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Beer FAQ

What’s in beer? How is it made?

Water: Start with a bunch of hot water. The mineral content can make a difference, and the historical development of most beer styles correlates with the hardness, alkalinity, and sulfate concentrations of local water supplies. The soft, pure water of Pilsn is perfect for brewing Pilsners, while IPAs and hoppy brown ales are best brewed with high-sulfate water found in Northern England. Very dark beers like Guinness would actually be too acidic if brewed with soft water, but the alkaline water of Dublin perfectly offsets that acidity. Fortunately, having ideal water is not entirely necessary: Most modern city tap water supplies are “middle of the road” and thus adequate for brewing any style of beer (after the chlorine is filtered out).

Barley & Other Cereal Grains (esp. Wheat, Rye, and Oats): First, the barley seeds are malted. They’re moistened until germination begins, which creates enzymes in the seeds that can convert their carbohydrate stores into sugar. Then they’re dried with heat to halt the germination before the plant can eat the carbohydrates. The more heavily they are toasted, the more dark color and roasty/toasty/nutty flavors they will impart.  This is almost always done by a separate company called a “maltster”. The brewer buys the malted grain (simply called “malt”), crushes it a bit to separate the contents of the seed from the hull, and then soaks it in hot water (roughly 154 degrees F) to activate those carbohydrate-converting enzymes and produce sugar. In fact, a beer’s “original gravity”, or “O.G.”, is a measure of how much sugar was extracted. Like a steeping tea, the hot water also picks up any roasty flavors and dark colors from the malt. The resulting sugary water is called “wort”. It’s a sweet, sticky blend of simple sugars (especially maltose), complex sugars, and proteins. Wheat beers replace much of the barley with wheat, but the idea is the same. Steeping different types of grains in the wort adds different characteristics. As mentioned, heavily roasted barley makes the beer dark and toasty/chocolate flavored. Flaked oats (oatmeal) and flaked unmalted barley make the beer creamier. Some malts add proteins that support head retention. After soaking the grains for about an hour, the sweet wort is drained off and boiled for at least an hour to sterilize it and to remove unwanted proteins that were present in the grains. During the boil, hops are added.

Hops: Hops (technically: hop cones) are the flower of the female Humulus lupulus plant, which is in the Cannabaceae family. (The genus Cannabis is also in this family, though hops don’t contain the psychoactive chemical THC.) Hop cones look like a cross between a small, soft, green pinecone and an artichoke. They’re about as big as your thumbnail. They are harvested in the fall and gently kiln-dried before use. Hops are usually added to the wort during the boil. The soluble resins that leech out of the hops contain alpha acids. When boiled, these alpha acids go through a chemical change (isomerization) that results in a bitter-flavored compound which nicely balances the sweetness from the barley. Hops also contain aromatic oils whose smell and taste could be described as having grass, citrus, pine, or grapefruit flavors, depending on the hop variety. These oils boil off quickly, so hops added early in the boil impart the bitter flavor from the alpha acids but lose their oils, while hops added late in the boil impart little bitterness but add lots of flavor and aroma. Brewers typically add different varieties of hops at different times to generate a desired flavor profile. “Dry hopping” refers to the practice of adding hops after the boil and fermentation are complete, so that the hop oils are extracted without adding any bitterness. “Wet hop” (or, “harvest”) beers are made with freshly-picked hops that are not kiln-dried before use. This reduces the bitterness they generate, but gives a more green, fresh flavor. Most brewers try to brew wet hop beers within one day of harvesting, to maximize freshness since wet hops rot quickly. Hops are also a mild antibiotic, keeping bacteria under control during fermentation and storage. Hop oils are volatile, so hop aroma and flavor fades relatively quickly. Hoppy beers are best enjoyed fresh; within a month of brewing, ideally. The colder they are stored the longer they will last.

Yeast: After the boil, the wort is quickly cooled to room temperature (or colder) and yeast is added. Yeast turns simple (and some complex) sugars into alcohol, but also may generate flavorful byproducts like esters, phenols, and fusel (complex) alcohols that create unique flavors. For example, German hefeweizens have lots of banana-like esters and clove-like phenols. Traditional Belgian beers have tons of phenol and ester flavors, while modern American styles tend to keep these to a minimum. Almost all beers are classified as either lagers or ales, and the distinction is in the yeast: Lagers are beers whose yeast sink to the bottom, ferment “clean” at colder temperatures (historically in caves, now in refrigerators), and produce fewer byproducts. Ales are beers whose yeast float to the top, ferment at room temperature, and generate more of those fruity esters, phenols, and fusel alcohols. Big brewers filter their finished beer to remove any yeast, but most craft brewers do not.

Other Stuff: “Adjunct” grains like corn and rice replace some of the barley in mass-produced beers to provide a cheaper source of sugars and a distinct, clean flavor. Belgian brewers will toss all sorts of flavorings into the beer, like cloves, orange peel, and coriander. Some Belgian beers use “candi sugar” (a type of invert sugar) to pump up the alcohol content and add some flavor. Brewers of Double IPAs often add corn sugar, which lightens the body and increases the alcohol content without adding malty sweetness. Some brewers age their beers in bourbon, rye, brandy, or wine barrels, picking up the oak flavor of the barrel as well as the flavor of the barrel’s previous contents. They also add coffee, espresso, chocolate, vanilla beans, fruit, honey, or whatever. Many brewers will also add finings (clarifying agents) like dried seaweed, fish bladders, or gelatin to precipitate out unwanted proteins. The fining agents also precipitate out, and are indiscernible in the final product. The German purity law “Reinheitsgebot” of 1516 mandated that beer has none of these adjuncts; just water, barley, and hops (yeast wasn’t discovered at the time). A much weaker version of this law still persists today, though sugars and finings are generally allowed.

