A Beginner's Guide to American Beer Styles
Some of America’s finest. [Photographs: Mike Reis]
American beer. Whatever that phrase means to you, it probably doesn’t mean the same thing to the guy sitting on the barstool next to you. Or to the guy on a barstool in Portland, Oregon. Or in Munich. Or in Copenhagen.
Maybe that’s what makes American beer great. It is so many different things to so many different people. But those passionate about craft beer want folks to get it “right.” “We’re more than just light lager,” they’ll shout. “We have the most varied and innovative beer culture in the world!” But if the comments from some of my recent guides to worldwide beer styles are any indication, that’s a matter for debate.
Are we more than a culture of IBU-chasing hopheads? Do we value diversity as much as we’d like to believe?
Today, we’ll take a closer look at a variety of American beer styles. Keep this in mind, though: much of American beer’s appeal lies in the fact that it so frequently defies categorization. While there are some established and agreed-upon styles, there are new ones popping up every day thanks to a spirit of creativity that’s not bound by rules rooted in tradition.
American Lagers: American Adjunct Lager and Imperial Pilsner
To many, American beer exists exclusively within a small screen world of blue mountains, red bowties, and chunks of ice sliding sexily down cold bottles of lager. While there’s certainly more to it than that, this isn’t an entirely inaccurate image—the lagers produced by Budweiser, Miller, and Coors comprise the majority of the beer sold in the United States today.
The beers these folks are producing, by and large, belong to a group of overlapping beer styles known as American adjunct lager. For the most part, these beers are inspired by the pilsners of the Czech Republic and Germany, but they’ve strayed a long way from those traditions.
Where traditional pilsners are bright lagers made from barley malt, water, yeast, and a significant dose of hops, most American adjunct lager cuts way back on hop flavor and replaces a portion of the barley with sugars derived from corn and rice. The result is a product built for drinkability—light in body, low in bitterness, and gentle enough in alcohol that a six pack can be interpreted as more of a challenge than a stockpile.
If you find yourself at a backyard BBQ with an adjunct lager in hand, you can bet it’ll be an easy-drinking beer. It may be very dry, or it could have significant grainy sweetness, but it will almost certainly have very little bitterness from hops. Roll with the breweries’ suggestions and serve these beers as cold as possible. They’re built for refreshment.
Some craft breweries are experimenting with more flavorful adjunct lager recipes, but these are still relatively few and far between.
For a craftier take on American lager, there are a whole bunch of other options. Americans have thrown their own spins on many lager styles: schwarzbiers, Märzens, bocks, and dunkels have all been hopped up, imperialized, and otherwise tweaked with a certain sense of cowboyish bravado. But another lager style is popping up with increasing frequency amongst American craft brewers: Imperial pilsner.
Examples of this style vary pretty wildly in flavor. Some are balanced pale lagers in the 6 to 6.5% ABV range, while others are super-malty or ultra-hoppy palate-rippers that can rise above 9 or 10% ABV. Without an established tradition behind these beers, brewers are free to run wild with creativity. In all examples, you’ll likely encounter a firm base of pale maltiness—bready or cracker-like grain flavor that’s backed up with a noticeable hoppy presence. Much of the time that hoppiness will bear the earthy, floral, and grassy signature of European hops, but beers bearing the imperial pilsner name may boast a bright citrusy flavor from American hops as well.
You may also run into the related India Pale Lagers, which are essentially India Pale Ales (we’ll get to those later) made with lager yeast. These beers tend to be all about hop character. Without the spicy or fruity flavors that are sometimes associated with ale yeast, hop and malt flavor is free to express itself without distraction.
An increasingly uncommon product of nostalgia, cream ale has a longer history than most modern American beer styles. Devised by pre-Prohibition American ale brewers and peddled as a competitor to the market-dominating pale lagers, cream ales share a bit in common with the adjunct lagers that line our shelves today.
