It would seem that there are now more styles of beer than there are fish in the sea (thanks, overfishing!). But environmental issues aside, last year’s Great American Beer Fest awarded medals to breweries in 161 styles and sub-styles -- and more categories are added each year. When you put a pint glass up to your lips these days, it’s often tough to know what the hell you’re supposed to be tasting. It’s like biting into a slice of cake without knowing if it’s filled with custard, ice cream, or cottage cheese (let’s hope it’s not cottage cheese).
We can probably all agree that being calibrated for a particular style makes beer-drinking a more enjoyable experience. That’s why, with the help of Master Cicerone Max Bakker, an Educator for The High End, a division of Anheuser-Busch, we’re going to help break down what you should be ready for when it comes to the appearance, aroma, and flavor of six popular beer styles.
Bakker suggests looking for a decent amount of foam in your hop-forward IPA the next time you sit down with one. And if you’re drinking from a clean glass, take a look at the lacing, which refers to the ring inside of the glass left behind after you drink. “Depending on how thirsty you were, you could see two (or six!) rings, and a perfect amount of foam indicating each sip,” he notes. And depending on the type of American IPA you’re drinking, you might notice that the beer is a little hazy. “Not quite bright, but not quite hazy,” he says, which comes from dry-hopping and/or not filtering the beer.
As you might expect with an IPA, you’re sniffing for hops here. Your nose is a detective, and hops are an important clue. “You’re looking for an initial hop aroma,” says Bakker. And lucky for you and your nose, that includes citrus, pine, and tropical fruits.
Mouthfeel & Taste
A traditional IPA will have a dry, crisp taste, and a sweet-to-lingering-bitter finish. And while bitterness is expected in an IPA, there are limits. “The bitterness should slowly fade out,” he says. Bakker says it’s important not only to judge the level of hop bitterness (i.e. aggressive or mellow?), but to pay attention to the hop flavor, which can be resinous, clean, woody, or herbal, to name a few potential descriptors. The beer’s bitterness should share the spotlight with the malts, too. “More often than not [IPAs are] hop-forward, with a little yeast character, and a very clean, cracker-like malt character. Maybe a little toast and fresh white bread.” Well, isn’t that Wonder-ful!
Russian Imperial Stout
First thing you should be aware of is a tan, off-white, or darker foam layer on top, which is “a good indication they’ve used a nice percentage of roasted malt,” Bakker points out. Typically, these types of stouts are made with a boatload of roasted malt and hops, so that’s a good sign to start with.
Here’s a bit of advice for every beer that you taste: do a drive-by sniff. Not literally (considering the cost of gas, you’d go broke quickly). Instead, “bring the beer up to your nose until you can just smell it, and then pass it under your nose in the motion of a drive-by,” he says. If you want to get super fancy, cover the glass with your hand, give the beer a swirl, and get a proper whiff of that sucker’s aromas. From a stout, in particular, you could find caramel, nuts, espresso, or milk or dark chocolate notes, to name a few. “These beers are like chocolate sundaes,” says Bakker. Gourmet chocolate sundaes, at that.
Mouthfeel & Taste
You should be tasting for a “somewhat sweet, but not over the top” profile. Pay attention to mouthfeel, or “the weight of the drink in your mouth,” as Bakker describes it. Does it feel like skim milk? 2%? Whole milk, or heavy cream? A stout should have a heavier mouthfeel than other beer styles, a subtle creaminess, and a warming character at the end. All of which, obviously, makes for one great cold weather beverage.
And while malt might be the main component of an imperial stout, tons of hops are usually used, too. “A style like this should be malt forward, but balanced in the sense of two elephants standing on a scale,” says Bakker, who still hasn’t explained how he got two elephants to stand on a scale. “Plenty of hop bitterness [will] balance out that malt from being overly sweet and cloying.” An ideal Russian imperial stout might also feature flavors that include caramel, chocolate, vanilla, espresso, or even darker fruits.
credits:"Jessica Nash - Russian imperial stout"
Like the air at a String Cheese Incident show, this beer should be hazy. “It’ll have an opaque or almost a milkshake-like appearance,” Bakker says. Instead of flat, uniform foam, this Belgian style should have what’s called a “rocky head,” which is as whimsical looking as it sounds.
If you loved sugary cereal growing up, you might love sticking your nose in this beer. “Coriander is the seed of the cilantro plant,” Bakker explains of the main ingredient used in witbiers. “Some are so highly aromatic that they smell like Froot Loops.” Expect floral, earthy aromas, and for Toucan Sam to try to steal your beer.