What’s the difference between “ale”, “beer”, and “lager”?

In modern times, beer is the broadest term, and (almost) all beers are subcategorized as either ales or lagers. (There are a few “hybrid” styles which share characteristics of both.) Ales are fermented near room temperature using yeast that float on the surface. This type of yeast generates more fermentation by-products (esters and fusel alcohols) that give fruity flavors. Lagers are fermented at refrigerator temperatures using yeast that sink. These yeast give a clearer, cleaner beer.

One misconception is that ales are big and dark, while lagers are light and refreshing. While generally true, there are important counter-examples. Pale ales and Golden/Blonde ales are relatively light, clean, and refreshing. Dopplebocks and schwartzbeers, on the other hand, are big, dark, smooth lagers.

Historically, “beer”, “ale”, and “lager” have had slightly different meanings. A long time ago, all beers were fairly dark and smokey (a byproduct of malting over a wood fire), and usually tart from infection. Before hops, herbs were used to balance the sweetness with bitterness. Lager yeast hadn’t been separately identified. Basically, everything was called an “ale”. When hops began to be added (slowly, from 1300-1600), “ale” typically referred to old-fashioned unhopped beers, while the hopped varieties became known as “beer”. This distinction became more prevalent in the 1700s, when clean-burning coke could be used to minimize smokiness, creating light-colored, clean, hoppy “beer”, as opposed to darker “ales” with little or no hops.

“Lagers” date back to the monasteries in Southern Germany, which had been brewing beer since St. Benedict in the fifth century and often stored (or, in German, “lagered”) their beer in caves. Because brewers reuse yeast from batch to batch, this cold storage put evolutionary pressure on the yeast, resulting in certain strands that prefer cold temperatures and sink to the bottom. These beers were called “lager bier” in German, and were initially popular in and around Germany. The first truly pale lager was brewed in Plzn, Bohemia in 1842, in the brewery that eventually became Pilsner Urquell. In 1883, Emil Christian Hansen (inspired by Pasteur’s work) isolated and cultured a bottom-fermenting yeast at the Carlsberg brewery, proving that this yeast was quite different from ale yeast. With advances in refrigeration and transportation, the modern pale lager was born, and spread throughout the world. The use of this bottom-fermenting yeast now officially distinguishes “lager” from “ale”.

In modern times (particularly in the UK), “beer” is still sometimes viewed as a synonym for force-carbonated, pale lager served on tap, as opposed to naturally-carbonated “ale” served from a cask.

Does beer go bad? What is “skunky” beer? How long can it age? How do you age it?

FACT: Skunking is ONLY caused by exposure to UV light. Heat and temperature fluctuations can promote staleness, but NOT skunking!

Light & Skunkiness: If beer is exposed to UV or blue-violet visible light, sulfur-containing isohumulone molecules derived from the hops’ alpha acids will break down into sulfur-containing compounds that are also found in skunk spray. The beer becomes “skunked” and you can definitely smell it. Brown bottles offer more protection than green or clear bottles, but both can skunk in a matter of minutes if exposed to direct sun. Keep your beer in a cold, dark place. Some mass-produced beers such as Miller Genuine Draft (“MGD”) use chemically altered isohumulones that are light-resistant but still contribute the desired bitterness; these beers can be distributed in clear glass bottles without risk of skunking.

Aging, Storage & Staleness: All beer ages. Technically, it oxidizes, or gets “stale”. Practically, this means it starts tasting a bit like cardboard, hop flavors subside, and the various flavors muddle together. For most beers (especially lighter or hoppier beers) this is a bad thing, and it becomes noticeable within a month or two. Or, within a few hours after it’s opened. But a lot of people like how age changes a high-alcohol, dark, malty beer. It’s similar to how age changes a big red wine. You can stick a bottle of stout in a cool, dark cabinet in the corner of your basement for a year or more and see how it changes. Ideal storage temperature is around 55F. Colder temperatures slow the aging, so beer lasts longest in the fridge. Some really extreme beers (especially “old ales” and “barleywines”) are meant to be aged and can last several decades if stored properly. On the other hand, there are many beers that I’ve stored for 2 years and then regretted it.

Was “India Pale Ale” (IPA) invented for transport to India?

It’s a nice theory, because hops and alcohol do prevent infection, and IPAs have plenty of both. But it’s almost certainly false. The hoppy beer enjoyed in India was most likely a version of the strong “October ale” style that had existed in England for decades before being shipped overseas. Furthermore, plenty of styles of beer survived the voyage to India, including porter. There is no evidence that any style of beer was newly invented just for shipping to India. The October ale was popular in India, though, and a lot of it was produced in England for sale in India. Its moniker changed over time (rather slowly) to become what we now know as IPA.

The full story starts in the 1700s, when porter was the beer of choice among the working class. The development of clean-burning coke as a fuel enabled maltsters to kiln-dry barley with minimal smoke, creating new beers with a lighter “pale” color. A strong, highly hopped pale beer called October ale became popular among English gentry. In 1752, George Hodgson opened the Bow Brewery just east of London on the Thames river. Coincidentally, his brewery was very close to the East India Trading Company’s docks, and by the 1780s he was selling his beer to the Company’s officers for resale in India. Hodgson gave generous, lengthy credit terms that enabled the officers to pay Hodgson after their return voyage. And his October ale (the brand name of which is not known) became very popular in India. Consequently, he obtained a near monopoly on early beer exports. Historical records indicate he (and other brewers) successfully shipped many different styles of beer to India, including porter. The same variety of beers was also shipped regularly to Australia. Thus, hoppy beers are not the only ones capable of surviving the long voyage. There is also no record that Hodgson invented a new style of beer, or that he marketed his October ale as “India Pale Ale”. All evidence indicates that he sold the same beers in India that he had already been selling in England.

