Here at VinePair we rely on our readers to keep us honest. Last week, a loyal, handsome and thoughtful reader named Ken emailed the following to VinePair headquarters:
Come on now, what’s the real difference between ale, lager, stout, bock, dunkel, pilsner, saison, IPA, APA, EIEIO, etc., etc.? Are you guys just screwing with us (I’m looking at you, Will Gordon)? Are there differences that Joe Sixpack is likely to pick up on? The only real difference I can see is between watery Lite and sludgy Hopalicious (which I kinda like; a lot, really). Any articles forthcoming on this?
This is such a good idea that I’m going to set aside today’s scheduled post — 12 Best Beers To Drink On, What Is This, The Third Thursday After Halloween? — to address Ken’s question by providing drinker-friendly definitions of all the terms he mentioned.*
Don't Miss A DropGet the latest in beer, wine, and cocktail culture sent straight to your inbox.
*Other than EIEIO. I’m in no mood to be trifled with, Ken.
Ale versus lager: About 95 percent of good American beer is ale, which means it’s brought to life using top-fermenting yeast strains that thrive in warmer temperatures than do bottom-fermenting lager yeasts. So the major distinction is a process-based one that, while important, doesn’t necessarily translate directly into anything the drinker will notice. Ale yeasts impart more fruity esters than their lager counterparts, but yeast (sadly) just isn’t a significant flavor component in the majority of today’s heavily engineered craft beers: A Galaxy dry-hopped pale lager is going to taste far fruitier than a classic Kölsch ale.
Stout: Dammit, Ken, you were supposed to ask about the difference between stout and porter! But you didn’t, so we’ll get to that in a future post comparing Sierra Nevada’s Stout to its Porter. For now we’ll just say stouts are typically black beers based on roasted malt and, contrary to popular belief, they don’t necessarily have any more alcohol or calories than paler styles. Guinness is lighter than Budweiser, for example. Barrel-aged stouts tend to be stronger, as do Russian imperial stouts, which are distinguished by their higher ABVs and eligibility to serve in the new administration’s Department of Data Security.
Bock: Bocks are robust, malt-forward lagers that typically carry IPA-worthy alcohol contents in the 7-percent range. Bocks are usually dark amber to brown in color and can feature a wide range of caramel, toffee, dark fruit, chocolate and nut flavors, with understated hop character. Dopplebocks are stronger versions, and Maibocks are paler, often hoppier renditions that traditionally come out in the spring.
Dunkel: This is an easy one: Dunkel is German for “dark.” These lagers tend to be deep reddish brown, rich and complex (though not particularly heavy). My favorite domestic version is Harpoon Dark; Hofbräu and Ayinger make highly regarded German Dunkels.
Pilsner: Most of the craft lager produced in America these days calls itself pilsner, although many of the better-known models veer rather far away from both the classic Czech version and the faithful-enough German knockoff. The original pilsner debuted in 1842 in Pilsen, Bohemia, where its direct descendent Pilsner Urquell is still made. Czech pilsners are light, pale and crisp, with a flavor profile heavily dependent on soft water and herbal, spicy Saaz hops. German pilsners lean a bit earthier and more bitter. Most American versions take more from the German tradition than the Czech, and of course some throw fruit adjuncts and Southern Hemisphere hops in when they’re looking to game rating sites and/or make old-school brewers cranky.
Saison: Spicy, dry, refreshing ales originally brewed to nurse 18th-century Belgian farm hands through the harvest season. They were brewed in the cooler months — as was just about everything else back in the dark days before modern refrigeration technology — and stored until late summer, and were typically about half as strong as today’s most popular American versions, which hover around 7 or 8 percent. Saison DuPont is credited with reviving the style on its native soil in the second half of the 20th century; the first influential American saisons started coming out about a decade ago, led by Jolly Pumpkin’s Bam Biére.
IPA: Come on, Ken, everyone knows what India pale ale is.
APA: Come on, Ken, you know what American pale is: your beloved Ale Asylum Hopalicious! Relative to classic old-world styles, American beer categories can be a bit tricky to define. APAs can be broadly thought of as lower-ABV, better-balanced versions of modern domestic IPAs, with the malt character less subjugated by the almighty hops. Of course, the most famous American pale ale, and arguably the most important beer of the last 40 years, is the aggressively hop-forward Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
On a more philosophical front, language has always been slippery. Learned and reasonable scholars still struggle to interpret the precise intentions of foundational works such as the Bible, the Constitution, and “Raising Hell,” the 1986 album on which Run-DMC introduced square America to the concept of bad meaning good. Just this past week we’ve seen “normalize” turn into a dirty word, while “controversial” has become synonymous in some quarters with “aspiring war criminal.”
Why, things have gotten so linguistically twisted that one might even suggest the definition of “beer blogger” is shifting uncomfortably close to “pissy wannabe Mother Jones podcast recap intern.” In conclusion, words mean nothing; have a beer!