Introduction to Beer Styles


In order to reduce the length of style descriptions, we use some basic shorthand or jargon to represent more complex thoughts, and we also omit some items that should only be noted in exceptional circumstances. Some terminology may have different meanings in certain parts of the world, so we define our usages to avoid confusion. We also identify certain characteristics that are assumed not to be present in all beer styles so that we don’t have to repeat those restrictions in every style.

Basic Categorization

The most general categorization of beer styles by yeast type is a modern craft brewing phenomenon. American brewers and most other craft brewers call beers ales if they use top-fermenting (ale) yeast and lagers if they use bottom-fermenting (lager) yeast. Most categorization systems will allow for a third classification, often called spontaneously-fermented because of the method; however, wild or mixed fermentation are perhaps more widely-used modern craft beer terms for these beers fermented with bacteria or non-Saccharomyces yeast. The term wild in this context should not be interpreted to imply spontaneously-fermented; most are directly inoculated with the desired fermentation strains.

In Germany and other old-world brewing centers, the terminology most typically used to differentiate beers is to refer to them as top-fermented or bottom-fermented. Germans think of ale as a type of English beer, and lager as a method of conditioning beer. So, Germans would typically speak of Kölsch as a top-fermented lager beer, not an ale, for example.

English brewers, particularly when dealing in a historical context, might separate ales from porters and stouts as types of beer (although in the next breath, saying there is no difference between porters and stouts). They might go even further to describe ale as historically distinct from beer in that beer was hopped (or more highly hopped) than ale. These historical notes are important for understanding old recipes and writings, but have little relevance today in the common usages of terms describing beer.

These guidelines attempt to use the modern craft beer definitions of ale, lager, and wild as the major groupings of beer styles, but will mention how they might be described in local or regional contexts, if possible.

Common Attributes of All Beer Styles

The sensory attributes discussed in this section are assumed to be present in every beer style description unless otherwise noted. It is not necessary to repeat all these characteristics for every style description. Do not assume that since a characteristic, such as diacetyl, isn’t mentioned in a style description, that in any way it is allowable.

Unless explicitly noted in an individual style description, all beer styles are assumed to be cleanly fermented and free from technical faults, including acetaldehyde, astringency, chlorophenols, diacetyl, DMS, fusel alcohol, and phenols. All beer styles are assumed to be free of packaging and handling faults, including oxidation, light-struck, sour, and musty characteristics.

In mouthfeel, all beers are assumed to be free from astringency, and not be creamy or have any other palate sensations unless otherwise noted. Beers with an alcohol level of 6% or less are assumed to not have the flavor or warming nature of alcohol, unless otherwise noted. Higher-alcohol beers that have a noticeable alcohol presence should not be harsh, hot, solventy, or burning. The alcohol character if noted, should be clean and not have fusel alcohols.

Lagers tend to be smooth, clean, and free of esters. Stronger and darker lagers may have light esters that round out the flavor. Pale lagers, especially very fresh ones, may have light but pleasant yeast-derived sulfur notes. Some sulfur notes may be fleeting. These sulfur notes are acceptable, but foul sulfur-based aromas (rotten eggs, sewer gas, etc.) are a fault.

Styles made with a large amount of Pilsner malt may have low DMS notes; this is not a fault, but it is also not required unless otherwise noted. In both cases, the small amounts of sulfur or DMS should not be taken as meaning that prominent quantities are somehow desirable – they’re not. Just be aware that the use of some traditional ingredients often leaves small sensory indications of their presence that might be considered faults in other contexts; that is perfectly acceptable, although not required.

Unless otherwise noted, assume all lagers to not have any fruitiness (esters). Ales tend to be less smooth than lagers, so unless otherwise noted, assume all ales may have some esters (not required, but not a fault).


Some terminology used in the style guidelines may be unfamiliar to some readers. Rather than include a complete dictionary, we have highlighted a few terms that either may not be well understood, or that imply specific meanings within the guidelines. Sometimes ingredient names are used as a shorthand for the character they provide to beer. When judges use these terms, they don’t necessarily imply that those specific ingredients have been used, just that the perceived characteristics match those commonly provided by the mentioned ingredients.

