery pioneered the pale ale brewing process, creating an ale that would still still be drinkable once it had been endured the long voyage to India and other distant shores.

There are three styles of IPA – American Pale Ale, English Pale Ale and Imperial or Double India Pale Ale  At Skinner’s we were one of the first breweries in Cornwall to use American hops. You’ll find them in our Porthleven pale ale which is brewed using US Citra and Mount Hood hops, giving it a hop-forward citrusy, zesty flavour. And you’ll find them in Lushingtons where Citra blends with Willamette and Belma hops to lend a mellower taste with summer fruit notes. The very best British hop varieties including Northdown, Admiral and aromatic Cascade find a home in our River Cottage EPA: a refreshing brew with a bittersweet finish.

  • Drink IPA from a:
    • Pint beer mug (also known as Seidel or Stein)
    • Pint glass (also known as a Becker, Nonic or Tumbler)
  • Food pairings:
    • Thai food (don’t make it too spicy or you’ll drown the beer. A light green curry is perfect).
    • Oily food (mackerel, a burger or fish and chips. You can clear the palate of oily food with a swig after every mouthful).
    • Citrus desserts (try a lemon tart or a key lime pie)
  • Try an IPA:

Dark ales

Dark ales are packed with flavour, sweet on the palette and full bodied. They rely on the malt rather than the hops for their flavour which ranges from fruity to nutty. These ales range in colour from bright amber to dark brown and are not usually very hoppy or bitter.

There are two main types of dark ale – brown ales and milds. Brown ales are more likely to be served from a bottle than on draught and the most famous example is Newcastle Brown (first brewed in 1928). Brown ales from the North East tend to be 4-5% ABV with nutty and caramel flavours. Weaker, sweeter brown ales with chocolate, roasted tastes also exist.

Then there’s mild: generally recognised today as dark, low-alcohol beer often with a roasted or chocolate character that was Britain’s favourite sup in the sixties… you might have heard your Dad (or your grandad) order a pint of mild.

  • Drink dark ales from a:
    • Pint Glass (or Becker, Nonic, Tumbler)
    • Pint beer mug (or Seidel, Stein)
    • Stemmed tulip
  • Food pairings:
    • Cheese (earthy; Camembert, Fontina, nutty; Asiago, Colby, Parmesan)
    • Red meat (roast, stewed or barbequed)
    • Lasagne, spag bol and mushroom dishes
    • Cornish pasties!
  • Try a dark ale:

Porter and stout

Porter was first brewed in London in the 1700s and its name is said to derive from being the drink of choice for street and river porters in the city. It’s a darker beer made with brown malt and tends to have bittersweet, roasted, malty, espresso, chocolate flavours. It was the beer of choice throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain and it regained popularity in the 1970s, especially with home brewers.

Porters and stouts are very closely related, both made from dark malts which give them their deep colour and signature coffee and chocolate notes. In fact they’re so similar that there’s very little that sets them apart. Historically, stout was developed as a stronger porter in the early 19th century – it was even labelled as ‘Stout Porter’ before the latter part was dropped. As brewing has developed into the diverse and modern craft it is today, the differences between the styles have become more intermingled and many modern brewers would admit that the terms are fairly interchangeable.

  • Drink porter and stout from a:
    • Pint beer mug (also known as Seidel or Stein)
    • Piint glass (also known as a Becker, Nonic or Tumbler)
    • Tulip glass or goblet
  • Food pairings:
    • Grilled meat and sausages
    • Rich chocolate desserts
    • Oysters
  • Try a milk stout:

Saison

Saisons began life as a farmhouse ale traditionally brewed in the winter and consumed over the summer in Belgium and France. They all but died out until the recent craft brewing revolution.

The original saisons would have been much lower in alcohol than the current crop and didn’t have enough defining characteristics to really pin down a definitive style. Today the loose definition around what precisely makes a saison holds firm and it’s helpful to think of it as more of a philosophy than a style. To brew a saison you need to enter the farming mindset of old. You need to listen to the name and brew using the ingredients thrown up locally by the season and the harvest. The result is a light, cloudy, golden beer that’s simple, rustic, dry and extremely drinkable beer.

  • Drink saison from:
    • Pint glass (also known as a Becker, Nonic or Tumbler)
    • Tulip glass
    • Oversized wine glass
  • Food pairings:
    • Rustic dishes like roast garlic chicken, bouillabaisse and seasonal salads.
    • Charcuterie – smoked, cured and confited meats.
    • Pad Thai
    • Goat’s cheese
  • Try a saison:

Honeyed / spiced ales

Nutmeg and cinnamon, honey, cloves, ginger. Just about any ingredients can be used to make beer and his category of ale embraces the alchemy of introducing seeds, spices, herbs, flowers, fruits and more into the brewing mix. Holiday and winter ales often add cinnamons, orange and more to beers and in the US especially pumpkin varieties are popular in the autumn. Flavour, aroma and mouthfeel all vary depending on the ingredients used but typically the hop character is low to allow the special ingredients to shine through. These ales make a great curiosity at beer festivals.

