Today, there are hundreds of documented beer styles and a handful of organizations with their own unique classifications. As beer styles continue to evolve, understanding the sensory side of craft beer will help you more deeply appreciate and share your knowledge and enthusiasm for the beverage of beer.
Take a deeper dive into America’s craft beer styles and improve your ability to describe the tastes, textures and aromas of beer. Here is your study guide that will help prepare you for what you might encounter when tasting craft beer.
How to Use the Study Guide
The CraftBeer.com Beer Styles Study Guide (below and available as a PDF) is for those who want to dive even deeper and includes quantitative style statistics not found in the Beer Styles section. Using an alphabetical list of triggers — from alcohol to yeast variety — this text will help describe possible characteristics of a specific beer style.
The best part of learning about craft beer is getting to taste and experience what you’re studying. Use the CraftBeer.com Tasting Sheet to help you analyze and describe what you taste and if it’s appropriate for a particular beer style.
The Beer Styles Study Guide may provide more information than many beer novices care to know. However, as your beer journey unfolds, your desire for more descriptors and resources will grow.
Do All Craft Brewers Brew Beer to Style?
Craft beer resides at the intersection of art and science. It is up to each individual brewer to decide whether they want to create beer within specific style guidelines or forge a new path and break the mold of traditional styles.
Because so many craft brewers brew outside style guidelines, it is impossible to make a list that fully represents the spectrum of beers being created today. CraftBeer.com Beer Styles include many common styles being made in the U.S. today, but is not exhaustive.
Common U.S. Beer Styles
Craft brewers use a wide variety of ingredients to achieve the aroma, body, flavor and finish they desire in their beer. They often take classic, old-world styles from great brewing countries like England, Germany and Belgium and add their own twists by modifying the amount or type of ingredients or the brewing processes. Due to the popularity of craft beer in America, there are now multiple beer styles uniquely credited to the U.S.
Due to the constant experimentation and exploration by today’s U.S. brewers, new beer styles are constantly evolving. That makes it difficult, if not impossible, to fully document all types of beer being made at any given time. Another factor is that new beer styles usually become established by developing a track record of multiple breweries making the same type of beer over years and years. In other words, it takes time before any trendy new type of beer is deemed a recognized beer style.
To create this study guide, we looked at the world beer styles recognized by the Brewers Association (publishers of CraftBeer.com) and narrowed that list down to 79 styles in 15 style families. Descriptive terms are always listed from least to most intense.
Overview of the Study Guide
Explanation of Quantitative Style Statistics
- Original Gravity (OG): The specific gravity of wort (unfermented beer) before fermentation. A measure of the total amount of solids that are dissolved in the wort, it compares the density of the wort to the density of water, which is conventionally given as 1.000 at 60 Fahrenheit.
- Final Gravity (FG): The specific gravity of a beer as measured when fermentation is complete (when all desired fermentable sugars have been converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide gas). When fermentation has occurred, this number is always less than Original Gravity.
- Alcohol By Volume (ABV): A measurement of the alcohol content in terms of the percentage volume of alcohol per volume of beer. Caution: This measurement is always higher than Alcohol by Weight (not included in this guide). To calculate the approximate volumetric alcohol content, subtract FG from OG and divide by 0.0075.
Example: OG = 1.050, FG = 1.012 ABV = (1.050 – 1.012) / 0.0075 ABV = 0.038 / 0.0075 ABV = 5.067 ABV = 5% (approximately)
- International Bitterness Units (IBUs): 1 bitterness unit = 1 milligram of isomerized (exposed to heat) hop alpha acids in one liter of beer. Can range from 0 (lowest—no bitterness) to above 100 IBUs. Usually the general population cannot perceive bitterness above or below a specific range of IBUs (said to be below 8 and above 80 IBUs by some sources).
- Bitterness Ratio (BU:GU): A comparison of IBUs (Bitterness Units) to sugars (Gravity Units) in a beer. .5 is perceived as balanced, less than .5 is perceived as sweeter and over .5 is perceived as more bitter. Formula: Divide IBU by the last two digits of Original Gravity (remove the 1.0) to give relative bitterness. Note: Carbonation also balances beer’s bitterness, but is not factored in this equation. This is a concept from Ray Daniels, creator of the Cicerone® Certification Program.
Example: pale ale with 37 IBUs and an OG of 1.052 is 37/52 = 0.71 BU:GU
- Standard Reference Method (SRM): Provides a numerical range representing the color of a beer. The common range is 2-50. The higher the SRM, the darker the beer. SRM represents the absorption of specific wavelengths of light. It provides an analytical method that brewers use to measure and quantify the color of a beer. The SRM concept was originally published by the American Society of Brewing Chemists.
