April 5, 2021
Picture this: It’s a Saturday and you’re visiting a brewery that just opened up. You weave past the beer-barrel tables and sidle up to the hardwood bar with metal accents, where you peruse the chalkboard menu listing 12 types of beer. What do you order?
To figure that out, you have to know what type of beer you like. Are you a lager lover? A Kolsch queen? A sour apologist? If you’re unsure, our ultimate beer guide can help. Get an in-depth look at the different types of beer, discover the most popular beers in America and learn how to taste beer properly (spoiler: it’s similar to how you taste wine). So grab a cold one from Gopuff and settle in for some light (Lite?) reading.
Lager vs. Ale
Are you ready to have your mind blown? Abe Lincoln was a bartender before he was a lawyer. Also, there are really only two main types of beer: lager and ale. The style of a given beer is generally determined by the fermentation process, though some beers are hybrids and some simply defy typical categorization.
According to Craft Beer and Brewing Magazine, lagers are made with one strain of yeast while ales are made with another. Lagers are also typically fermented at a cold temperature, whereas ales are fermented at warmer temperatures. Lager beers range from darker pilsners and bocks to pale American lagers, such as Bud Light (one of our 10 Best Domestic Beers). Perhaps unsurprisingly, this makes lager the best-selling beer style in the world. Ales, on the other hand, range from super hoppy IPAs to super malty stouts.
ABV & IBU: Beer Technical Terms to Know
Before we break down different beer styles, you need to know about the technical terms ABV and IBU.
You probably are familiar with ABV, or alcohol by volume, as it tells you how much alcohol is in your beer. Beers typically have an ABV of 3%–13%, with the majority around 4%–7%. For reference, wine is about 8%–14% and liquor is about 15%–50% ABV.
IBU stands for international bitterness unit, a measurement that tells you how bitter a beer tastes. Beer can range from 0 (no bitterness) to above 100 IBUs. However, just because a beer has a high IBU count doesn’t mean that you’ll perceive that bitterness. Things like high amounts of malt can mask the taste of bitterness without altering the number of IBUs. Plus, we all have different palates and perceive bitterness differently.
Nonetheless, we’re including IBU counts in our beer list because they still can give you a general idea of how bitter each style of beer might be.
Note: All ABV and IBU ranges listed below are typical of that style of beer, though there are exceptions that fall outside of those ranges.
Types of Beer
Though all beers are either ales or lagers at heart, both of these main beer types can be brewed in scores of different styles. In fact, there are now more than 100 styles of beer, and this number is always growing. That’s why you’ll seldom hear a craft brew fanatic discussing their favorite “ale”—it’s usually something more complex, whether that’s a West Coast IPA (a regional variant of the American IPA), a barrel-aged stout (a dark ale that derives extra flavor from liquor barrels) or anything in between.
Here, we’ll walk through some of the more notable high-level styles, explaining what makes them unique. A lot of the other brews you’ll see at your typical beer store are simply subcategories of these types.
Types of Beer
- ABV: 4.4%–6.1%
- IBU: 18–45
- Color: gold to copper to reddish brown
- Taste: toasty and caramel-ish malts with low to medium-high hop bitterness
- Food pairing: sausages, grilled veggies and pulled pork
- Examples: Bell’s Amber Ale, Sam Adams Boston Lager and Oak Creek Amber Ale
Ambers can be ales or lagers, but both styles are so named for their amber color. They’re also both known for their toasty, caramel-tasting malts and low to medium-high hop bitterness. They often have notes of citrus or pine to balance the sweetness of the malt.
- ABV: 6.3%–9.5%
- IBU: 15–38
- Color: dark brown
- Taste: toasted malt sweetness with light hops
- Food pairing: burgers, sausages & jerk chicken
- Examples: Shiner Bock, Karbach Crawford Bock and Samuel Adams Chocolate Bock
This lager beer, which translates to “goat” in German, is a dark, malty beer first brewed in Einbeck, Germany. It is traditionally sweet and strong.
Versions include maibock, which has a lighter color and more hops; doppelbock, which has a maltier flavor and a higher ABV; and weizenbock, a wheat version of a bock that’s as strong as a doppelbock.
