Tasting the 32 American craft brews of this year’s Beer Madness over the course of two separate sessions allowed us to include stronger styles of beer that we couldn’t sample in years past. Here is a style guide to give you an idea of what flavors the judges’ panel experienced with each beer.
Abbey ales. Belgian-style strong ales that emulate the beers brewed by monks at the world’s seven remaining Trappist breweries. Doubles (or dubbels) are strong, dark ales with fruity and caramel flavors. Uncommon Ales’ Siamese Twin is a dubbel. Triples (or tripels) are stronger still but are gold in color, and dry and spicy, with a thick white head. Beer Madness’s 2011 champion, Flying Fish Exit 4, is a tripel. Even more potent are Quadrupels (i.e., Three Philosophers), deep-hued and fruity with alcohol levels approaching (or exceeding) 10 percent by volume.
Ale. One of the two major classifications of beer; the other is lager. Ales are made with yeast that collects at the top of the vessel after primary fermentation. They are fermented at warmer temperatures than lagers, and for shorter periods. Ales often display fruity, spicy and yeasty flavors not found in lagers.
Helles. From the German word for “bright,” Bavaria’s answer to Pilsener is a golden, highly quaffable beer with a soft, malty character such as Fordham Helles Lager.
Imperial or double beer.These adjectives are used to describe just about any beer style that’s been supersized to pump up the alcohol, body and hop content: i.e., imperial Pilsener, imperial IPA.
India pale ale or IPA. One of the most popular styles, an IPA is an especially strong, well-hopped pale ale that was originally formulated to withstand the long sea journey to Her Majesty’s troops in India. There are several permutations. A Belgian IPA is fermented with a Belgian yeast strain that adds an extra layer of fruitiness (i.e., New Belgium’s Belgo). A ryePA like Red’s Rye incorporates a little rye malt for an additional spiciness. A black IPA (also known as a Cascadian dark ale) combines a high rate of hopping with highly roasted specialty malts (Stone Brewing Co.’s Sublimely Self-Righteous, for instance).
Lager. One of the two major classifications of beer; the other is ale. Lagers are made with yeast that sinks to the bottom of the vessel after primary fermentation. They are fermented at cooler temperatures than ales, and for longer periods. This gives them a mellow, well-integrated flavor.
Marzen, Oktoberfest or Vienna. These terms have slightly different meanings, but let’s not nitpick. They generally refer to amber-colored lagers with a caramely or lightly toasted flavor and a little more heft than your everyday drinking beers. Eliot Ness Amber Lager and Festie belong to this category.
Pale ale and amber ale. There is no strict dividing line between the two. Both terms denote hoppy, gold- to copper-colored ales, although amber ale might be a tad darker and sweeter from the addition of extra specialty malt. (Example: DC Brau’s The Public would straddle the line.)
Pilsener. A crisp, hoppy, golden lager. The world’s major brands, i.e., Budweiser, Heineken and Corona, are distant approximations of this style. Prima Pils and Joe’s Premium American Pilsner are much better examples.
Porter. A dark, full-bodied ale descended from a blend of beers called “three threads” that was popular in 18th-century London. A lighter, sweeter version is called a brown porter. A stronger, roastier variant (such as Lucky 7 or Maui Coconut Porter) is dubbed a robust porter.
Saison. A Belgian-style farmhouse ale with fruity and spicy notes. Originally, these beers were made low in alcohol and refreshing to quench the thirst of tired farmhands, but modern versions can be moderately strong. (Examples: Saison Rue, Brooklyn Sorachi Ace.)
Stout. Darker yet than porters, stouts derive their ebony color and coffeelike flavors from highly roasted malts or roasted, unmalted barley. An oatmeal stout has rolled oats added to the recipe for smoothness and extra complexity. (Example: Schlafly Oatmeal Stout).
Wheat beers. Beers made with a percentage of wheat added to the barley. A Belgian-style witbier (white beer) is flavored with orange peel, coriander and sometimes other spices. A Bavarian-style hefeweizen is fermented with a special yeast strain that imparts a distinctive banana-and-clove flavor. (Examples: Optimal Wit is a witbier. Troegs DreamWeaver is a hefeweizen.)