Examples: Very Light (1-1.5), Straw (2-3 SRM), Pale (4), Gold (5-6), Light Amber (7), Amber (8), Medium Amber (9), Copper/Garnet (10-12), Light Brown (13-15), Brown/Reddish Brown/Chestnut Brown (16-17), Dark Brown (18-24), Very Dark (25-39), Black (40+)
- Volumes of CO2 (v/v): Volumes of CO2 commonly vary from 1-3+ v/v (volumes of dissolved gas per volume of liquid) with 2.2-2.7 volumes being the most common in the U.S. market. Beer’s carbonation comes from carbon dioxide gas, which is a naturally occurring byproduct created during fermentation by yeast and a variety of microorganisms. The amount of carbonation is expressed in terms of “volumes” of CO2. A volume is the space the CO2 gas would occupy at standard temperature and pressure, compared to the volume of beer in which it’s dissolved. So one keg of beer at 2.5 volumes of CO2 contains enough gas to fill 2.5 kegs with CO2.
- Apparent Attenuation (AA): A simple measure of the extent of fermentation wort has undergone in the process of becoming beer, Apparent Attenuation reflects the amount of malt sugar that is converted to ethanol during fermentation. The result is expressed as a percentage and equals 65% to 80% for most beers. Or said more simply: Above 80% is very high attenuation with little residual sugar. Below 60% is low attenuation with more residual sugar remaining. Formula: AA = [(OG-FG) / (OG-1)] x 100
Example: OG = 1.080, FG = 1.020 AA = [(1.080 – 1.020) / (1.080 – 1)] x 100 AA = (0.060 / 0.080) x 100 AA = 0.75 x 100 AA = 75%
- Commercial Examples: List some U.S. brewery produced examples of this style.
The A-Z of Beer Styles
Use this alphabetical list of triggers as a guide to help you when describing possible characteristics of a specific beer style.
- Ranges: not detectable, mild, noticeable, harsh
- A synonym for ethyl alcohol or ethanol, the colorless primary alcohol component of beer.
- Alcohol ranges for beer vary from less than 3.2% to greater than 14% ABV. Sensed in aroma, flavor and palate of beer
- Fusel alcohol can also exist in beer
Brewing and Conditioning Process
- Brewers use a wide variety of techniques to modify the brewing process. Some of the variables they play with might include variable mashing, steeping, unique fermentation temperatures, multiple yeast additions, barrel aging and blending, dry hopping and bottle conditioned.
Carbonation (CO2): Visual
- Ranges: none, slow, medium, fast rising bubbles
- Carbonation is a main ingredient in beer. It lends body or weight on the tongue and stimulates the trigeminal nerves, which sense temperature, texture and pain in the face. Carbonation can be detected as an aroma (carbonic acid). It also affects appearance and is what creates the collar of foam common to most beer styles.
- Carbonation can be naturally occurring (produced by yeast during fermentation) or added to beer under pressure. Nitrogen can also be added to beer, providing smaller bubbles and a softer mouthfeel compared to CO2.
Clarity: The degree to which solids in suspension are absent in beer; different from color and brightness.
- Ranges: brilliant, clear, slight haze, hazy, opaque
- Solids can include unfermented sugars, proteins, yeast sediments and more.
- The degree to which solids are present in solution is referred to as turbidity.
Color (SRM): See SRM under Quantitative above.
Country of Origin: The country from which a style originates
Food Pairing: Cheese, Entree, Dessert
Glass: The recommended glassware for each beer style.
- Flavor and aroma ranges: citrus, tropical, fruity, floral, herbal, onion-garlic, sweaty, spicy, woody, green, pine, spruce, resinous
- Bitterness ranges: restrained, moderate, aggressive, harsh
- Hops deliver resins and essential oils that influence beer’s aroma, flavor, bitterness, head retention, astringency, and perceived sweetness. They also increase beer’s stability and shelf life.
- Brewers today use well over 100 different varieties of hops worldwide. Hops grown in the U.S. contribute an estimated 30 percent to the global supply.
- Flavor and aroma ranges: bread flour, grainy, biscuit, bready, toast, caramel, prune-like, roast, chocolate, coffee, smoky, acrid
- Malt has been called the soul of beer. It is the main fermentable ingredient, providing the sugars that yeast use to create alcohol and carbonation.
- Malt is converted barley or other grains that have been steeped, germinated, heated, kilned (or roasted in a drum), cooled, dried and then rested.
- A wide variety of barley and other malts are used to make beer, including pale malt (pilsner and pale two-row), higher temperature kilned malt (Munich and Vienna), roasted/specialty malt (chocolate and black) and unmalted barley. Wheat malt is commonly used as well.
- Malt provides fermentable and non-fermentable sugars and proteins that influence beer’s aroma, alcohol, body, color, flavor and head retention.
- Adjuncts are ingredients that have typically not been malted, but are a source of fermentable sugars.
- Common adjuncts include: candy sugar, honey, molasses, refined sugar, treacle, maple syrup
- Unmalted starchy adjuncts: oats, rye, wheat, corn/maize, rice
- Note: Many of these grains can be malted to create unique flavors compared to their unmalted counterparts.