- ABV: 4.8%–5.3%
- IBU: 16–25
- Color: amber to dark reddish-brown
- Taste: high malt flavor with a smooth mouthfeel
- Food pairing: sausages, spicy Cajun food and Buffalo wings
- Examples: Yee-Haw Dunkel and Left Hand Brewing Co. Brewer’s Test Kitchen: Dunkel
- ABV: 5.1%–10.6%
- IBU: 50–70
- Color: light gold to coppery brown
- Taste: bitterness mixed with fruity, citrusy, floral and piney notes
- Food pairing: spicy sausages, french fries and fish tacos
- Examples: Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, New Belgium Voodoo Ranger Imperial IPA & Goose Island IPA
An IPA beer, or India pale ale, is a hoppy brew that is popular among craft beer drinkers. IPAs have a distinct bitter flavor and aroma.
Versions include a double or imperial IPA, which is a stronger version of a regular IPA, typically with an ABV of more than 7.5%; and a hazy IPA (a.k.a. juicy or New England IPA), which is known for its fruity taste, hazy appearance and low bitterness.
- ABV: 4.4%–5.2%
- IBU: 20–30
- Color: light gold
- Taste: crisp & refreshing with a hint of fruitiness
- Food pairing: brats, grilled chicken and sushiExamples: Altstadt Kolsch, Yee Haw Kölsch & Rogue Honey Kolsch
This beer hybrid is crafted using both ale and lager brewing techniques. The result is light, refreshing and easy to drink. Technically, a true Kolsch has to come from Cologne, Germany, but you’ll find Kolsch-style beers at craft breweries all over America.
- ABV: 4.1%–5.1%
- IBU: 5–19
- Color: pale gold
- Taste: light & crisp with a mellow flavor
- Food pairing: tacos, hot dogs & curries
- Examples: Bud Light, Corona Extra & Miller Lite
Almost all the most popular beers in America are pale lagers (more on that below). They’re known to be easy-drinking beers with light to medium hops and a clean malt taste.
- ABV: 4.4%–5.4%
- IBU: 30–50
- Color: deep gold to light brown to copper
- Taste: medium to medium-high hoppy bitterness with a variety of flavor notes, from floral to citrus
- Food pairing: burgers, pizza and Buffalo chicken dip
- Examples: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Yards Philadelphia Pale Ale & Half Acre Daisy Cutter
American pale ales are a spin-off of English pale ale and utilize American hops. There are a wide variety of pale ale flavors based on the type of hops used, but pale ales are particularly known for their balance of malt and hops.
- ABV: 4.1%–5.3%
- IBU: 25–50
- Color: straw to pale gold to light amber
- Taste: medium to high hop bitterness tempered by sweeter malts
- Food pairing: fancy ramen, tacos and spicy chili
- Examples: Pilsner Urquell, Lagunitas Pils & Revolver Brewing Long Range Pils
This lager originated in the city of Plzeň, Czech Republic, and has since become one of the most popular beers in the world because of its well-balanced taste. Bohemian pilsners (a.k.a. Czech-style pilsners) are generally darker and with less hoppy bitterness than their counterparts, German-style pilsners.
- ABV: 4.4%–6%
- IBU: 20–30
- Color: dark brown
- Taste: medium hop bitterness with sweet notes of caramel & chocolate
- Food pairing: brownies, ribs and mole enchiladas
- Examples: Deschutes Black Butte Porter, Breckenridge Vanilla Porter & Night Shift Awake Coffee Porter
Porters are dark beers that are said to take their name from street and river porters, manual laborers in England who drank the dark ale in the early 18th century (though the etymology is debated). They are known for their dark brown color and sweet baked-good notes, and they are the precursor style to stouts.
Versions include imperial porters, which have medium malt sweetness and medium hop bitterness; English-style brown porters, which have low malt sweetness and medium hop bitterness; and robust porters, which have a stronger bitterness and roasted malt flavor.
- ABV: wide range
- IBU: wide range
- Color: wide range
- Taste: acidic, tart, sour
- Food pairing: varies, but cured meats and tangy cheeses are a good bet
- Examples: Destihl Brewery Wild Sour Series: Flanders Red & Sierra Nevada Wild Little Thing Slightly Sour Ale
Sour beers are so named for their tart, funky flavors. They’re generally either loved or hated by beer drinkers. There is such a wide variety of sour beers that it’s hard to pin down a standard color, ABV or IBU, but all sour beers have that specific sour taste.
The most famous of the sour beers is probably the Belgian-style lambic. This wheat beer, which features cherry and raspberry flavors, is often made in the winter using spontaneous fermentation, meaning it’s left open in the cool air, and whatever organisms happen to be in the air ferment the beer. Goses are also popular—they’re a wheat-based German sour beer style known for a slight saltiness.
