Modern beer basically falls into two camps: Lager and Ale. This has nothing to do with colour (as some people think) but the type of yeast that is used to ferment the brew. Ale yeast ferments on the top of the brew and Lager yeast on the bottom. Ale is the family of beers that have been around the longest, as long as beer itself. Ale comes in all shades, from the pale gold colour of a refreshing Kolsch or Summer Ale, to the deep black of an Imperial Stout. Lager yeasts are a relatively recent advent, first being used on a reasonable scale in the 16th Century. These yeasts produce a different style of beer, which also encompass all colours, from pale gold to black.
Lager, as a rule, tends to have a cleaner and more focused flavour which concentrates on malt and hops leading to a crisper, more refreshing brew which is far less complex than Ale. The ‘home’ of lager actually crosses an international border. The Czech republic and Germany can both claim to be instrumental in the growth of this internationally popular style. The word ‘Pilsner’ comes from the town of Pilzen, in The Czech Republic, where the pale gold style of lager was originally brewed in 1842 and has since been made famous around the world. Across the border, Munich and the region of Bavaria lay claim to being the spiritual home of German brewing, where they produce many great beers in their fantastic breweries.
Despite having been produced all over the world, especially in Europe, many Ale producers switched over to brewing Lagers when its popularity soared. This left only two countries who really specialised in the oldest form of beer making: Belgium and Great Britain. Despite the fact that both these nations produce Ale, they do so with very distinctive styles that differ greatly from one another. Ales possess a large range of flavours, often with lots of fruity notes. This array of tastes come from the warmer fermenting temperatures, as well as the variety of yeasts and malts used. Ale is a lot more complex than Lager and consequently has more styles.
We have included Ireland alongside Great Britain, as part of ‘The British Isles’ as the brewing industries and traditions were all part of the same story in the 19th Century, when the styles of today were being cemented and defined.
The abbreviation ‘ABV’ stands for ‘Alcohol By Volume’ and is the standard way the drinks industry measures alcohol content. It is the amount of alcohol contained in the liquid expressed as a percentage of the total volume.
This is the abbreviation for ‘International Bitterness Units’ and is a way brewers can measure hop bitterness in a beer. The device used is a spectrophotometer, which measures the amount of alpha acids that are present in a litre of beer (mg/litre). Alpha acids are the chemical that naturally occurs in hops and gives beer the bitter hoppy notes that many brewers prize in their brews. This system does not reliably tell you how bitter or hoppy the beer actually tastes, as the more malt a brew has, the less bitter it will appear on the palate. For example, a seriously malty barley wine from Oregon, may declare IBUs of over 80, but an IPA with IBUs of 50 would taste much more hoppy because there is far less sweet malt used.