- Other: fruit, herbs, roasted (unmalted) barley or wheat, spices, wood
- Can come from hops, malt or yeast. Only listed where appropriate for the specific style.
- Aroma/Flavor: almond, blackcurrant, E-2-nonenal (papery/cardboard), honey, metallic, sherry, sweat socks, others
- Color: Beer darkens over time due to oxygen ingress.
- Palate refers to the non-taste sensations felt on the mouth and tongue when tasting a beer. The palate of a beer can be sensed as:
- Ranges: low, medium(-), medium, medium(+), high
- Ranges: drying, soft, mouth-coating, sticky
- Palate Carbonation
- Ranges: low, medium, high
- Ranges: short (less than 15 seconds), medium (up to 60 seconds), long (more than 60 seconds)
- Storage of draught beer should remain at 38° F to retain the level of carbonation created during fermentation.
- The service temperature of beer has an impact on the sensory aspect of a beer.
- In general, a beer will exhibit an increase in perceived aromas and flavors if served warmer than a beer that is served at a cooler temperature.
- A general rule of thumb calls for ales to be served at a warmer temperature (45-55° F) than their lager counterparts (40-45° F).
- Common taste descriptors: chalk, flint, sulfur and more
- Beer is mostly water, which makes water quite an important ingredient. Some brewers make their beer without altering the chemistry of their water sources. Many do modify the water to make it most suitable to deliver the beer characteristics they hope to highlight. It provides minerals and ions that add various qualities to beer.
- Common minerals: carbonate, calcium, magnesium, sulfate
Yeast, Microorganisms and Fermentation Byproducts
- Yeast eats sugars from malted barley and other fermentables, producing carbonation, alcohol and aromatic compounds. The flavor of yeast differs based on yeast strain, temperature, time exposed to the beer, oxygen and other variables.
- Types of Yeast:
- Ale: Saccharomyces Cerevisiae (ester driven). Commonly referred to as top fermenting yeast, it most often ferments at warmer temperatures (60-70F).
- Lager: Saccharomyces Pastorianus (often lends sulfuric compounds). Commonly referred to as bottom fermenting yeast, it most often ferments at cooler temperatures (45-55F).
- Weizen Yeast: Common to some German-style wheat beers and is considered an ale yeast.
- Brettanomyces: wild yeast with flavors like barnyard, tropical fruit, and more.
- Microorganisms: (bacteria) Acetobacter (produces acetic acid), Lactobacillus/Pediococcus (produce lactic acid), others
Byproducts of Fermentation
- For a robust spreadsheet on many byproducts or agents in beer see Flavor Components in Beer (PDF)
- Common byproducts of yeast fermentation:
- Aromas (volatiles): apple, apricot, banana, blackcurrant, cherry, fig, grapefruit, kiwi, peach, pear, pineapple, plum, raisin, raspberry, strawberry, others
- Common esters include:
- Isoamyl acetate (common from weizen ale yeast): banana, pear
- Ethyl acetate: nail polish remover, solvent
- Ethyl hexanoate: red apple, fennel
- Common phenols include:
- 4-vinyl guaiacol: clove, cinnamon, vanilla
- Chlorophenols: antiseptic, mouthwash
- Syringol: smoky, campfire
- Tannins/Polyphenols: velvet, astringent, sandpaper
- Common phenols include:
- Other fermentation byproducts
- Common byproducts include (when acceptable to style):
- 4-ethyl-phenol: barnyard, mice
- 4-ethyl-guaiacol: smoked meat, clove
- 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol: lightstruck
- 2,3-butanedione (Diacetyl)
- Dimethyl sulphide (DMS)
- Hydrogen sulphide
- Common byproducts include (when acceptable to style):
What is Craft Beer? What is a Craft Brewer?
Today is the best time in U.S. history to be a beer lover. The average American lives within 10 miles of a brewery, and the U.S. has more beer styles and brands to choose from than any other beer market in the world.
The definition of “craft beer” is difficult, as it means many different things to many different beer lovers. Thus, craft beer is not defined by CraftBeer.com. However, our parent organization, the Brewers Association, does define what it means to be an American craft brewer: A U.S. craft brewer is a smaller producer (making less than six million barrels of beer a year) and is independently owned. This definition allows the Brewers Association to provide statistics on the growing craft brewery community, which accounts for 98 percent of America’s 6,300+ breweries.
Why Craft Beer?
Craft beer is enjoyed during everyday celebrations and is viewed by many as one of life’s special pleasures. Each glass displays the creativity and passion of its maker and the complexity of its ingredients. Craft beer is treasured by millions who see it as not merely a fermented beverage, but something to be shared, revered and enjoyed in moderation (see Savor the Flavor).
In the food arts world, craft beer is a versatile beverage that not only enhances food when expertly paired with a dish, but is also often brought into the kitchen as a cooking ingredient. Because of this, you will see suggested food pairings for each style in this guide. If you would like to geek out even further on beer and food pairing, check out CraftBeer.com’s Beer & Food Course (a free download).