Similarly brewed with corn or rice adjuncts, these are pale, easy drinking beers with a touch more bitterness and fruity character than their mass-produced brethren. Despite their name, these tend to be light and crisp, so don’t expect a lush creaminess from your cream ales. Like adjunct lagers, they’ll have a doughy malt character, and maybe an additional touch of cooked corn-like flavor.
Blonde Ale and American Hefeweizen
For another easy drinker with a touch more complexity, look toward American blonde ales (sometimes called golden ales) orAmerican pale wheat ales (sometimes called American hefeweizen).
Both are pale in color and defined by a grainy or bready maltiness, often with a hint of sweetness. There’s typically some bitterness for balance here as well, but these usually aren’t hop-forward in flavor. American ‘hefeweizens,’ as pale wheat ales are commonly labeled, are quite unlike the traditional hefeweizens of Bavaria—you’re more likely to find fruity and clove-like yeast-derived flavors in the latter.
American blonde ales and pale wheat beers have long served drinkers as a gateway to more intensely flavorful brews, but they’re often perceived as boring by those that have moved on to other, more potent styles. Perhaps in response to that, both of these beer types are now frequently pushed to their limits by American brewers. Beers labeled as “blonde” or “American wheat” are now almost as likely to be bright and hoppy or sour and fruity as they are simple and easy-drinking.
Steam Beer/California Common
There’s no better beer to represent craft beer’s modern Manifest Destiny than the humble steam beer (now more frequently referred to as California common). Born of necessity at the hands of gold rushing 49ers, steam beer arose from attempts to produce lager beers without the aid of the refrigeration usually required for lager production in warmer climates. The yeast used to make lagers generally ferments best in temperatures ranging from around 45 to 55°F. Without the capacity for cooling, the lagers made in 19th century California were fermented at higher temperatures and thus didn’t taste much like lager at all. Scrappy as they were, beers made in this fashion found a stable market amongst the rough-hewn working class of the West.
So why the name “steam beer?” That’s a matter of much debate, but a few stories pop up frequently. There’s a pretty good case to be made that the “steam” in the name refers to the unusually high levels of pressure that would build up in the packaging of these beers. Upon opening, a forceful, steam-like puff of pressurized gas would be released. Another side of the debate attributes the name to the steam that arose from the surface of the beer as it cooled in shallow, open vessels known as coolships. Still another suggests that the name comes from a German beer style called “dampfbier,” which translates directly to “steam beer.”
Wherever the name came from, steam beer’s knockabout charm quickly wore off as refrigeration found its way to California. Lagers could now be made with consistency and quality, and they drove steam beer to the brink of extinction.
Then Fritz Maytag stepped in. Of the same bloodline as the folks behind the blue cheese and washing machines, Fritz clearly had his family’s eye for business. He purchased a controlling stake in San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company in 1965 and eventually brought their Anchor Steam beer to the American masses. To this day, he’s widely considered to be the godfather of the American craft beer movement.
Despite the fact that the name was not Anchor’s invention, the brewery was awarded a trademark for the term “steam beer” in 1981. Since then, the name “California common” has been applied to other beers made in the steam beer style.
Most California commons made these days are modeled after Anchor’s modern pacesetter—these are amber beers with a toasty, lightly caramelly maltiness and a woodsy hop aroma imparted by American-grown Northern Brewer hops. Most also have a touch of fruity flavor that results from the warm fermentation temperatures that set this beer apart from other lagers.
American Pale, Amber/Red Ale, Session IPA
Maytag and his Anchor Brewing Company served as an inspiration to many in the early days of American craft beer and the stage was now set for a new class of innovators. American homebrewers and fledgling commercial breweries in the 1970s began toying around with making variations on English ale styles. In 1980, a legend was born. Chico, California’s new Sierra Nevada Brewing Company produced a riff on English pale ale. It was a dry, bottle-conditioned beer that popped with bright and bitter Cascade hop flavor. Pale amber in color, the newAmerican pale ale's malt flavor was toasty and lightly caramelly but not sweet, and the beer weighed in around 5.6% ABV. You could say it was pretty successful.