- ABV: 3.2%–12%
- IBU: 15–80
- Color: dark brown to black
- Taste: malty with roasted notes of caramel, coffee & chocolate plus a medium to high hop bitterness
- Food pairing: pad thai, brisket and ice cream
- Examples: Guinness Draught, Deschutes Obsidian Stout & Vault Breakfast Stout
Stout beers are probably one of the easiest beers to identify, as they’re about as dark as beer can get. These dark ales also have a tendency to coat your palate and often feature notes of caramel, chocolate and coffee. People think of stouts as heavy beers, but some varieties (like milk stout and Irish-style dry stouts) can have a lower alcohol content. Guinness, for instance, is only 4.2% ABV.
Other versions include the rich oatmeal stout and American imperial stout, the strongest and richest of the stouts.
- ABV: 2.8%–5.6%
- IBU: 10–35
- Color: Straw to light amber
- Taste: wheaty; also light and often fruity, typically with low to medium hop bitterness
- Food pairing: grilled vegetables, burritos and salads
- Examples: Blue Moon, Shock Top Belgian White & Bell’s Oberon
These ales vary widely in terms of flavor, but all typically share a cloudy appearance and a noticeable taste of wheat.
Versions include the American wheat beer, which is known to be light, bready and a bit citrusy; the Belgian witbier (a.k.a. Belgian white), which is spiced with coriander and orange peel; and the German wheat beer, which is typically very yeasty with banana and clover flavors.
Big game coming up? Get even more pairing ideas in our guide to The Best Game Day Food & Beer Pairings.
Best-Selling Beers in America
If you want to stick to the tried-and-true classics, pick up a pack or case of America’s favorite suds. According to Vinepair, the 25 best-selling beers in America are as follows:
- Bud Light
- Coors Light
- Miller Lite
- Michelob Ultra
- Corona Extra
- Modelo Especial
- Natural Light
- Busch Light
- Keystone Light
- Miller High Life
- Stella Artois
- Bud Ice
- Natural Ice
- Yuengling Lager
- Pabst Blue Ribbon
- Blue Moon
- Dos Equis
- Steel Reserve
- Coors Banquet
- Corona Light
We find that our customers also like Rolling Rock, Pacifico and Peroni, as well as the mini 7 oz. Coronita Extra, which fits well in smaller coolers if you’re tailgating or simply want to feel like a powerful giant.
Did you notice that several of the most popular beers in America are imported from other countries? Check out the best imported beer list to see what else America loves to drink.
How to Taste Beer
No judgments here if you would rather happily sip your beer or chug it while spraying ketchup on a bearded man à la Bills fans at a tailgate. But if you want to appreciate what you’re drinking, we suggest tasting your beer properly.
A proper beer tasting is similar to a wine tasting and includes steps like swirling the beer and sniffing the beer. The Craft Beer Channel on YouTube has an in-depth video on How to Taste Beer Like a Beer Judge that we recommend checking out. But here are the basics:
- Pour Your Beer Into an Appropriate Glass
You won’t be able to do a proper tasting out of a beer bottle or can, so pour your beer into a glass, but make sure it’s one with a narrower rim, which helps concentrate the aroma. Avoid pint glasses and instead choose a tulip glass—stemmed so you can swirl it.
- Sniff the Beer
Start by swirling the beer glass to release the aromas. We recommend doing three sniffs: the distance sniff, the Bloodhound sniff and the long sniff.
- Distance sniff: Hold the glass level with the underside of your chin. Pass the glass back and forth under your chin and inhale.
- Bloodhound sniff: Swirl the glass again and stick your nose in it. Take three short, quick sniffs, like a Bloodhound picking up a scent on a trail.
- Long sniff: Stick your nose in the glass and take a 2-second sniff. This deep inhale should give you a bit of a head rush.
Each sniff should help you discover the flavor nuances of your beer.
- Taste the Beer
Take a sip of the beer, enough to coat your entire tongue. Don’t swallow it immediately; rather, let it wash back and forth over your tongue a few times. This helps you taste all of the aromas you just smelled.
You’ll notice the hops at first, perhaps a fruity or piney taste. Then you’ll get the malts and yeast, typically a caramel-like or baked-good taste. When you swallow, you’ll notice the bitterness. Finally, when you breathe out after swallowing, you’ll get another wave of aromatics.
We recommend enjoying the beer as you normally would after that first in-depth taste analysis. So feel free to get that ketchup bottle ready to go.