Hop Terms

American hops –American brewing hops from the craft beer era, typically having citrusy, resiny, evergreen, or similar characteristics. More modern hops can add a wider range of characteristics, such as stone fruit, berry, tropical fruit, and melon.

Continental hops, Old World hops – traditional European brewing hops, including German and Czech landrace hops, British brewing hops, and those other varieties from continental Europe. Typically described as floral, spicy, herbal, or earthy. Generally less intense than many New World hops.

Dry-Hopped – a post-boil addition of uncooked hop products that gives the beer a fresh, bright hop aroma. A dry-hopped beer is often more robust, vivid, and focused than the same beer without dry hops. It can shift the balance of the beer to be more hop-focused without adding bitterness. Should not be grassy, vegetal, oxidized, cheesy, or old in character. Bright and fresh, not cooked.

Juicy – a trendy modern term used to describe hops that have a quality like fresh fruit juices, especially tropical fruits. Has other meanings, such as “mouth-watering” or “wet” that don’t apply in brewing.

New World hops – American hops, along with those from Australia and New Zealand, and other non-Old World locations. Can have all the attributes of classic American hops, as well as tropical fruit, stone fruit, white grape, and other interesting aromatics.

Traditional German or Czech hops – also called noble or landrace hops, long considered having the finest, most refined character for traditional European lagers. Often having a subtle, lightly floral, spicy, or herbal character. Traditional implies that these are classic types, not modern, aggressive hops.

Malt or Mashing Terms

Biscuity – dry, toasted grain, flour, or dough flavor reminiscent of English digestive biscuits or cookies; in brewing, a flavor commonly associated with Biscuit malt and some traditional English malts.

Maillard products – a class of compounds produced from complex interactions between sugars and amino acids at high temperatures, resulting in brown colors and rich, malty, sometimes even somewhat meaty compounds. In previous versions of the guidelines, known as melanoidins, which are a subset of Maillard products responsible for red-brown colors (and, according to Kunze, are “aroma-intensive”). In some brewing literature, melanoidin and Maillard product are used interchangeably. The chemistry and flavor characterization of Maillard products are not well understood, so brewers and judges should avoid excessively pedantic discussions around these points. The takeaway is that we mean the richly malty flavors, and need some kind of convenient shorthand to discuss them. Maillard is pronounced, roughly, as “my-YARD.”

Munich malt – can provide a bready, richly malty quality that enhances the malt backbone of a beer without adding residual sweetness, although some can confuse maltiness with sweetness. Darker Munich malts can add a deeply toasted malt quality similar to toasted bread crusts.

Pilsner or Pils malt – continental Pilsner malt is quite distinctive, and has a slightly sweet, lightly grainy character with a soft, slightly toasty, honey-like quality. Higher in DMS precursors than other malts, its use can sometimes result in a low corny DMS flavor.

Vienna malt – can provide a bready-toasty malt presence, but don’t expect the toasted notes to be extreme – they’re more like the crust of freshly baked bread than toasted bread.

Yeast or Fermentation Terms

Bubblegum – refers to the flavor profile of Bazooka Bubble Gum original flavor, a pink chewing gum; a sweet mixed fruit flavor dominated by banana and strawberry with fruit punch flavors.

Clean fermentation profile – the quality of having very low to no yeast-derived fermentation byproducts in the finished beer, typically implying that there are no esters, diacetyl, acetaldehyde, or similar components, except if specifically mentioned. A shorthand for saying that the long list of possible fermentation byproducts is not present in significant or appreciable quantities (barely perceived trace quantities at the threshold of perception are typically acceptable, nonetheless).

Kveik – traditionally, a mixed blend of yeast in Norway used to produce farmhouse style ales, often available as single strains today. Not a beer style.

Pome fruit – apple, pear, quince. The botanical classification contains other fruit, but these are the common ones we mean.

Stone fruit – fleshy fruit with a single pit (or stone), such as cherry, plum, peach, apricot, mango, etc.

Mixed Fermentation Terms

Acetic character – vinegar-like, sharp, not a clean sourness.