By the 1820s, the Bow Brewery had become an aggressive monopolist. They used predatory pricing to stifle competition. The resulting swings in prices and availability frustrated merchants. The new managing partners (Frederick Hodgson and Tomas Drane) decided to vertically integrate by opening their own shipping operation and canceling their credit lines to the East India officers. In 1822 the frustrated East India officers asked Allsopp, one of the large industrial brewers from Burton-on-Trent in Northern England, to provide a substitute for Hodgson’s pale ale. The brewers of the North had recently suffered from reduced exports of porter to Russia, thanks to high import tariffs imposed by the Russian government, so they were happy to oblige. They not only produced a beer similar to Hodgson’s, but had a water supply naturally rich in sulfates–which helps augment hop flavors–so their product was superior. In 1823 Allsopp’s pale ale began shipping to India. It was instantly preferred over Hodgson’s by shippers, merchants, and customers alike. In the same year, fellow Burton-on-Trent breweries Bass and Salt began producing hoppy, pale beers for export to India. A new railroad line linked Burton-on-Trent to London in 1841, allowing much greater volumes of beer to flow from Northern England to London, and on to India. (The story that locals first enjoyed Bass pale ale when it washed ashore from an 1829 shipwreck is almost certainly false.) The Bow Brewery faded quickly behind the competition. It remained a minor player, focusing more on domestic sales under various names, until 1933, when it was demolished to build apartments.

Hodgson’s beer was not called IPA, but sometimes sold in London as “pale ale as prepared for India”. The first known use of the term “India Pale Ale” actually comes from a Sydney, Australia retailer named A. B. Spark, who, on August 29, 1829, advertised “Taylor’s and East India pale ale” for sale. It’s a bit ambiguous whose pale ale Mr. Spark is referencing, but another ad from Hobart, Australia dated February 19, 1830 reads “Taylor and Co.’s Brown Stout, East India Pale Ale, (the best summer drink), and prime XXX Ale, FOR SALE…”. Thus, it appears that the Taylor Walker brewery’s hoppy pale ale was being sold by retailers in Australia as an “East India Pale Ale”. The first instance of the “India Pale Ale” designation comes from the Liverpool Mercury newspaper in 1835. But none of these early references mention Hodgson or the Bow Brewery, and brewers themselves didn’t use the term for many more years. The style became popular in England through the 1840s, but the name “India Pale Ale” eventually shifted to “bitter”, to appeal to the domestic audience. You can still order a pint of “bitters” today, though it will be much weaker than its 19th century ancestor.

Tax hikes, the temperance movement, and two world wars led to the weakening of all English ales in the first half of the 1900s. The strong IPAs of the 1800s quickly evolved into low-alcohol, mass-produced products. Midcentury English IPAs (or, “bitters”) were typically 3 to 4 percent alcohol by volume, making them weaker than modern Bud Light. Only with the craft brewing movement—initiated in the USA during the 1980s and 90s—did IPAs regain their strength and hoppiness. Jack McAuliffe brewed a hoppy pale ale at New Albion Brewery in 1977, which inspired Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi to create Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in 1980. In 1994 Vinnie Cilurzo opened the Blind Pig Brewery with a batch of “Inaugural Ale”, the first commercially-brewed “double IPA”. Rogue Ales debuted their Imperial IPA (“I2PA”) in 1996. Stone brewed a double IPA for their second anniversary in 1998. After shuttering his first brewery and moving to the Russian River Brewing Company in 1997, Cilurzo created Pliny the Elder in 1999, which, along with Stone’s Ruination from 2003, is still one of the classic examples of the Double IPA style.

What are Trappist beers? Do monks really brew them? Why is Westvleteren special? Is St. Bernardus the same as Westvleteren?

Yes, monks brew them. Or, in some cases, monks hire professional brewers to brew for them in their monasteries. A bit of history: Monks in Benedictine monasteries follow the Rule of St. Benedict, which, inspired by Jesus’ time in the wilderness, focuses on peace, prayer, work, and self-sufficiency. Benedictine monasteries produce their own food and drink, and use proceeds from the sale of their products to fund the work of the monastery. In 1098, a Benedictine abbot in Eastern France felt the Benedictines had strayed too far from these tenants—some Catholic churches had become very wealthy from rents and tithes—so he branched off and created the Cistercian order to return focus to the Rule of St. Benedict. History repeated itself when, in 1664, the abbot of the La Trappe Abbey in Northern France began a reformation of the Cistercian practices, focusing again on a strict observance of the Rule of St. Benedict. Thus began the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (OCSO). The official name is a bit unwieldy, so the order is commonly referred to as the “Trappist” order, after its founding abbey. In 1892 the Pope officially recognized the Trappists as a separate order.

Today most of the nearly 200 Trappist monasteries produce goods such as cheese and bread, and the proceeds are used to fund their religious activities. Historically, many also brewed and sold beer. Unfortunately, many of the Trappist breweries were either closed or destroyed by wars. By 1997, only seven remained. These are the traditional Trappist brewers. They are:

  1. Achel (Abbey of St. Benedict, Achel, Belgium)
  2. Rochefort (Abbey of Notre-Dame de St. Remy, Rochefort, Belgium)
  3. Orval (Abbey of Notre-Dame d’Orval, by the Belgium-France border)
  4. Chimay (Scourmont Abbey, Chimay, Belgium)
  5. Koningshoeven (branded as La Trappe. Our Lady of Koningshoeven, near Tilburg, The Netherlands)
  6. Westmalle (Abbey of Westmalle, Westmalle, Belgium)
  7. Westvleteren (Abbey of St. Sixtus, Westvleteren, Belgium)

These seven monasteries (along with an eighth from Germany) were concerned about imitation products being produced by secular organizations for profit, so they established the International Trappist Association and an official Trappist branding that could only be applied to products produced by Trappist monasteries. Commercial beers similar to Trappist beers are often call “abbey” or “abbey-style” beers instead.

