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The Craft Beer Drinktionary
Marzen? Dunkel? Porter? League of Beers sommelier Rob Heyns defines lagers, ales and everything in between
As South Africans, we were pretty late to hop onto the craft beer bandwagon, and yet we are competing with the best of them when it comes to creating unique and interesting beers. On the other hand, as beer drinkers, we still have a long way to go in the knowledge department. The average Jo might be able to distinguish a lager from an ale, but most people will likely only be able to identify a bock as a rugby team or a dunkel as something that might go well with tea (wrong in both cases).
So to help you get a handle on the different types of beers and how to tell the difference, I’ve put together a handy little guide. Get cracking!
So for your standard lager, you’re looking at a pale straw to a golden sort of colour. It should be very clear. You can expect it to be quite carbonated and have a light feel when you swallow. If there are strong flavours present, you might not be drinking a lager because all of this kind of beer’s flavours and aromas should mix and support one another instead of standing out.
Your first thought should be along the lines of, “Wow! I feel refreshed!” If you’re looking for a brewery that stocks a great lager, consider trying:
- Jack Black
Popular lager sub-categories:
Bocks and Helles Bocks:
Bocks are big on maltiness; I like to think of them as the Horlicks of lagers. You can expect a deep gold to dark brown colour. If you reach for a bock, you’re reaching for a creamy, strong beer with a full-bodied mouthfeel. Maibocks, another name for helles bocks, are paler, hoppier versions of this lager subset that were traditionally ready for consuming in springtime at the end of May, hence the funny label. Time for me to start brewing a braaibock!
Pilsners shouldn’t be darker than deep gold in colour and should have a medium to high carbonation. No fruity flavours are tolerated, and you can expect a bitter, earthy taste. The American pilsner is actually the result of an experiment by German immigrants. They figured they had the yeast and the knowledge to make German pilsners, so they changed up the brewing process and added new ingredients and created this Yankee-style Franken-beer.
This Bavarian brew is another beer named after the month it was traditionally brewed in. It’s full-bodied and malty and was made in bulk in order to last through the summer months, when the temperature was not ideal for brewing. Now we have modern refrigeration to fix that problem, but the marzen is still around, thank goodness.
Dunkel is a broad term for several types of dark lager that originate in Germany, where ‘dunkel’ means, surprise surprise, ‘dark’. They are characterised by their smooth, malty flavour. Contrary to popular belief, a dark beer does not necessarily mean a strong beer, and dunkels typically have alcohol concentrations of only 4.5% to 6% by volume.
Some of the other beers that are listed under lagers:
- Dark lagers
- Light lagers
- Amber lagers
‘Ale’ is a very broad term, and you can expect a beer with anything from the palest yellow to the deepest brown colour. Brown ales have far more of a malty flavour, whereas the IPAs (India Pale Ales) and American ales lean towards more hoppy flavours (which extend the ale category even further). The aroma also changes, depending on the malt-to-hop ratio in the ingredients.
Depending on the type of ale you’re looking for, check out these breweries:
- Devil’s Peak
Popular ale sub-categories:
Stouts and Porters:
Although there are many different types of stouts and porters, these kinds of beer pretty much guarantee a chocolate-y/coffee-like aroma and flavour. Expect a deep tan to almost black colour and count on experiencing rich, malty notes when it goes down the hatch.
Pale Ales, in particular IPAs
This beer is characterised by an intense, hop flavour and a golden-amber to reddish-copper colour. Sub-flavours can differ, but usually involve some sort of floral, grassy or citrus-y notes. With a medium or light-medium mouthfeel, IPAs are not usually labelled as an ‘easy-drinking beer’. Although often crisp, the bitterness can be overwhelming for newcomers. English IPAs were originally brewed to survive the trip from England to India by sea. The rolling of the waves and the temperature extremes ended up producing one of the most popular beer styles! Who knew – go try and brew your own on a yacht and let me know how it ends up.
Wheat beers are known for their banana and clove flavour combination. These ales have a medium to full body and operate across a wide colour scale – anywhere from pale straw to mahogany. Dunkelweizen is an old style of Bavarian wheat beer. In the 50s and 60s, it was considered a beer for the elderly, who would drink it for nutritional benefits (a great excuse, if you ask me). Nowadays, the hefeweizen style is the lighter and much more popular wheat beer.
Some of the other beers that are listed under ales:
- Brown Ales
- Amber and red ales
- Belgian and French ales
- Blonde beers
If you’re keen to get to know a bit more about craft beer styles, the best thing you can do is attend as many tastings and pairing events as you can. That way, you will be forced out of your comfort zone and will end up tasting beers you likely didn’t even know existed! Alternatively, if you’re the type that doesn’t like to forage farther than the front door, League of Beers sends mixed monthly cases complete with tasting notes. Go to the site to find out more.
Enjoy, the world of craft beer awaits!
Yours in beer,
About the author:
Rob Heyns is the resident beer sommelier at the League of Beers – an online retailer of craft beer in South Africa. He is passionate about craft beer, supporting local brewers and providing South Africans with new craft beers to tickle their palates.
Wondering what makes small-batch brew different than commercial? Read about what Rob Heyns has to say about this craft beer conundrum.
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