The impact of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale on the American beer scene is tough to overstate. This beer is still the benchmark of the craft brewery-standard American pale ale style and brewers all over the country cite it as an inspiration. Pale ale and its variants now dominate the shelves at specialty beer stores nationwide thanks in no small part to the example set forth by Sierra Nevada and the other pale ale pioneers of the 70s and 80s.
Nowadays, many make pale ale in the style of Sierra Nevada, but experimentation continues, especially with regard to the types of hops used as the primary flavoring agent in these beers. Hops from all over the world with wildly different aromatic qualities are used atop a malt base that ranges from very pale and doughy in flavor to toasty and caramelly.
American amber or American red ales are very closely related to pale ale. While these are often recognized as independent styles, they overlap in both recipe and flavor enough to be considered fraternal twins, at least. American amber and red ales will typically have more caramelly, toasty, or lightly roasted malt flavors alongside that same citrusy, floral American hop profile. As a whole, these will also often seem a bit sweeter and fuller in body than their pale counterparts and will be a bit darker in color, but there’s a lot of overlap.
Session IPAs are a more recently established style. These are very similar to American pale ales, but tend to place even more emphasis on hop character. That is not necessarily to say that these are exceptionally bitter beers, though they can be. These are designed to be drunk in quantity over the course of a lengthy “session,” so they typically sport even lower levels of alcohol than many pale ales to keep you a bit more sober after you’ve had a couple.
American Brown Ale
American brown ale represents another riff on an established English beer style. Like English brown ales, these are malt-focused beers—rich and sturdy with a dense, caramelly malt quality. American examples tend to be a bit stronger, and typically complement that rich caramel flavor with the inclusion of sharply-flavored, darker roasted grains that can taste like dark chocolate, burnt toast or coffee. These malt flavors can also be contrasted with a substantial hit of American hoppiness.
Though there are obviously exceptions, we may be sensing a theme here: American variations on established beer styles tend to be stronger and hoppier than the beers that inspired them. This has given American beer a bit of a reputation in the global beer scene. Our love for big, bold flavors is seen by cynics as an inability to appreciate the more subtle grace of the beers that inspire us.
American IPA and Double IPA
Speaking of stronger and hoppier, it’s time we addressed the prettiest girl at the American beer prom: India Pale Ale. It has achieved a popularity that’s unparalleled in the American craft beer scene. As a result, almost every brewery has taken their own crack at it, each trying to do something to set theirs apart from the myriad other options on the shelf.
IPA has been around in the US for some time—the famous Ballantine IPA was brewed on the East Coast from the late 19th century until 1996. That beer is widely given credit for introducing IPA to the American masses, but it bore little resemblance to the stuff we’re drinking today.
IPA in its modern form is a much more recent development. Some (including the brewery) point to Anchor’s Liberty Ale, first released in 1975, as the first example of a distinctly American IPA. But Anchor never called it an IPA on any labels, and at 5.9% ABV, some think of that innovative brew as merely an exceptionally hoppy pale ale. Others point to the IPA put out by Bert Grant’s Yakima Brewing & Malting Co. as the originator of modern American IPA. Of course, there are still others that would love to pin its origin elsewhere.
However it came to be, modern American IPA is a big deal these days. Whoever makes it, you can expect a beer called American IPA to be a beer driven in flavor by bright American hops. It will be a strong beer (think 6-8% ABV), and there will likely be a firm, lasting hop bitterness. Hop flavor varies from intensely citrusy and floral to pine-like and resinous, stone fruity, or tropical fruit-like, depending on the varieties used and how they interact with fruitiness or sweetness from yeast or malt. The malt flavor of these beers varies quite a lot, and your IPA may be ultra-pale in color, or it may veer towards deep amber. There may be a bit of residual sweetness, or your beer may be ripping dry.
