Beer Madness: A glossary

Take a peek into the March taste test for our annual Beer Madness competition and meet the panelists who rated all 32 beers.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Don't know a Pilsner from a pale ale or a stout from a wheat? Washington Post beer columnist Greg Kitsock defines the differences for novice and longtime beer drinkers and includes examples from this year's Beer Madness tournament.

Ale: The other 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.

Biere de garde: Literally "beer for keeping," this is a rustic French ale that originally was brewed in late winter or spring and made strong enough to last through summer. A stylistic cousin of saison, biere de garde is characterized by spicy, yeasty flavors and mild bitterness. Brasserie Duyck, maker of St. Druon Abbey Ale, is a classic producer.

Bitter: A pale ale in the English mold, with a more restrained hop character and lower strength. An ESB, or extra special bitter (such as Fuller's), is stronger and fuller-bodied.

Black lager: Schwarzbier in German, this is the bottom-fermented equivalent of a Guinness, drawing its deep hue and roasty flavor from malts kilned at high temperatures. (Examples: Kostritzer Schwarzbier, Xingu Black Beer.)

Brown ale: A darker ale, copper-colored to chestnut, that derives its chocolaty and nutty flavors from caramel and roasted malts. (Example: Brooklyn Brown Ale.)

Kolsch: A style of German ale, pale, crisp and lightly fruity, that is native to the city of Cologne.

Lager: One of 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.

Lambic: A Belgian ale that is exposed to the atmosphere and fermented with airborne yeasts and other microorganisms instead of a cultured brewer's yeast. Lambics have flavors that are often described as barnyard, earthy, horse blanket; some are quite sour. A brewer might mitigate the acidity by mixing in sugar or fruit juice. A lambic made with raspberries is a framboise; one made with cherries, a kriek. Not all Belgian fruit beers are based on lambic, however.

Pale ale: A hoppy, gold- to copper-colored ale. It is pale in comparison with a porter or stout. (Example: Troegs HopBack Amber, Nogne O Pale Ale, Coopers Sparkling Ale.)

Pilsner: A crisp, hoppy, golden lager. Pilsner Urquell is the classic example. The term "international Pilsner" is sometimes applied to lighter, more quaffable versions such as Stella Artois. Most of the world's major brands, including Budweiser, Heineken and Corona, are distant approximations of this style.

Porter: A dark, full-bodied ale descended from a blend of beers called "three threads" that was popular in 18th-century London. A Baltic porter is a stronger, richer variant of porter that is still popular in Eastern Europe and often brewed with a lager yeast. (Example: Baltika #6)

Saison: A Belgian-style farmhouse ale with a tart, refreshing flavor and fruity and spicy notes. (Example: Hennepin.)

Stout: Darker yet than porters, stouts -- Guinness is by far the best known -- 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: Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout.)

Trappist ale: Not a style, but a beer made by Trappist monks. Monastic beers tend to fall into three classes. Singles are lighter beers brewed primarily for the monks' consumption. Doubles (or dubbels) are strong, dark ales with fruity and caramel flavors. Chimay Red is a dubbel. Triples (or tripels) are stronger still but are gold in color, and dry and spicy, with a thick white head. The term "abbey-style ale" is applied to secular versions of these beers.

Vienna lager: A malty, amber- to copper-colored lager with a lightly toasty flavor. The Mexican lagers Dos Equis Ambar and Negra Modelo fall roughly into this style.

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: Hitachino Nest White Ale is a witbier. Schneider Weisse Hefe-Weizen is an unfiltered Bavarian wheat beer.)

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