Beer Styles

Beer styles or categories are used to group beers for tasting and judging in competitions. Several organisations have style guidelines, including the European Beer Consumers Union, the Brewers Association and the Beer Judge Certification Program. These usually have a vast range of styles – for example the BJCP recognises over 300 styles in 34 categories, covering everything from Standard American Beer to Experimental Beer!

CAMRA’s Beer Styles Guidelines cover all the styles commonly available in the UK in cask, as these are the beers being tasted and judged in CAMRA’s Beer of the Year competitions. These are described in full here and in brief below – click on the links to go to the styles you’re interested in, or read all the way through!

Milds – up to 4%
‘Mild’ used to mean fresh and reflected the fact that the beer was not aged. Although an old style of beer, Mild is not widely available in many parts of the country, but May is a good time to find it as some pubs participate in CAMRA’s Make Mine Mild campaign. These beers are easy drinking, often sweet, not very hoppy, and while usually dark can be pale in colour.

Session Bitters – up to 4.3%
These are ‘traditional’ Bitters with a thin to average body, usually amber to dark brown in colour, and with a malt character and noticeable hops; typically earthy, spicy and peppery but may also be floral or piney, and with light to strong bitterness.

Premium Bitters – 4.4% to 6.4%
Traditional stronger bitters with more body, but otherwise similar to Session Bitters.

Session Pale, Blond and Golden Ales – up to 4.3%
Refreshing, easy drinking beers which are probably the most popular style in pubs
nowadays. Pale ales will be dark gold to amber in colour, have very little malt flavour and a strong hop character, from spicy British or German hops, or citrussy and tropical New World varieties. Blonds are similar but usually lighter in colour, from straw to gold, and be slightly fruity but not citrussy, whereas Golden Ales will have a strong citrus flavour.

Premium Pale, Blond and Golden Ales – 4.4% to 6.4%
Refreshing but heavier bodied than the Session varieties.

British and New World IPAs – 5.5% and above
IPA stands for India Pale Ale. It was Burton upon Trent that became famous for this style of beer, exporting it around the world, including to India, hence the name. These are strong hoppy beers with moderate to strong bitterness; usually
bittersweet. The finish is long and complex. British IPAs tend to be amber to pale brown in colour and use English-style hops. There is often honeyed/biscuit malt aroma and flavours with pepper, spicy, earthy, piney or floral resins from the hops. New World IPAs are straw to pale brown in colour and much more ‘hop forward’ than British IPAs, with lighter biscuity malt, if any, and strong citrus or tropical fruit flavours. Many, especially the New England (NEIPA) versions are unfined and often quite cloudy. Black IPAs are typically dark brown or black, with strong hop character but almost none of the characteristics of other dark beers.

Brown and Red Ales, Olds and String Milds – 4.1% to 6.4%
Darker beers with distinct malty notes, from light brown to black in colour. Brown ales can have a roast and/or smoky flavour, but will usually be sweeter, with moderate bitterness and some fruit flavour, such as raisins or sultanas, caramel, or chocolate. Red ales are similar but usually redder in colour. Rye may give the beers a slight tartness, and they will usually be less sweet and with more hop character. Strong milds will have a strong malt flavour, but little hop flavour, and often have dark fruit flavours such as blackberry or cherry. Old ales are not aged, but have slightly more hop character balancing the, usually, dark malts.

Session Stouts and Porters – up to 4.9%
Porters were developed in London in the eighteenth century and named after the porters who worked on the docks. Once, ‘Stout’ simply meant ‘Strong’, with Stout being simply Strong Porter.
Stouts are typically black in colour and have strong dark malt flavours such as chocolate, caramel, and coffee, with minimal hops or fruit.
Dry stouts have very little sweetness, and can be slightly astringent, from the unmalted roasted barley used in the brew, whereas Oatmeal stouts will be full-bodied, creamy and usually quite sweet. Oyster stouts don’t always contain oysters but may be slightly salty. Milk stouts, named because lactose sugar is added, to give a smooth creamier stout, often with vanilla or custard flavours.
Porters are usually dark brown to black, can be sweet or dry, and usually have a higher hopping rate than stouts, often giving dark fruit flavours such as damsons or black cherries, or caramelised fruits such as raisins.

Strong Stouts and Porters – 5% and above
These are stronger versions of the Session varieties, usually with smoother, fuller mouthfeels and stronger more complex flavours. Very strong versions of these beers are often known as Imperial Stouts or Baltic Porters, as they were originally brewed primarily for export to Russia and the Baltic states. Anything up to 13% ABV, these beers are usually highly complex, with deep strong flavours of roasted grain, burnt fruit, leather (yes!), coffee, chocolate, and liquorice. Alcohol warmth is often noticeable, and when aged, in wood or steel, the beers can take on sherry-like flavours. The two styles overlap considerably, but Porters tend to be fruitier and paler in colour.

Barley Wines and Strong Ales – 6.5% and above
Strong beer used to be produced to allow it to be kept, particularly to provide beer when it was too warm to brew. Many of the beers in this category are still aged before selling leading to wine-like notes. All of them are rich, complex, and full bodied with noticeable alcohol, but they may vary from dry to sweet, sometimes with honey notes. Bitterness may be medium to strong. The term Barley Wine probably dates from the late 19C, with Bass using it in the early 20C.

Speciality Beers – Differently produced
Speciality beers are those which either add ingredients, or use significantly different techniques of production, which dominate the appearance or flavour of the beer, rather than just complementing it.
Differently produced speciality beers are those which use techniques such as lagering, souring and wood-aging.
Lagers are bottom-fermented using a different yeast to ales, and stored (lagered) for weeks or even months at low temperature. They include Pilsners, which range from light to noticeably bready malt, with peppery hop flavours. Vienna lagers are amber in colour and have a clean malty character and some hoppy bitterness. Dark lagers are brown to black and have chocolate and coffee flavours with some sweetness and a little fruit.
Wheat beers are included in this category as the method of production is significantly different. Typically, yellow or gold in colour, they can be dark, will usually be hazy or cloudy and have estery clove and/or banana flavours and aromas.
Sours are usually fermented using wild yeasts, or yeasts other than the standard Saccharomyces brewers’ yeast, which generally give a prominent acidity to the beer. Lambics and guezes use Brettanomyces yeast, whereas Goses (typically salty or spicy) use lactobacilli and have a ‘funky’ character. Kettle sours use enzymes in the brew to give acidity.

Speciality Beers – Flavoured
These are beers with a flavour added. They can be similar to all other styles in that any beer style can be adapted by a flavour addition to become a Speciality. Fruit speciality beers may be based on any other style, including other Speciality beers. Fruit or fruit flavourings are added to the beer. Herbs, spices and other culinary ingredients may also be used to flavour beers. In both cases, the base beer should influence the final taste, and the ingredient flavour must be noticeably present.