Double (also called imperial) IPAs are similar in ingredients and method of production, but tend to be significantly more assertive than standard American IPAs in just about every way. Expect more alcohol, more hop aroma and bitterness, and more malt character. Often, these will have a bit more perceived sweetness to dampen the impact of the beer’s elevated alcohol content, but the best examples find a balance of sweetness, bitterness, and alcoholic astringency. Expect much of the same hop character that you’d find in a standard American IPA, but with potentially more caramelly, bready, or honey-like maltiness pushing through, possibly finishing with a sharp alcoholic bite.
Black IPA, White IPA, Belgian IPA, Imperial Red Ale
There’s a lot to gain when brewers play around with IPA: customers want new hoppy beers, brewers get to creatively express themselves and expand boundaries, and the finance guys dig the big sales that those three little letters deliver to their revenue streams.
So today we’re surrounded by white IPAs, black IPAs, red IPAs, Belgian IPAs, spiced IPAs, soured IPAs, and barrel-aged IPAs. And there’s more to come—if you can dream it up, someone will add hops to it and sell it as an IPA. But a few of these new sub-styles have shown that they’re here to stay. At least for a little while.
The black IPA, also sometimes referred to as Cascadian dark ale, American black ale, or India black ale, has garnered a huge amount of attention. Some criticize these beers as being no more than extra-hoppy porters riding on the IPA name, while others have embraced them as a new frontier in beer flavor. When it comes to the recipes, some black IPAs are actually pretty similar to standard American IPAs with a dash of dark roasted malt thrown in. These beers are often dry and assertively hoppy, but have a touch of complementary roasty, toasted, or burnt flavors. Other examples of the style are more dark-malt focused, which is where the comparison to porter comes from. These will have a rich maltiness akin to dark or milk chocolate, toffee, wheat toast, coffee, or nuts brightened by an assertive American hoppiness.
White IPAs bear even less resemblance to anything else we call “IPA”—they are often just American-hopped versions of the Belgian witbier style, made with wheat and spices. Some examples are made to the strength of an IPA, but others, including perhaps the two most visible examples (made by Deschutes and Samuel Adams), reside below 6% ABV. The best versions marry the fruitiness and spiciness produced by Belgian yeast with citrusy American hops and any spices (coriander and orange peel are the most common). The wheat used in the brewing process will impart a smooth sweetness and the result should find a balance amongst all of these big flavors.
So then what’s a Belgian IPA? Often, these beers are takes on the American-style IPA fermented with a Belgian yeast strain. This gives the beer significantly more yeast flavor in the form of fruity, peppery, or clove-like aromatics. Other beers labeled “Belgian IPA” are American-hopped versions of strong pale Belgian beers such as tripel or Belgian strong pale ale. As with many of these new beer styles, there’s significant room for every brewer’s interpretation.
Imperial or double red ales usually do not bear the “IPA” name specifically, but are closely related in both flavor and ingredients to IPA or Double IPA. Expect much of the strength and hop character that you’d get from IPA, but with more dark malt flavor—these will be extra caramelly, toffee-like, or toasty. Fruity flavors from yeast may be present as well.
American Barleywine and American Strong Ale
If English barleywine is the guy snuggled up by the fire at the back of a cozy pub, its American counterpart is “that guy” up at the bar picking fights and playing entire AC/DC records on the jukebox. But hey, that guy can be sorta fun in the right circumstances too.
American barleywines are about as intense as beer gets. Like their British brothers, these are very strong (think 8 to 12% ABV or higher), densely malty beers—packed with rich caramel, toffee, date, or prune-like flavors with a heady alcohol content. Unlike British barleywines, these also tend to be packed with hop flavor. Expect a lot of bitterness and American hop aroma when fresh. Some examples may be aged in used spirit barrels (bourbon is especially popular) to deepen complexity—these versions will usually express less bright hop flavor and carry some (often a lot of) flavor from the barrel.
The name American strong ale is mainly used as a catch all for strong beers that don’t neatly fit another style. You’re likely to encounter much of the same heft and hoppiness as you would in a barleywine, but from there, you’re flying blind.