As of 2015, four new Trappist monestaries have opened production breweries. The new Trappist breweries are Stift Engelszell (Austria, approved in 2012), Spencer (St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, approved 2013), Zundert (Abdij Maria Toevlucht, Netherlands, approved in 2013), and Tre Fontane (Rome, Italy, approved in 2015).

There are several other non-Trappist monasteries that sell beer commercially, including Maredsous, Affligem, and Val-Dieu. In the USA, the Ovila Abbey partners with Sierra Nevada to brew their own line of beers. And there are many private breweries that brew “monastery-style” beers. But none of these products, monastic or not, can carry the official Trappist branding.

Trappist beers are generally classified by their strength, using the names Enkel (single), Dubbel (double), Tripel (triple), and Quadruple. Sometimes these are replaced by a numbering system, like 4, 6, 8, and 12, but the idea is the same. Enkels and Tripels are lighter in color with yeasty flavors and spice additions, while Dubbels and Quadruples are dark brown with malt, brown sugar, and dark fruit flavors. Enkels are no longer regularly produced, except as “patersbier” to be consumed by the monks within the abbeys. The dubbel and tripel style both originated at Westmalle in the 1850s and 1930s, respectively. The quadruple designation is only used by Koningshoeven, but this term is often used to describe other Trappist (and non-Trappist) beers, including the world-famous Westvleteren 12.

Westvleteren is special because, unlike the other Trappist brewers, they only sell their beer at the abbey and at an adjacent cafe named In de Vrede (“In Peace”). The abbey is located in a hard-to-reach rural region of Western Belgium. Their beer “Westvleteren 12” (a quadruple) is often regarded as the best beer in the world, further exacerbating its rarity. The cafe sells limited numbers of 6-packs. To buy from the abbey, you have to call a certain phone number on the right day and time (posted on their website; but it’ll probably be busy). You tell them your license plate number, and they give you a three-hour window a week or two later in which you can come pick up 2 cases of beer in the car bearing that license plate. That license plate and phone number cannot be used to order beer again for 60 days.

Westvleteren’s beer circulates fairly widely on the black market, however, and is not terribly hard to find for those willing to pay for it. In 2012 the brewery made an unprecedented sale of several thousand 6-packs of Westvleteren 12 to retailers and distributors worldwide. The revenues were used to fund major renovations to the abbey. The beer was made available for sale in the USA on 12/12/12 and generally sold out within hours.

St. Bernardus is current a commercial brewery that brews an abbey-style beer (St. Bernardus Abt. 12) that is quite similar to Westvleteren 12. In the late 1800s, monks from the French Mont de Cats monastery fled to Belgium to escape persecution. They established a temporary monestary which they named the Refuge Notre Dame de St. Bernard, and started producing cheese. The monks eventually returned to France and, in 1934, sold their Belgian cheese-making operation to Evarist Deconinck. After World War II, the nearby St. Sixtus Abbey was having financial difficulty and decided to hire Deconinck to brew their Westvleteren beer for them. The St. Bernardus brewery was born (named after the Mont de Cats refuge) in 1946, brewing Westvleteren using the abbey’s own yeast strain. Finally, in 1990, the St. Sixtus abbey expanded their Westvleteren brewery and, in 1992, took back the brewing operations from St. Bernardus. They actually acquired the yeast strain of Westmalle for their own beer, rather than taking back their old strain from St. Bernardus. St. Bernardus continued to brew with the old strain. So now St. Bernardus Abt 12 is effectively a “pre-1990” version of Westvleteren 12, while modern Westvleteren 12 is a slightly different product. Both are wonderfully complex beers, with notes of dark sugar and plum.

What are the basic styles of beer? How is beer categorized?

For a somewhat official (and comprehensive) answer, see the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) style guidelines. The (incomplete) table below summarizes most of the beer styles you’re likely to encounter, along with examples of each.

First, note that almost all beers are Lagers (with bottom-fermenting/sinking yeast, colder fermentation temperatures, and cleaner taste) or Ales (with top-fermenting/floating yeast, warmer fermentation temperatures, and noticeable yeasty/fruity flavors). All terms like pilsner, bock, stout, and IPA are sub-categories of these two main categories. The only commonly-seen exceptions are Steam Beers, which use lager yeasts but ferment them at warmer (“steamy”) temperatures, and Kolschs, which use ale yeast but ferment them at colder temperatures.

