Sunday, June 26, 2016

Ales: Amber, Red and Blonde

The ale styles known as Amber, Red and Blonde are what I like to think of as your "basic" ales. There's nothing fancy going on here, no truckloads of unnecessary hops, no addition of flavorings like fruit or coffee, just plain ol' ale! One could think of these ales as the craft beer industry's answer to the American pale lager...a much wittier and more well-read answer! They all clock in at 4.5 - 6% ABV and have a moderate hop profile of 25-30 IBU. They all tend to be similar in some respects to lagers, but with a layer of subtlty and complexity not found in most lagers. The main difference among these three styles is color. The blondes are naturally a golden yellow, the reds a coppery red and the ambers somewhere in between, although some reds can differ in taste, with a sweeter, maltier character reminiscent of a Vienna Lager or a Märzen. Of the amber ales, New Belgium's Fat Tire is a great example, as is Nebraska-brewed Lucky Bucket and Odell's 90 Schilling. Red Ales seem to proliferate around St. Patrick's Day, with Killian's being a great example of the style. Don't confuse a red ale with that Midwest abomination, beer mixed with tomato juice!


Now that we have examined lagers in a fair amount of detail, it's time to move on to ales. Twenty years ago it could be said that most beers in the United States were lagers, with a few (mostly imported) exceptions like Guinness. The main difference between lagers and ales is the type of yeast and the associated fermentation. Lagers use bottom, or cold fermenting yeast, while ales use top or warm fermenting yeast. The effective difference is that in general a lager will be clear and "crisp" while an ale, due to the heat generated in fermentation, will have a variety of flavors that are present without any addition of flavoring agents. Until recently most small brewers produced ales rather than lagers. The reason for this is that brewing a lager ties up the equipment for longer periods of time due to the necessity for lagering, that is letting the beer age in a cool place for a period of time - sometimes months. A small craft brewery. microbrew or brewpub could not afford to tie up their equipment for that long. In the last decade however, some of what used to be small batch brewers have expanded (sometimes due to being bought out by the beer giants) and have added lagers, especially Märzens to their selection. Ales are by far the older of the two main families of beers, but were nudged aside by the lager in the 1900's, only to gain prominanvce again in the 21st century.

In this series on ales, we'll be looking at the following main styles:

  • Blonde
  • Amber Ale
  • Pale Ale
  • Strong Ale
  • Cream Ale
  • Red Ale
  • Brown Ale
  • Extra Special Bitter (ESB)
  • Steam Ales (Summer Common)
  • Porters
  • Stouts
  • India Pale Ale (IPA)
  • Belgian Beers (including dubbels, trippels, quadrupels)
  • Farmhouse/Saisson
  • Alternate grains (wheat beers, rye beers)
  • Scotch and Scottish Ale
  • Rauchbiers (smoked ales)
  • Barleywine
That's a lot of different styles! Some styles may be combined into one article if they are similar. We'll also be looking at combination styles like Belgian IPA and descriptors such as "imperial". At the end, perhaps as a separate series, we'll look at the hybrids like Kölsch and Altbier. 

We've got a lot to cover, so let's get going!

Ales: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Following is a repost of an article from March 2014, I thought I'd open up the series on ales with these musings on dark beer and some of the myths associated with it. I am also including a link to an article about the relative heaviness of dark and light beers

How often do I hear people say "I don't like dark beer". I used to respond "dark is just a color". While this is technically true and there is nothing about the color of a beer that reliably indicates the flavor, heaviness or hoppiness of a beer, beers that are typically darker colored tend, in general, to taste different than your run of the mill lager.What I generally ask now  is "what kind of dark beer don't you like?"  because there is a wide variety and divergence among the many darker-hued beers. Most people don't really know what dark beers that they don't like.

Most people's first experience of beer is a lager. Budweiser, Miller, Coors and most of the mass produced beers are lagers. Outside of any discussion of what makes a "good" beer, lagers are cold fermented and then "lagered", or aged in a cool place, which results in a cool, crisp taste and a clear, golden color. This is usually the standard against which most people judge other styles of beer. But even among the light-colored beers there is a vast difference in flavor, bitterness (hoppiness),heaviness (original gravity) and alcohol content. Belgians, IPA's, Pale Ales, Witbiers and ESB's all have relatively light coloration, but still might not be palatable to novice lager drinkers.

Most styles that are typically brewed to a golden or amber hue can also be brewed with darker malts that give the beer a brown or chocolate color, but still have the same basic flavor as their lighter cousins. Black lagers have become common in the last few years, as well as black IPA's, both of which could be mistaken for an amber lager or IPA if consumed with eyes shut. Styles such as brown ale or altbier are very light in flavor but are a copper color.

When most people say they don't like dark beer, they, in most cases are referring to Guinness Stout, which for years was the most commonly available of the darker-colored beers. Guinness, like many Irish or English stouts and porters, tend to be fairly bitter and have a distinctive taste quite unlike lagers. However, recently, other varieties of stouts and porters have appeared on the market, notably sweet, or milk, stouts, which are made with lactose, which does not convert to alcohol. These brews tend to be creamier and sweeter than stouts like Guinness. Imperial Stouts are often hoppier and higher in alcohol content.

