When it comes to beer, there are a TON of different styles. A look at the Great American Beer Festival style list shows just how out of hand it can get with styles and then sub-styles within various styles.
Below I've tried to pick out some of the classic styles, especially ones that you'll find here in Ballard, and describe them so you'll know what to be on the lookout for.
The critical difference between ales and lagers are the kinds of yeast that are used to create them. Ales use a yeast that will ferment at a higher temperature. You will sometimes hear ales referred to as "top fermented beers" because during fermentation the yeast tends to be near the top of the fermenter. Ales tend to have more yeasty flavors which can add a great deal of complexity to the flavor.
Amber Ale is actually an American style invention. Ambers created by microbreweries in the US were meant to walk the line between the traditional pale ales and the darker brown ales. Initially amber ales were defined largely by color but have since become an independent style. Amber Ales will tend to be well-hopped in accordance with their American tradition and will have a very light toast sweetnes.
One of my favorite styles, barleywines are at the deeper end of the alcohol spectrum for beer and will usually have an alcohol by volume of 10+%. They were first brewed in the 18th century for the very rich because the cost to brew such an alcoholic beer was high. Today it is still an expensive beer to make and difficult to find in Ballard. When tasting a barleywine you'll get a lot of alcohol burn along with a very robust malt sweetness that comes across as toffee.
Where to find it in Ballard: Hale's Ales Rudyard's Rare Barleywine
One of the oldest beer styles, the Brown ale came of age according to history in London in the 1700s. The signature of brown ales is how they contrast to the more popular pale ale. Brown ales have always tended to be less hoppy but with darker malts giving it a light toast flavor. Most of the brown ales in Ballard tend towards the hoppier side as with many English styles brewed here in America.
The ESB, or Extra Special Bitter, is really just a specific form of the wider "Bitter" category. Bitter beers aren't necessarily more bitter than other beers, and the origin of the name is somewhat ambiguous. The style is defined by the usage of English Hops and a good, dark malt backbone. Its amber in color and when served from a cask is a fantastic beer experience.
One of the most popular styles of craft beer in America, the IPA has a complex history. It's characterized by a lighter character and a much higher hop content than normal "Pale Ales". The myth has been that the high hop content in IPAs acted as a preservative and the IPA was the only beer that could make the long trek to India, hence the name. That however, isn't true. Many kinds of beer were being sent to India successfully, but due to a combination of marketing and local taste preferences, the Pale Ale became wildly popular in India and started being marketed as an "India Pale Ale" back in the UK.
American IPAs tend to be heavily hoped and you'll often find Imperial or Double IPAs (or Triple IPAs) which bump up the hop content even more.
A pale, light beer that's characterized by a crisp hop biterness, the Kolsch gets its name from Koln (Cologne), Germany, where it was first brewed. Brewing had been going on in Koln since the 800s, but the modern Kolsh came about in the 1800s when people in the area started drinking an intruder beer from Pilzen, Czech (the Pilsner beer). The brewers of Koln got together and formalized the Kolsch style. Just like the Pilsner it was a straw-colored beer with hop bitterness, but it was brewed using the warmer ale yeast instead of Pilsner's cold-fermenting lager yeast. This gives Kolsh a slightly less crisp taste than the Pilsner.
Traditionally a Pale Ale was defined as any beer that wasn't a Stout/Porter. But in craft beer today Pale Ale is a specific style that uses lighter malts with a nice balance of hops for a bitter, but not overly-so beer. It's an incredibly popular style for craft brewers and was one of the first beers brewed by the earliest American craft beer, New Albion Brewing.
The Porter, a dark, nearly black beer, usually with a noticeable hop bitterness, was one of the most popular beers in early America. It was incredibly popular with American colonists and was one of the first beer styles made in America. The Porter style has a fairly long history and no one has any idea what the traditional Porters tasted like. In craft beer today the porter uses dark malts and combines enough hops to keep the bitterness in the beer through the burnt, coffee flavor from the malts.
Saison is probably my favorite beer style. Saison's are also called "farmhouse ales" because the style was developed in the farm country between France and Belgium. Originally it was drunk by the "saisonniers", the migrant workers who would bring the harvest in. Saisons tend to be very unique with a dry, almost chardonnay quality and grassy afternotes. I always think saisons taste like an open field (in a good way).
Scotch ales traditionally hail from Scotland (as you can imagine) and have the characteristic of being sweeter than other beers. This is largely due to the lower hop content, something that historically came about because it's tough to grow hops in Scotland. They lean towards the more alcoholic side and will remind you a bit of sweet toast or toffee.
Where to find it in Ballard: Hilliard's Blonde (A Blonde Scotch ale - really good!)
Originally "Stout" meant a stronger version of other beers. Today, the Stout is largely thought of as a stronger Porter and they share a lot of characteristics. The Stout is a dark, black beer with burnt, coffee, or toffee flavors. It has an equally high hop content which compliments the dark malts nicely. You'll also find some Stout derivatives like the Oatmeal Stout that is brewed with Oatmeal to give the beer a slightly creamier texture/mouthfeel or the Milk Stout that uses lactose sugar and gives the beer a slightly milky sweet flavor and texture.
It's tough to beat the refreshing qualities of a wheat beer on a hot summer day. The wheat beer, also called a Weissbier or Hefeweizen, has its roots in Germany and, as the name implies, is brewed with wheat in addition to barley. The wheat gives the beer a very nice smooth texture and also adds a little bit of crispness. Nearly all wheat beers have very little bitterness so the wheat and the malted barley flavors get to be front and center. Many people taste cloves, bannana, and other fruit tastes in wheat beers.
While ales use a yeast that ferments at a warmer temperature, lagers use a yeast that ferments at a lower temperature. Lagers are also sometimes called "bottom fermented beers" because the lager yeast tends to stay near the bottom of the fermenter during the process. The yeast used in lagers doesn't leave as much yeast flavor as the ale yeast and as a result lager beers tend to be described as "crisper" than ales, something noticiable in beers like the pilsner or the American lager.
The American Lager gets a bad name among a lot of craft beer drinkers. It's the style of the most popular beers in America, Coors Light, PBR, Budwieser, etc. American Lagers will be very light in color, have almost no aroma, and will have a refreshing, crisp bite. Technically the major beers are called Adjunct American Lagers because they're brewed with adjuncts like rice and corn. Finding a craft American Lager is a much different beer and worth checking out.
Where to find it in Ballard: Maritime Pacific Old Seattle Lager,
The Bock beer hails from Einbeck, Germany and is traditionally darker, amber in color with a sweet malty flavor and floral hop taste. It's a great example of the dark, German lagers and contrasting a Bock beer with something like an Amber ale is a good experiment in just how critical a factor yeast is. Bock beers tend to have a toasty malt aroma with very little hop smell.
Where to find it in Ballard: Hilliard's Grand Inqisitor (Doppelbock)
Arguably one of the most famous styles of beer, to me, the Pilsner exemplifies the relationship between beer and the regional ecology. It originated in Pilzen, Chzech, which is blessed with incredibly soft water and close proximity to fields of Saaz hops which provide a lot of aroma with a crisp, but almost understated bitterness. Bring all those things together and you have a Pilsner beer. Pilsners are a very pale, golden straw color with floral, spicy hop aroma and the same spicy notes in the flavor.