Style Color Flavor Alc.% Examples
American Lagers
Light American Lager Very pale, straw-colored. Fizzy. Light. Dry. Very little flavor. 3%-4% Bud Lite, Miller Light
Standard American Lager Straw-colored. Fizzy. Light. Dry. Corn and/or rice are detectable. 4%-5% PBR, High Life, Bud, Miller, Coors
“Premium” American Lager Straw-colored to golden. Fizzy. Light. Dry. Very little flavor. 5%-6% MGD, Michelob, Heineken, Stella, Beck’s, Red Stripe
German-Style Lagers
Pilsner (or Pilsener if Czech) Straw to light gold. Big creamy head. Crisp and bitter 4%-5% Pilsner Urquell, Victory Prima, Bitburger, Warsteiner
Oktoberfest Dark gold to deep orange-red Slightly malty & sweet, then dry 5%-6% Anything labeled “Marzen” or “Oktoberfest”
Dunkel Deep copper to dark brown Malty, caramel, nutty 5% Penn Dark, Hacker-Pschorr Alt Munich Dark
Dopplebock Dark brown, big creamy head Very rich and malty. Toasty, 7%-10% Ayinger Celebrator, Paulaner Salvator, Spaten Optimator
Pale-Colored Ales
Kolsch Like a soft Pilsner Clean, but with a touch of fruitiness 4%-5% Reissdorf, Gaffel. Some beers marketed as “blonde”.
Pale Ale/ESB Golden. Some carbonation. Somewhat hoppy (floral, piney, citrusy). 6% Sierra Nevada, Great Lakes Burning River, Full Sail, Bass
India Pale Ale (IPA) Dark golden. Mild carbonation. Very hoppy. Quite sweet and bitter. 4%-5% Bell’s Two-Hearted, AleSmith IPA, Victory Hop Devil
Double/Imperial IPA Dark golden to amber Insanely hoppy. 7%-10% Pliny the Elder/Younger, Avery Majaraja, Bell’s HopSlam, Dogfish Head 90-Minute
Wheat Beers
Wheat Beer/Hefeweizen Pale, light body with delicate frothy head Light, refreshing, slightly sweet 4%-5% Bell’s Oberon, Harpoon UFO, Anchor Summer, many Hefeweizens
Witbier Very pale straw, cloudy Sweet, with orange zest, tart 5% Hoegaarden, Allagash White, Blanche de Chambly, Bell’s Winter White
French/Belgian Styles
Saison/Farmhouse Pale orange Fruity, spicy, tart, sour 5%-7% Saison Dupont, Ommegang Hennepin
Trappist: Dubbel Amber-brown Dark sugar, sweet malt 7% Chimay Red
Trappist: Tripel Yellow-gold Spicy, fruity, soft 8% Chimay White
Belgian Strong Dark Ale/Quadruple Dark amber-brown Rich caramel malt, fruity 9% Chimay Blue, Unibroue Trois Pistoles, Gulden Draak
Sour Ales 
Lambic Dark yellow, light brown, flat Intensely sour. 6% Harder to find. Cantillon Iris, Rivertown Lambic, LambickX
Fruit Lambic (Kriek, Framboise…) Reddish brown to red Lambic sour with fruit added 6% Cantillon, Lindemanns (syrup added), Hanssens, Dri Fonteinen, Boon
Gueuze Fizzy, light straw Blend of young & old lambic. 6% Lindemanns Cuvee Rene, Drie Fonteinen, Girardin, Hannsens
Flanders Red/Brown/Oud Bruin Brown or red-brown Sour, tart, fruity, malty (brown) 5-6% Monk’s Cafe, Duchesse de Bourgogne, Rodenbach
Malty Red-Brown Ales
Scottish Ales Amber to copper, varying Lots of caramel, sticky 3%-10% Bellhaven, Traquair, Founders Dirty Bastard, Orkney Skull Splitter
Irish/American Red Ale Amber, deep red Caramel and butter/toffee 4%-6% Great Lakes Conway’s, Smithwick’s, 3 Floyds Brian Boru, Lagunitas Censored
Brown Ale Brown body, tan head Caramel, toasty, nutty, chocolate 4%-6% Bell’s Best Brown, Newcastle Brown, Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown
Stouts & Porters
Porter Dark brown to black, varies Toasty, burnt malt 4%-9% Samuel Smith Taddy Porter, Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald, Anchor Porter, Sierra Nevada Porter
Irish Dry Stout Almost black. “Nitro” carbonation Toasty and dry. Smooth 4%-5% Guinness
Oatmeal/American Stout Dark brown to black with tan head Deep roasted coffee, dark chocolate, oats 4%-7% Sierra Nevada Stout, Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout
Russian Imperial Stout Viscous, jet black, tan head Dark chocolate, roasted espresso, bitter 7%-12% Hoppin Frog BORIS, Bell’s Expedition, Old Rasputin…
California Common/Steam Beer Amber/copper color Toasty, caramel, and hoppy 5% Anchor Steam



Below is a nice graph showing how the various styles line up in terms of color and bitterness.

“Darkness” is measured in SRM (Standard Reference Measurement), which represents how much (blue) light can pass through the beer, as measured by a spectrophotometer. Zero is clear; anything above 25 is nearly black. Although light penetration doesn’t directly affect the beer’s taste, it is indicative of how much roasted malt was used and how heavily it was roasted; these typically give a fuller body and more sweet, roasty flavors.

Bitterness is measured in International Bittering Units (IBU). One IBU is one part-per-million of bitter-tasting isohumulones. Isohumulones come from hops, so the higher the IBU, the more hoppy the beer.

What’s the difference between micro/craft beer and mass-produced beers?

In terms of technology, not much; the growth in craft brewing really appears to be driven by demand, not a change in technology. The brewing process is basically the same, whether you’re brewing 5 gallons at home or A-B InBev is brewing 150 million gallons of Bud Light. The difference is in the ingredients. Bud/Miller/Coors add “adjunct” grains like corn and rice to produce a lighter-colored and drier-tasting beer. One must respect the brewing processes of Bud/Miller/Coors, however: full-bodied beers easily mask off-flavors generated by flaws in the brewing process, but clean-tasting beers like Bud Light have no tolerance for error. And repeating that exact flavor batch after batch requires a very precise process.

What about those “premium” brands like Bass, Pilsner Urquell, and St. Pauli Girl you see in grocery stores?

These premium brands are rarely considered “craft” because they are brewed by the big brewers. And many are in green bottles, making them likely to be skunked. A slight sulfuric flavor (indicating a small degree of skunking) is common in these beers. A list of popular premium brands found in the US and brewed by the big companies is given below. (The list may be out of date as large companies merge, divest, and acquire brands quite quickly.)