American Stout and Imperial Porter
Though the stout family has its roots in Britain, American stout has enough Yankee flair to be accepted as its own thing. Like all stouts, these are black in color with some amount of roasted malt flavor—you can count on some dark malt bitterness and a coffee-like, burnt toast flavor to be present. But American-style stouts are really set apart by a hop presence that exceeds what you’d find in most other stouts. Earthy, pine-like, and citrusy hop aromatics can all be found in examples in this style, but should feel well-integrated to the beer’s other characteristics.
These can be strong beers, ranging from around 5 to 7% ABV, but any stronger than that starts to step into imperial stout territory.
When brewers do veer into the “imperial” world with their black beers, clear style designations get a little wonky. Many American brewers use the name Russian Imperial stout, which we discussed in our British beer style guide, even when their beers are driven in flavor by American ingredients. Others use “Imperial stout,” “double stout,” or “American Imperial stout” to distinguish their products from those rooted in the British tradition.
Imperial porter is another name applied to beers that could be considered American imperial stouts. Some folks insist that porters have less roasty bitterness than stouts, despite the existence of many very roasty commercially-made porters. At any rate, Imperial porters tend to be pretty similar in character to American Imperial stouts. Some may be lighter in hop character and roast bitterness, but that’s far from a universal rule.
American brewers have fun messing around with all of these massive stouts and porters. You’re very likely to come across examples that have been aged in barrels that were previously home to wine, spirits, or even maple syrup, and ones that have been spiked with coffee, vanilla, chilies, doughnuts, fruit, or any number of other ingredients. Big flavors reign supreme!
American Wild Ale
American wild ale is a pretty vaguely-defined catchall category: the only thing these beers have in common with one another is the inclusion of wild yeast and/or bacteria for fermentation in addition to or instead of the usual ale yeast. The result is an unusually rustic, tart, or earthy brew.
The most common “wild” fermentation organism used in these beers is a yeast calledBrettanomyces. It is frequently referenced by drinkers as the source of sourness in many beers, but this isn’t really the case—though it can produce vinegary acetic acid under some fermentation conditions, Brett (as it’s affectionately known) is far less important in the souring process than acid-producing bacteria. It is, however, known to produce a host of funky, love-‘em-or-hate-‘em flavors that are commonly likened to barnyards, earth, or horse blankets. Brett can also produce fruity flavors depending on the specific Brett strain chosen and the conditions of the fermentation.
The more sour American wild ales gain their puckery quality from the use of certain types of bacteria that produce acid. Lactobacillus is perhaps the most common of these, used for its ability to produce sourness in the form of lactic acid, the same stuff that gives your yogurt and sour cream its tartness. Pediococcus is another lactic acid producing organism, but this one is typically only used alongside Brettanomyces. Acetobacter is the last bacteria you’ll see talked about in the world of American wild ales—this one produces acetic acid, the same acid that gives vinegar its sharpness. You’ll know it when you taste it. It tastes like vinegar.
The use of these organisms is not restricted to any one type of base beer style across the universe of American wild ales, and the words “American wild ale” don’t pop up on every label where it would apply. Beers that fall under the American wild ale umbrella will typically include a little information on the bottle to give you an idea of what’s inside. It may say “brown ale aged in wine barrels with Brettanomyces,” or “blonde ale soured with Lactobacillus.” It might also just say “sour ale.” Whatever it says, give it a try, especially if it’s one of these Serious Eats favorites.
These rustic beers are especially strange to those that don’t know what to expect, but they’re also a fun, diverse, and interesting bunch. Grab some and explore: your next favorite beer might be an American wild ale.
If not, there’s a whole lot of other American beers out there for you to try.
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About the author: Mike Reis is a Certified Cicerone working as Minister of Education for California-based distributor Lime Ventures. Previously, he co-managed the beer program at San Francisco’s Abbot’s Cellar and The Monk’s Kettle. Follow him on Twitter @beerspeaks or find him behind a pint near you.