Belgians are another style where the beers are frequently dark in color. However, a Belgian might be a bright yellow or it might be a deep mahogany with no discernible difference in taste. Bocks, a lager that is richer in taste than a standard lager, can be deep brown, or golden, also with no taste difference than can be noticed.

Keep in mind, that not all beer styles are supposed to all taste the same, no more than a cup of coffee is supposed to taste like a cup of tea or a mug of hot chocolate. But somehow beer drinkers expect that a pale ale is supposed to taste like a lager.

So, when someone says that they don't like "dark beer", what styles have they tried? Are they cutting themselves off from the rich variety of lagers and ales due to something as unimportant as the color? If you've tried an Imperial Stout and didn't like it, fine, that thick bitterness has nothing to do with the smooth whiskey finish of a bourbon oak barrel aged quadruple Belgian.

Don't be afraid of the dark.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Samuel Adams Cherry Wheat

Ill-Gotten Booty did a review of Sam Adams Cherry Wheat several years ago. At the time I classified it as one of the few Sam Adams beers that I didn't like...cough syrup is what I compared it to. My view has softened a bit over the last few years, but man, this beer is still very cherry! The first key to enjoying a fruit beer is accept the basic fact that it's a fruit beer! I used to think that adding fruit to an ale or lager distracted the drinker from the beeriness of the brew, but I have tried so many fruit beers over the years that I have come over to the fruity side. Don't get me wrong, a well-crafted pale ale or stout trumps a fruit beer any day, but these guys have their place. If you're a summer beer guy or gal, or just are into the whole fruit thing, you'd probably like this one. Let's give it a 5.5 on the IGB scale.

Sunday, May 29, 2016


The town of Plzeň in Bohemia is the home of the style of beer that we now know as pilsner. Moving away from the traditional methods of brewing using top-fermenting yeasts, brewers in Plzeň began to experiment using the Bavarian method of fermentation with bottom fermenting yeasts and lagering. 

Since most beers, both lagers and ales, of that time tended to be dark brown in hue, the appearance of a pale, clear beer was quite unique. The golden color was in large part due to a new method of heating the malt - indirect heat, which prevented a darkening  and smokiness of the brew that direct heat caused. The water was unusually mineral-free (soft) which contributed to the clarity of the beer. The brewers in Plzeň and surrounding areas also were very free with hops, giving the new style a bitter edge. This style became so popular that many of the brewers who eventually emigrated to America specialized in it once they set up their own breweries in The States. The Plzen style, or Pilsner became the dominant style of the major brewers and was what most Americans thought of as "beer" through most of the 1900's, although the mass producers eventually modified their beers to be less hoppy and added adjuncts (grains other than barley) to produce a more consistant product.

Märzen (Oktoberfest) & Vienna Lager

The term Märzen derives from the German word for the month of March. Before refrigeration it was difficult to brew beer in the summer months, so beer would be brewed over the winter and stored in caves (lagers)to keep it fresh. (For more detail on this, see the blog post on lagers).

Some of the lagered beer, brewed in March, would be saved until the harvest festivals in October, maturing and fermenting over the summer and into the early autumn. This märzenbier became an important feature of the Oktoberfest held in Munich each year. Originally the Oktoberfestbier was a dark lager, but over the last 150 years have tended to lighter hues. The predominant Oktoberfestbier has been a Vienna lager style (think Sam Adams, Dos Equis or Yuengling) for many years. Since at least 1990, Oktoberfestbiers in Germany have been golden, while American versions tend to have an amber-red cast, similar to an Irish Red. Märzens tend to be low in hop character, with a slightly sweet maltiness. 

A Vienna lager is a style that is very similar to a Märzen, having originated in the city of Vienna in Austria, south of Munich in Bavaria. They tend to be reddish in color and malty sweet, with a low IBU (hoppiness) count. many Mexican beers like Dos Equis and Negra Modelo are Vienna-style lagers, in large part due to immigration from Austria in the 1800's. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016


Bock beer is another type of lager, that is considered a Spring seasonal, but unfortunately, you don't see too much of these days. As lagers, bocks use bottom, or cold, fermenting yeasts, and are lagered, or allowed to mature in a cool environment. Traditionally these were the first beers brewed in the Spring, and were used as a celebratory beer at the end of Lent, but there are also traditions which speak of monks drining bocks during fasts as sources of nourishment. In general, a bock is stronger than average (6.5 - 7% ABV) and tends to be darker than most lagers. Hop profile is low, usually around 20-25 IBU and has a sweet malty character. Other versions of the bock include the maibock, brewed in May. Maibocks tend to be lighter and hoppier. A dopplebock, or double bock can be up to 10-12% ABV. Right now bocks for some reason are not very popular, so they're not being brewed in great numbers; that and the fact that lagering ties up a small craft brewery's equipment longer than does an ale is also a factor.