Brett – shorthand term for Brettanomyces, an attenuative genus of yeast that often is used to produce fruity (pome fruit, tropical fruit, stone fruit), floral, and often funky complex flavors (leather, sweat, barnyard, horse blanket, funk, etc.) in fermented beverages. Derived from phenols or fatty acids produced during fermentation. Literally means “British fungus” and is associated with qualities produced during barrel aging.

Common species used in brewing include B. bruxellensis and B. anomalous, although they are sometimes known by other names; several strains exist with very different profiles (as with S. cerevisiae). Typically used as secondary fermentation strain, although a few strains exist that can fully attenuate wort enough to be used for primary fermentation.

Clean sourness – a quality descriptor for sourness to imply that the sourness has no vinegar, complex funk, or excessive overtones; often used to describe a good-quality, sharp lactic sourness.

Ethyl acetate – a yeast-derived ester formed from acetic acid and ethanol and produced at various levels depending on yeast strain and stress. Low levels are fruity like pears, pineapples, or berries but high levels are objectionable faults and have the aroma of solvent or nail polish remover. High levels of oxygen and wild yeast can create excessive amounts.

Indole –formed by ‘coliform’ bacteria contamination during fermentation. It is often associated with simultaneous production of DMS. Most often found in beers that have a very long lag time or in spontaneous-fermented beer. Smells of feces, dirty farm, or pig farms. At lower levels, can be jasmine or floral. Always a fault.

LAB – shorthand for Lactic Acid Bacteria, including Lactobacillus, Pediococcus, and others in the family Lactobacillaceae. A broader term for identifying the source of a lactic sourness.

Lacto – shorthand term for Lactobacillus.

Pedio – shorthand term for Pediococcus.

Ropiness – describes a mouthfeel where the beer develops an increase in viscosity and pours thick and syrupy. Various bacteria are the usual cause, Pedio being most common, and happens from an increase in production of polysaccharides. A common stage in mixed-culture fermentation; the presence of Brett will reduce this viscosity over time.

Sacch – shorthand term for Saccharomyces.

THP – shorthand for tetrahydropyridine. Usually produced by Lacto or Brett. At low levels, lends grainy, toasted oat cereal-like character (think ‘Cheerios’ cereal in the US). At high levels, can be perceived as mouse cage, mousy, or urine-like (similar to the fault in cider and wine). THP increases with oxygen exposure but active Brett will reduce it over time. Always a fault.

Quality or Off-Flavor Terms

Adjunct quality – a characteristic of beer aroma, flavor, and mouthfeel that reflects the use of higher percentages of non-malt fermentables. Can present as a corny character, a lighter body than an all-malt product, or a generally thinner-tasting beer. Does not necessarily imply the use of any specific adjunct.

Balanced – relative to a style, balanced implies a pleasant, harmonious, agreeable, complementary mix of elements, not an equal amount of each component. Does not imply any absolute quantity, more of a measure of appropriate coordination of flavor constituents.

Clean – lacking off flavors; a positive term.

Crisp – a rapid, abrupt change in the mouthfeel of beer from smoothness to sharpness, leading into a dry finish. Usually a positive term.

DMS – Dimethyl Sulfide, which can take on a wide range of perceptual characteristics. Most are inappropriate in any style of beer; however, a light, background cooked corn quality may be noted and is acceptable in beers with high levels of Pilsner malt. When the guidelines state that any levels of DMS are appropriate, it is this light cooked corn flavor, not other cooked vegetable characteristics or other DMS flavors.

Dry – same usage as with wine, meaning lacking perceived sweetness. Well-attenuated. Obviously does not mean “opposite of wet” in this context.

Elegant – smooth, tasteful, refined, pleasant character suggestive of high-quality ingredients handled with care; lacking rough edges, sharp flavors, and palate-attacking sensations.

Harsh – when applied to beer, an unpleasant, sharp, intense, or disagreeable texture, flavor, or aftertaste. Some synonyms in this context are rough, coarse, abrasive, not fine, dirtier, less refined, and less pure. A quality term indicating the opposite of smooth, clean, and pleasant. Can imply astringency, but also can apply to bitterness, alcohol, and other sensations. Negative.