Sometimes you hit on a combination that really works. Like Skinner’s Hops n Honey, which balances bitter and sweet flavours, making it a perfect introduction to good ale – or a change from the norm for seasoned drinkers.

  • Drink honeyed/spiced ale from a :
    • Tulip glass
  • Food pairings:
    • Varies depending on the beer ingredients but try our Hops n Honey with game, sausages or a chocolate fudge sundae.

Wheat beer

As indicated by the name, this beer is made using wheat instead of malted barley.

There are two main types: German Weissbier and Belgian Witbier (each meaning ‘white beer’ in translation). These beers are hazy in appearance and have a thick head (both owing to the protein produced when the wheat ferments). They’re light in body and flavour which makes them a perfect summer sup.

Weissbier is made with malted wheat which makes up about 70% of the grain whereas Witbier used unmalted wheat that makes up about 50% of the grain.

Witbier died out after the Second World War but the style was revived in the 1960s by Belgian milkman Pierre Celis and his beer, Hoegaarden (still the most famous example of Witbier being produced today). Traditionally, the Belgians used fruits and spices rather than hops during brewing and today you’ll taste coriander and orange peel in the finished beer.

  • Drink wheat beer from a:
    • Tall, wide-brimmed Weisse glass for Weisse
    • Stemmed tulip glass for Witbier
  • Food pairings:
    • Spicy food (Indian, Mexican, Thai)
    • Eggs
  • Try a wheat beer:

Styles of lager

Lager

Lager is the most commonly consumed beer style in the world. It’s a crisp, clean beer with a gentle sweetness and a fluffy, white foam head. Colours range from light to golden straw and the best taste clean, elegant and balance sharpness from the hops with the delicate flavour of the malt.

  • Drink lager from a:
    • Tall, stemmed Pilsner glass (pale varieties)
    • Stemmed goblet (dark lagers)
  • Food pairings:
    • Pizzas, hot dogs, fish and chips.
    • Roast pork
  • Try a lager:

Pilsner

Pilsner is the granddaddy of all lagers and was originally brewed in the early 1840s. The name comes from the city that is the original home of the beer: Plzen, now located in the Czech Republic. Here brewers produce the first ever blonde lager: Pilsner Urquell and it’s still brewed there today.

A modern Pilsner, or Pils, is a pale to golden yellow colour and has an ABV of 4.5-5%. The German-style has a more bitter, earthy taste; Czech-style is golden, lightly flavoured and foamy and the European style has a sweeter taste. They’re all more heavily hopped than a standard lager.

Coors, Budweiser and other well-known beers can trace their heritage back to Pilsner.

  • Drink pilsner from a:
    • Pilsner glass (also known as a Pokal)
    • Strange (slender cylinder glass)
    • Pint beer mug (also known as Seidel or Stein)
    • Flute glass
  • Food pairings:
    • Croque monsieur
    • Shellfish
    • Tandoori dishes
    • Simple, sweet desserts like pound cake and fruit pies
  • Try a pilsner:

Dark lager

Before the technological advance of the 19th century most lagers would have been darker than those we recognise today. Lager drinkers who cross over the the dark side will find richer, woodier, smokier beers. At the lighter end of the scale, Vienna lager is a reddish brown drink with a medium body and a toasted character – it’s generally uncommon in Europe today but more popular in North America where it’s called pre-prohibition lager. At the dark end you’ll find German Scwarzbier which has a chocolate or liquorice flavour not dissimilar to stout. Dunkel, Bock, Doppelbock, Oktoberfest and Rauchbier all sit in this group too.

  • Drink dark lager from a:
    • Stemmed goblet
  • Food pairings:
    • Barbecue
    • Blue cheese
    • Smoked meat and fish
  • Try a dark lager:

A note on pouring

You’re planning on enjoying your beer at home. You have the right glass. Now the pour can make a big difference. The right pour agitates the aromas and flavours of the beer and gives a lovely head. Remember these simple steps:

  • Make sure your glass is clean
  • Hold the glass at a 45 degree angle and pour your beer, aiming for the middle of the slope, until you have filled about half the glass
  • Slowly tilt the glass upright as you pour the second half of the beer (still aiming for the centre of the glass). You’re aiming to finish with a ½ to 1½  inch head
  • Enjoy.

Share your favourites

This list is by no means exhaustive and we’re always keen to hear about your favourite styles and brands of beer — or discover a different food that pairs perfectly with a particular brew. Share your favourites using #favouritebeer or #beerandfood. We can’t wait to get sampling!