Mouthfeel & Taste
This beer was built to be enjoyed on a 90-degree day. “It should be tart, creamy, and have enough balance so that it’s not overly sweet,” Bakker says. “It finishes somewhat dry.” And the flavors in a witbier are downright mouthwatering. “You get that symphony of Froot Loops, tart orange, a little clove, vanilla, and a little fresh bread dough,” he notes. “It’s dry, crisp, and refreshing, which makes it perfect for the summer months.” Think of it as the Gatorade of traditional beer styles (though we don’t recommend pouring a cooler full of wit over anyone’s head as a means of celebration).
Brewers are given quite a bit of latitude in interpreting this marvelous style, but whether it’s barrel-aged, brewed with wild yeast, or simply super spicy, a saison will generally feature a rocky head (how have we not made an “ADRIEN!” reference yet?) and a burnt orange hue. It could also be hazy if the brewer used malted wheat.
“Saisons usually have a yeasty aroma, which can come off as citrus or pineapple,” Bakker says. “Underneath the citrus is clove from the Belgian yeast, and sometimes a little white pepper.” Overall, however, tropical scents reign supreme, with loads of citrus and citrus rind to go around.
Mouthfeel & Taste
With all of those fruity aromas, it might surprise you to learn that saisons are moderately bitter, with some sporting up to 40 IBUs. That’s often thanks to a peppery Belgian yeast strain, which adds to the bitterness. “In the finish, I get a bit of white pepper,” Bakker says. But ultimately, this beer’s flavor profile depends on the type of saison you’re drinking. “It’s one of the dryer styles for sure, but it’s one you see all over the spectrum,” he explains.
credits:"Jessica Nash - Saison"
German Pilsner (Pils)
The white foam on top of a German pilsner should remain atop the beer for awhile. Additionally, “we’re looking for what’s called ‘bright’ or ‘brilliant’ beer,” Bakker says of the brew typically served in a tall glass. “And a nice straw color,” he adds. But despite the beer’s brightness, he also notes that you should be able to read newspaper type through the opposite side! Of course, that’s crazy -- because where the hell are you going to find a real newspaper in 2017?
German Pilsners are made with noble hops from -- you guessed it -- Germany. And while Bakker describes them as floral, perfumey, herbal, and sometimes a little bit minty, you might also get a touch of sulfur on the nose. Normally, sulfur is not an aroma you’d want to experience -- but in this case, it’s the sign that the lager is super duper fresh, and recently went through a cooler, longer fermentation period than most ales.
Mouthfeel & Taste
This beer has a very crisp and dry finish, like the end of a fall day. (I promise that’s my last attempt at poetry in this piece.) When you’re tasting a pilsner, Bakker says you can expect a “nice crisp, herbal, and green-like bitterness.” He realizes “green” isn’t a flavor, but it’s one way of describing a beer that sometimes smells like grass, or herbs and flowers. This is also a style best enjoyed as fresh as possible.
A gose should boast a hazy yellow or gold color. The style -- like the witbier from earlier -- is wheat-based. Bakker notes that wheat beers, as a general category, have the “Lazarus-like ability to rise from the dead,” coming in and out of style as tastes change -- but they’ll never go away for good!
Traditionally, this beer is brewed with malted wheat, which gives it a very specific aroma. “Anytime you have malted wheat in a beer, you get fresh bread dough aromas,” Bakker says. “It smells like when you walk into Subway” (the sandwich chain that bakes its own bread -- not a transportation hub that often doubles as a urinal for drifters). You’re also going to get some sourdough bread aromas (as goses contain lactic acid), and a hint of coriander, orange, lime, lemon, and floral notes.
Mouthfeel & Taste
One ingredient we haven’t yet mentioned that’s critical for a gose: salt. Luckily, drinking one “is not like licking a salt lick,” nor is it a terribly simple one-note beer. “The beer’s a play on sweet, salty, and sour flavors,” Bakker explains. “It has a dry, tart sourness. It kind of makes everything in your mouth dry out, like when you eat Greek yogurt.” (Though thankfully, the beer has a very different consistency from said dairy treat.)
Despite their dryness, goses should be refreshing and approachable, with an ABV that hovers around 4.5%. Many breweries, have found success in adding fruit to their goses, like Anderson Valley has with Briney Melon. Bakker’s a fan, and says that such an addition allows the beer to be “sweet, salty, sour, and aromatic and fruity.”
So the next time you’re sitting in front of a glass full of gose (or stout, or IPA; witbier, pils, or saison), remember what it should look, smell, and taste like. We bet it’ll allow you to enjoy it a helluva lot more.