Funky – a positive or negative term, depending on the context. If expected or desirable, can often take on a barnyard, wet hay, slightly earthy, horse blanket, or farmyard character. If too intense, unexpected, or undesirable, can take the form of silage, fecal, baby diaper, or horse stall qualities.

Rustic – coarse, hearty, robust character reminiscent of older, traditional ingredients; perhaps less refined as a general sensory experience.

Appearance Terms

Belgian Lace, Lacing – a characteristic and persistent latticework pattern of foam left on the inside of the glass as a beer is consumed. The look is reminiscent of fine lacework from Belgium, where it is considered a desirable indicator of beer quality.

Legs – a pattern that a beverage leaves on the inside of a glass after a portion has been consumed. The term refers to the droplets that slowly fall in streams from beverage residue on the side of the glass. Not an indication of quality, but can indicate a higher alcohol, sugar, or glycerol content.

Color Reference

Note that SRM is a measure of beer color density more than hue, tint, or shade. Keep this in mind when attempting to use only SRM numbers when describing beers. Within these Guidelines, beer color descriptors generally approximate this mapping to SRM values:

Straw: 2-3   Deep Copper / Light Brown: 17-18
Yellow: 3-4 Brown: 19-22
Gold: 5-6 Dark Brown: 22-30
Amber: 6-9 Very Dark Brown: 30-35
Deep Amber / Light Copper: 10-14 Black: 30+
Copper: 14-17 Black, Opaue: 40+

Style Organization

The beer styles described in the guidelines have been categorized to assist with running homebrew competitions. Categories (the major groupings of styles) are artificial constructs that represent a collection of individual sub-categories (beer styles) that may or may not have any historical, geographic, or traditional relationship to each other.

Do not infer that membership in a style category somehow relates individual beer styles to each other. The only reason why styles are grouped together is to assist with managing of competitions scale and complexity. Names given to the groupings are for competition purposes only, and may not be found in broader contexts in the beer and brewing industries.

Competitions do not have to judge each style category separately; they may be combined, split, or otherwise reorganized for competition purposes. Competition organizers are free to combine style sub-categories into their own competition categories. As long as each submitted beer is judged against the identified sub-category (style), any logical grouping is permitted.

Style Tag Reference

To assist with regrouping styles for other purposes, we have added informational tags to each style. These tags indicate certain attributes of the beer that may be used for grouping purposes. The ‘meaning’ column explains the general intent of the tag, but is not meant to be rigorous, formal definition. In no way do the tags supersede the actual descriptions of the style.

Category Tag Meaning
Strength session-strength  <4% ABV
standard-strength  4-6% ABV
high-strength  6-9% ABV
very-high-strength  >9% ABV
Color pale-color  straw to gold
amber-color amber to copper-brown
dark-color  dark brown to black
Fermentation/Conditioning top-fermented  ale yeast
bottom-fermented lager yeast
any-fermentation ale yeast or lager yeast
wild-fermented non-Saccharomyces yeast/bacteria
lagered cold conditioned
aged long conditioning before release
 Region of Origin  british-isles   England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland
 western-europe   Belgium, France, Netherlands
 central-europe  Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Scandinavia
 eastern-europe   Poland, Baltic States, Russia
 north-america   United States, Canada, Mexico
south-america Argentina, Brazil
 pacific Australia, New Zealand 
Style Family ipa-family                
Era   craft-style  developed in the modern craft beer era
traditional-style developed before the modern craft beer era
historical-style  no longer made, or very limited production
Dominant Flavor malty  malt-forward flavor
bitter  bitter-forward flavor
 balanced similar malt and bitter intensity
hoppy  hop flavor
roasty  roasted malt/grain
sweet  noticeable residual sweetness or sugar flavor
smoke  flavor of smoked malt or grain
sour  noticeable sourness or intentionally elevated acidity
wood wood or barrel age character
fruit  noticeable flavor and/or aroma of fruit
spice noticeable flavor and/or aroma of spices