(formerly Anheuser-Busch and InBev)
(formerly Miller, Molson, and Coors)
Franziskaner Weissbier
Goose Island (partially owned)
Kirin Ichiban
Modelo (partially owned)
Natural Ice
Old Dominion
Red Hook (partially owned)
Rolling Rock
Shock Top
St. Pauli Girl
Stella Artois
Tennent’s (UK)
Widmer Bros (partially owned)
Whitbread (UK)
Bierra Peroni (Italy)
Blue Moon
Carling (UK)
Gran Riserva
Milwaukee’s Best
Olde English
Pilsner Urquell
Sharp’s NA
Birra Moretti (Italy)
Dos Equis

Why does Guinness have such a thick, creamy head? What does the `widget’ in the can do? Is it really better in Dublin?

First, let me point out that Guinness is not a strong beer. At 4.2% ABV, it has exactly the same alcohol content as Bud Light. It’s just the strong roasted barley flavors that make people believe it’s a big, strong beer.

Surprisingly, the unique creaminess is not the beer; it’s the way it’s served. You can make any beer have that creamy Guinness head.

Beer on tap is pressurized with CO2. CO2 dissolves into the beer, creating carbonation, and the CO2 pressure also pushes the beer out of the keg and into the glass. Nitrogen (N2) does not dissolve into beer very much, so it pushes the beer out without creating carbonation. Guinness is traditionally carbonated with a mix of CO2 and N2, called “beer gas”. This leads to less dissolved gas and smaller bubbles. The result is a creamier body and more dense head.

In addition, Guinness is properly served through a “stout faucet”, which is like a normal faucet, except it has a small, perforated disc in the nozzle that causes the beer to foam as it’s being poured. This causes what little carbonation there is to leave the beer, generating a nice, thick head. And, since the body is nearly flat, it is even creamier.

Again: It’s the technique, not the beer. Any beer can be carbonated with beer gas and served through a stout faucet, giving a creamier body and a thick, dense head. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see this done to other beers at a brewpub, where a beer would be advertised as being “on nitro” if carbonated and served in this manner.

The “widget” in Guinness cans is a hollow plastic ball with a tiny hole. The can is pressurized with liquid nitrogen upon canning, forcing N2 and beer into the ball as the liquid N2 turns to gas and expands. When the can is opened, the pressurized N2 and beer spray out of the hole in the widget, agitating the beer and releasing its carbonation quickly. Just like the stout faucet.

“Nitro” beers like Guinness appear to have bubbles in the head that fall rather than rise immediately after pouring. In a glass that is wider near the top, bubbles rising in the middle of the glass create a downward flow of beer—and bubbles—along the outside of the glass, making the outermost bubbles (which have been slowed by friction against the glass) push down rather than float up. Thus, to the drinker, it looks like the head is cascading downwards.

According to the Guinness website, all Guinness soldin Ireland, the UK, and North America is brewed at their historic St. James Gate brewery in Dublin. Furthermore, they claim a panel of taste testers was unable to identify differences between Guinness brewed at St. James Gate and their other locations. Most likely the perceived difference between Guinness served in Dublin versus elsewhere comes from freshness and attention to detail. Pubs in Dublin get kegs of Guinness fresh from the brewery, turn them over more quickly than anywhere else, and pay special attention to presentation and delivering “the perfect pint”.

At what temperature should beer be served? Should the glass be frosted? Do the English really serve it warm?

Serving Temperature: The colder it is, the less you taste it. Cheap beers brewed with lots of adjuncts (like Bud/Miller/Coors) are meant to be refreshing, but don’t taste great, so these should be served at refrigerator temperature. If a beer bottle says “serve extra cold”, it means the brewer doesn’t want you tasting their product! For beers you actually want to taste, the general rule is: the darker the beer, the warmer the serving temperature.

How warm is warm? Anything worth drinking should be served at least above 40F, which is already 4-7 degrees above refrigerator temperature. A nice Pilsner should be served around 40-45F, so take it out of the fridge, pour it, and let it sit just a minute before diving in. A hoppy IPA or a nice sweet amber is best served at 45-50F, where you can actually taste the hops or the malty sweetness. Big stouts, porters, barleywines, and other big beers are like red wines; they should be served at 50-55F. Remember, you’re drinking these for the flavor; they’re not meant to be thirst-quenchers!

English Beer & Cellar Temperature: The English serve their beer at cellar temperature, which is 50-55F. A true old-fashioned pub will draw its beer up from kegs stored downstairs in a cool basement that naturally maintains these temperatures. To an American this tastes warm; many people complain that it’s served at room temperature. It’s not! It’s just designed to maximize the flavor experience. Unfortunately, it does minimize the aroma experience: The release of pleasant-smelling volatile compounds is enhanced by higher ethanol concentrations and carbonation, both of which are low in English cask ales.

Frosted Glasses: Again, cold beer numbs the tongue. A frosted glass keeps the beer way too cold. Plus, the condensation on the glass will slightly water down your beer, and most beers get cloudy if shocked with such cold temperatures. Save the frosted glasses for Bud/Miller/Coors.

What are “cask” beer, “real ale”, and “firkins”?

Modern mass-produced beer is pasteurized or filtered to remove remaining yeast, then either bottled or put into kegs that are purged of oxygen and pressurized by a CO2 cylinder. This maximizes both shelf life and consistency. And, when the bartender opens a tap at the bar, the pressurized CO2 conveniently pushes the beer out. Before pressurized CO2 tanks were available, however, brewers put their unpasteurized, unfiltered beer into pitched-lined wooden casks that were nearly airtight. These casks would be stored in the cellar below the bar, to keep them cool. The still-living yeast would chew up the remaining sugars, creating a moderate amount of CO2 that naturally carbonated the beer. To serve a pint, the bartender would use a “beer engine” or “hand pump” to pump the beer up out of the cask and into the glass. (Modern hand pumps often contain an agitator in the spout to release carbonation and create foam.) The resulting empty space in the cask was replaced by air, causing the beer to age quickly. It would also lose carbonation over time. Yeast sediment (which is harmless, and even healthy) would be present, occasionally showing up in the glass. Some brewers and bars imitate this same delivery method today, using more sanitary stainless steel casks. But, because of the exposure to oxygen and the still-living yeast, cask beers change quickly over time, and quality drops noticeably after only a few days.

