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There are many styles of beer. It's straightforward to discuss the differences between two types of beer, but what are the characteristics used to distinguish between styles of beer?

For each general characteristic, what kinds of beer have each specific quality? For example, if color is a general characteristic what styles of beer are light, medium, and dark?

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The BJCP Style Guidelines specify a wide variety of variables. These include:

  • Aroma (malt, hops, yeast, diacetyl, etc)
  • Appearance (color, clarity, head, etc)
  • Flavor (sweetness, bitterness, dryness, alcohol, carbonation acidity, diacetyl, fruitiness, etc)
  • Mouthfeel (body, carbonation, smoothness, astringency, etc.)
  • Ingredients (yeast, mash bill, hops, added ingredients, etc.)

These guidelines are from the Beer Judge Certification Program, so they are by necessity based on idealized judging, rather than the intent to taxonomize all of known beer.

The first four are subjective, coming from the standpoint of categorizing based on the drinking experience. The last, Ingredients, is objective and is used for quite a bit of general categorization (ale vs lager yeasts, for example).

You could also argue that the source of many of the subjective factors is variation in the brewing process, such as fermentation temperature, addition or subtraction of various steps, etc. However if you come at it from the angle of "how do I categorize an unknown beer?", then the first four subjective items are key. Some of the question is whether you focus on what it is or on how it got that way.

  • There's two different kinds of categories - aroma, flavor and mouthfeel, and to some extent appearance, are subjective. Ingredients are objective. I'd argue that the 'true source of variation' in the subjective factors is the ingredients. The brewing process certainly contributes, but the ingredients determine almost all of the other characteristics. E.g. if you use roasted barley and belgian yeast, you're going to get a dark belgian beer, regardless of process, although process will influence the subjective variables. – paul Jan 21 '14 at 23:42
  • @paul One could argue that barley is the ingredient (including what type, where it was grown, etc.), and roasting the barley is part of the brewing process (including how exactly it was roasted, duration, etc.). – hunse Jan 22 '14 at 0:10
  • Ok, technically, yes you could call malting and roasting the barley part of the brewing process. I was more referring to what the brewer actually does as brewing, and commercial and home brewer's rarely if ever roast their own barley. They buy it that way from the malt supplier (Briess, Weyermann, Rahr, Cargill, etc.) – paul Jan 22 '14 at 4:46
  • @paul Agreed on subjective vs. objective, I tried to allude to that a bit in the final paragraph, although perhaps obliquely. – phoebus Jan 22 '14 at 15:39
  • @paul I added a bit to more explicitly spell out the difference between subjective and objective classification. – phoebus Jan 22 '14 at 18:59
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There are many points of comparison, as the beer judging style guidelines will point out. Among those characteristics are ABV, IBU (International Bitterness Units), color, aroma, mouthfeel, and of course, flavor.

  • A good answer to this question will be a lot longer. – ramblinjan Jan 21 '14 at 23:04
  • True, which is why I just upvoted phoebus'. – object88 Jan 21 '14 at 23:09
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One very important criterion that @phoebus briefly mentioned is brewing process. The first big distinction is ales versus lagers. Lagers are stored in cold rooms during the production process, and I find they're lighter on average than ales, certainly in terms of flavour, and often in terms of colour as well.

After that, there are lots of less-black-and-white brewing differences between styles of beer. For example, IPAs generally have a considerable amount of hops added, but that's not always true. Hefeweizen has considerable amounts of yeast left after brewing, giving it its cloudy appearance. The list goes on and on.

Personally, I think that the traditional names for beer styles (stout, lager, IPA, wheat beer, etc.) are based a lot on brewing process, and in the case of something like lager or wheat beer, the name clearly shows the brewing origin. However, more and more brewers are pushing the boundaries of these styles, so when it comes to things like appearance and flavour, which are ultimately the things that matter, two beers from different brewing styles can be quite similar, or two beers from the same brewing style can be quite different.

  • I don't think that you're on the right track here. You can have a pale ale or pilsner that's just as light as a lager; it's not ale vs. lager yeast. IPAs DO have a considerable amount of hops -- that's what makes them IPAs. Hefeweizen does NOT necessarily have a significant amount of yeast left over; that cloudiness is not yeast related. – object88 Jan 21 '14 at 23:34
  • If you ever have a chance to try Alexander Keith's IPA, please do. It's not a very good beer, but it is an example of an IPA that I don't think is hoppy (many of my friends who don't like most IPAs do like it). Are you sure about Hefeweizen? Wikipedia begs to differ. – hunse Jan 21 '14 at 23:39
  • First off, a Pilsner is a lager. And that's why I was trying to be careful with my wording, and say things like "on average", since you're absolutely right, they can often be just as light or as dark. But I would argue that your typical lager is lighter (specifically flavour-wise) than your typical ale, and I've never had a lager that is as heavy as something like an imperial stout. – hunse Jan 21 '14 at 23:45
  • These distinctions are definitely based more on ingredients than brewing process. Wheat beers have a lot of wheat, IPAs have a lot of hops (relative to other styles), stouts have roasted barley, etc. Alexander Keiths IPA is an ENGLISH IPA. English IPAs are very different from American IPAs and are not hoppy at all relative to American IPAs. They are however, supposed to be more bitter (hoppy) than English Pale Ales. American IPAs are a totally different style, and judging English IPAs on that standard is like judging a Scottish Heavy to be bad if it doesn't taste like a lager. – paul Jan 21 '14 at 23:45
  • Fair enough, @paul. I was just using Alexander Keiths as an example of what I consider a very "mainstream" IPA, not tasting much hoppier to me than a Pilsner. I don't think it's bad because it's an English IPA, I'm just not a big fan of that particular beer. As to brewing process versus ingredients, you're right, a lot of it is ingredients more than process. But lagers versus ales is definitely a brewing process decision, which is why I started out with that. – hunse Jan 21 '14 at 23:51

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