Your essential beer cheat sheet

Liam Mogan

Ever at a loss for words to describe your beer? Don’t know an IPA from a pilsner? Not sure where to start with craft beers? We’ve put together the ABCs of IPAs to get you up to speed on few of the most popular styles and some of the buzziest beer terms to pull out at your next beer tasting

Ale — The original beer. Dating back at least as far as Ancient Mesopotamia, some argue that beer has been around as long as agriculture—grains will ferment all on their own with wild yeasts in the air—although a lot of ancient ale would be unrecognizable to us now. It started out thick and soupy and people didn’t start using hops until about 1,000 years ago. Today’s ales are typically fruitier and sweeter than lagers (see below), thanks to the type of yeast, as well as the temperature at which they are fermented. **

Barrel-aged — This is an easy one: beer, aged in a barrel (usually oak, often used previously to age wine, spirits, or, in some cases, another beer). Since brewers are a friendly lot who love collaborative projects with pals in the industry, expect to see more of this.

Craft beer — The definition of “craft” beer is the subject of endless debate (especially since big companies keep buying small ones), but the original craft beer movement was started by small, independent brewers who, in contrast to industrial Big Beer producers, revived traditional methods. 

Funk — No relation to the music genre, a funky beer has a sour, or even slightly barnyardy taste (yes, really), thanks to the addition of bacterial cultures and yeasts like Brettanomyces, a super-popular strain used to make “Brett Beer.”

Hoppy — If a beer geek calls a beer “hoppy,” that’s usually high praise and an indication that it’s bold and rich in flavour. Why? Because hops (a flower from a resinous plant that’s added to beer to counteract the sweetness of fermented malt) are responsible for most of beer’s flavour. “Hoppy” isn’t necessarily the same thing as bitter, though, since, when it comes to hops, timing is everything. Add them at the start of the brew for bitterness; added towards the finish, and they’re more likely to contribute aromas, like citrus, fruit, or spice.

Imperial — An “imperial” or “double” beer is generally a bold-tasting beer—a result of the brewer’s choice to double down on either malt or hops to dial up the flavours. Take care, though, they’re almost always high in alcohol too.

IPA — “IPA” stands for India Pale Ale, a hoppier version of a traditional Pale Ale (see Pale Ale).

Lager beer — In the beginning, all beer was ale. That changed when a new type of yeast, which fermented beer at cooler temperatures, came into use in 15th-century Bavaria—and lager was born. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule, but lagers tend to be crisper and lighter-tasting than old-school robust and fruity ales.

Malting — Beer gets its colour (and much of its flavour) from the malting process, which sees cereal grain (usually barley) sprouted first and then later dried with hot air. The longer the roast, the deeper and richer the flavour and colour. But that’s not why people started malting grains, though; they did it because sprouting produces enzymes that make it possible for the yeast to turn the grains into alcohol.

Malty — In fall and winter, we start to see more “malty” beers, which tend to be sweeter and richer-tasting thanks to a more deeply-roasted malt.  

Pale ale — Invented in the early 1700s pale ale is just a regular ale made from pale malt, which is a little lighter in colour.

Pilsner — A clear, refreshing light lager made with pale malts that became very popular in the mid-1800s. Much to the chagrin of extreme-flavour seekers, it’s still one of the most consumed beers in the world. Heineken, Beck’s, Stella, Amstel, and Grolsch are all pilsners.

Saison — A “saison” (a.k.a. “farmhouse ale,” a.k.a. “summer beer”) is a very pale, extremely low-alcohol golden ale that was traditionally brewed to keep farmers rehydrated in the hot summer months. Generally speaking, modern saison beers are a little more potent than they were back in the day. 

Session beer — Pretty much the opposite of an  “imperial” beer, session beers are usually lower in alcohol and have a less aggressive flavour profile—making it possible to drink a few over a single “session” with friends.

Sour beer — Tart, highly-acidic and, frankly, delici0us, sour beers are everywhere these days, thanks to Canadian brewers who have started to make homegrown versions of Belgian lambic fruit beers. Usually they’re made by adding special bacteria (Lactobacillus) or unusual yeast, like Brett, for funky flavours. The best ones are complex and layered, usually because they’ve been barrel-aged to achieve serious depth of flavour.

Stout — Thanks to Guinness, stout beer needs little introduction. But that’s only one example of this rich, dark ale, that’s made with deeply-roasted malts. The stout category also includes porter ale, dry stout and milk stout–the result of adding lactose to the brew early on. That style is having a moment now but, traditionally, it was considered sort of a health beer, considered suitable as a meal substitute and/or a nutritional aid to nursing mothers!

Wheat — As you might expect from its name, wheat beer is made from wheat, which means that it has less malted barley than a lot of other ales would. It’s a popular beer for experimentation, so it’s not always easy to recognize, but most of them have a super-frothy foam and a little bit of “haze” in the body. 





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