Technically, a firkin is a unit of volume equal to a quarter of a barrel (or, 10.81 gallons). Firkin-sized casks are small enough that they can be placed behind the bar and dispensed using only gravity; no need for a hand pump. Beer served in this way will often be called “on firkin”.

The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) is a movement to support beer served in the old-fashioned style. CAMRA therefore demands that “Real Ale” (a term they coined in the 1970s) be unpasteurized, unfiltered, and never artificially carbonated.

In my experience, naturally-carbonated beers have softer carbonation, giving a smoother, more full-bodied experience. Some artificially-carbonated beers have too much “bite”; the carbonation—and resulting carbonic acid—can noticeably sting the tongue. Most likely, this is simply the result of having too much carbonation, regardless of whether it was added naturally or artificially. But there are still differences between cask beer and filtered beer, beyond differences in carbonation levels: The yeast present in real ale may add some extra fullness to the body and a slight bready flavor.

One must be careful when ordering cask beer: Some bars add a cask beer offering as a novelty, but neglect to dump it after it has gone stale. If your cask beer tastes like cardboard, send it back. Some bars will mitigate this by purging the cask’s head space with low-pressure CO2. This slows the staling process, but will upset the more pedantic members of CAMRA.

What’s the best glassware for beer?

The most important thing is this: Don’t Drink From the Bottle! If you can’t smell it, you can’t really taste it. Glassware is all about showing off the appearance and delivering the aroma as you drink.

Pilsners and really foamy, straw-colored beers are great in a tall pilsner glass. That shows off their clear body and big, pillowy head. Ambers and IPAs are fine in a pint glass. If you can find one, a tulip-shaped glass (also called a Poco Grande glass) is perfect for IPAs. Belgian beers are almost always served in a chalice or goblet, which have wide mouths so you can really smell their complex aromas as you drink. Big beers like stouts and barleywines are great in a snifter or even a red wine glass. These help warm the beer a bit in your hand and concentrate the flaors and aroma.

What does it take to homebrew beer?

See my Homebrewing FAQ.

What are the health effects of beer and alcohol? How much beer is unhealthy?

THE SHORT ANSWER: Drinking one strong beer (or two weak beers) per day is good for your heart, won’t hurt your liver, and won’t make you fat. Drinking much more than that will start to damage your liver and make you gain weight, and the benefits to your heart disappear.

THE LONG ANSWER: Below is my read of the medical literature. Be warned that most studies are epidemiological, meaning they are purely correlational. For example, an overarching theme is that moderate drinkers tend to be the healthiest people, but maybe that’s because healthy people choose lifestyles consistent with moderate drinking. You should not infer that non-drinkers would be better off if they started drinking.

Heart, Liver & Mortality: There are two countervailing effects: total mortality rates are actually lowest for men who drink around 30 grams of ethanol per day and women who drink around 20g/day. The primary reason is because moderate alcohol intake reduces the risk of coronary heart disease, though it’s not well understood how exactly that works. It does seem that blood pressure is probably lower for moderate drinkers, compared to non-drinkers. However, the risk of liver damage and liver disease rises above that of the non-drinking population somewhere around 30-50 grams per day for both sexes. Blood pressure also goes up for heavier drinkers. The bottom line is that 20-30 grams per day is probably good, but much more is probably not. (Of course, drinking your week’s allotment in a single day doesn’t count.)

So, how much is 30 grams per day? It’s 1.25 fluid ounces of pure ethanol. That’s basically two “standard drinks”. If you’re drinking Bud/Miller/Coors, which is around 5% ABV, then it’s 25 ounces, or 2 bottles. But for a nice 10% barleywine, stout, or strong ale, you should probably shoot for one 12oz bottle per day. For 14% wine, it’s 9 ounces, or a bit less than 2 glasses. If 80-proof (40%) whiskey is your thing, go for 3 ounces (thus, 2 shots) per day.

Weight & Calories: Alcohol (pure ethanol) contains 7.1 calories per gram (or, 170 per fluid ounce), compared to 4 for protein and carbohydrates and 9 for fat. What is known is that alcohol calories can’t get stored as fat, but they do get burned first. So when you drink beer and eat potato chips, the fat from the chips (and, to a lesser extent, the other carbohydrates from the beer) get stored as fat while your body deals with the booze. In that sense, the calories do “count”. If you drank on an empty stomach, then they wouldn’t. In light-to-moderate drinkers, alcohol also stimulates appetite, meaning we rarely digest alcohol without food. In a controlled study, people who who had a drink before lunch ate faster and longer, resulting in 20% more calories consumed as food. Studies also suggest that people who drink more eat more fats, adding to weight gain. These various effects appear to be more severe in overweight people and people with a high-fat diet, and affected by several genetic factors. Although it’s hard to make sweeping generalizations, it is clear that alcohol has calories and also makes people eat more, and so weight gain is the sensible prediction.

Despite that obvious conclusion, many alcoholics are thin and malnourished. This has been a puzzle in the nutrition literature for decades: What happens to all the calories they ingest? One explanation is that the appetite-stimulating effects of alcohol are apparently reversed in alcoholics. They tend to skip meals, causing malnutrition. Furthermore, alcoholics oxidize lipids better, resulting in less fat storage. But the paradox is mainly explained by this: Heavy drinkers develop a second pathway for breaking down alcohol called the microsomal ethanol-oxidizing system, or MEOS. It is much less efficient, generating more heat energy than normal and increasing baseline energy expenditure. The result is “wasted energy” and less weight gain. Regularly drinking 180g/day (10-12 drinks/day) results in significant use of the MEOS pathway, though it has been observed in laboratory settings with subjects drinking 40g/day for just one week. Excess heat production (an indirect sign of MEOS) has even been observed in subjects given a one-time dose of 30g of ethanol without food. Unfortunately, the MEOS pathway creates a lot of bad by-products, resulting in drug interactions, liver damage, and an increased likelihood of certain cancers. Heavy drinking is obviously not a safe weight-loss strategy.

Interestingly, epidemiology (pure correlational) studies often show a result completely opposite of that predicted by the nutritional/medical analysis: Light-to-moderate drinkers tend have a body mass index (BMI) lower than both non-drinkers and heavy drinkers. Therefore, light-to-moderate drinkers must be choosing lifestyles where those extra calories offset by a healthier diet, more exercise, or both. This suggests that overall lifestyle choices play a much bigger role in your weight than does your alcohol consumption.

Sleep: Alcohol before bed helps you fall asleep. You’ll have more of the restful slow-wave (deep) sleep and less REM (dreaming) sleep while the alcohol is still in your system. But after 4 hours, the alcohol is metabolized out and your sleep pattern shifts to excessive REM sleep and insufficient slow-wave sleep. The result is ultimately less restful, especially because you’re aroused more easily from your sleep and may have a harder time falling back to sleep. This also triggers things like sleep apnea and teeth grinding. Unfortunately, the initial sleep-inducing effect of alcohol wears off—and the disruptive effects increase—if you drink before bedtime frequently.

These altered sleep patterns can occur even if you drink as much as 6 hours before bedtime. So having a couple of beers at happy hour can still make you tired the next day, even though the alcohol is out of your system when you go to bed.

Brain Cells: Contrary to popular belief, alcohol doesn’t kill brain cells. It does temporarily damage the way they communicate, but this is mostly reversible as the brain repairs itself. Alcoholism is associated with vitamin deficiencies that do damage the brain, but alcohol does not appear to be the direct cause.

Disease Resistance: There is actually some evidence that the consumption of alcoholic beverages enhances a person’s resistance to infection by pathogens such as Salmonella, food-borne Hepatitis A, and Heliobacter pylori.

Intoxication: Intoxication is a trickier issue since it depends on many factors, but here are some general rules. For a 180-pound man with a healthy liver, each 1/2 ounce of ethanol raises his blood-alcohol level (BAC) by 0.02, which then drops by 0.01 every 40 minutes due to metabolization. For a 140-pound woman, each 1/2-oz of ethanol raises the BAC by 0.033 but the metabolization rate of 0.01 per 40 minutes is roughly the same.

Here’s the math I do: If I’m going to drink for 2 hours, metabolization is going to reduce my BAC by 0.03 total (assuming I drink at a fairly even rate). I don’t want to leave the bar above, say, 0.07 ABV (and I prefer lower). So I can drink beers that, in total, would bring me up to 0.10, before accounting for metabolization. Based on my weight, I can therefore drink 2.5 ounces of ethanol (or, more generally, 1.25 ounces per hour). Each beer I order, I multiply the ABV by the volume in ounces and keep track of total ounces of ethanol consumed. Once I hit 2.5 ounces, it’s time to stop.

This is a bit more math than I like to do while drinking and socializing, so I wrote an Android app to do the calculations for me. It works for any weight and gender. You can download the “BAC Estimator” app at (Warning: it’s buggy!)

There are some factors that my discussion (and my app) leave out: Alcohol is absorbed into the blood over time, with BAC levels peaking around an hour after consumption. Body fat percentage also matters (beyond overall weight), since fat tissue doesn’t absorb alcohol well: muscular people are less affected by alcohol. Older people are less tolerant because they tend to have a lower percentage of body water. The elimination rate isn’t actually constant; it’s faster for higher BAC levels. There is also some evidence that women metabolize alcohol 10% faster than men. Food in the digestive tract reduces alcohol absorption by the body. Food also delays absorption by delaying the alcohol’s journey to the small intestine, where absorption is most efficient. (The type of food doesn’t seem to matter, however.) Tolerance is higher for chronic drinkers, through both increased metabolism rates and decreased organ sensitivity to alcohol’s effects. Obviously, medicine and health conditions can cause additional variations.

Hangovers: From what I’ve read, hangovers aren’t well understood. Dehydration is an obvious component, since alcohol is a diuretic (it makes you pee). Dehydration can cause headaches, fatigue, and nausea. Drinking water is the only real prevention and cure. Ethanol is toxic, but it is quickly converted into acetaldehyde by the alcohol dehydrogenase enzymes (found primarily in the liver), and acetaldehyde is much more toxic. The enzyme acetaldehyde dehydrogenase eventually converts acetaldehyde to harmless acetic acid, which is urinated out. It’s believed that these enzyme reactions basically divert a lot of resources and energy, causing the body and brain to be malnourished. Interestingly, in most East Asians the first set of enzymes are unusually effective while the second is unusually ineffective, so they get stuck with more toxic acetaldehyde in their system. Thus, Asians are typically affected by alcohol more than others.

What are the best remedies for a hangover? Rehydrating and re-nourishing the body are the main goal. Vitamins B6 and B12 are believed to help, so meats, eggs, whole grains, and milk all may be good to eat. I’d recommend a nice plate of eggs, bacon, and toast with a glass of OJ and a glass of water. Or a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, if you’re in a hurry.