There’€™s no doubt that beer is big business in the U.S. Last year, Americans consumed 2.93 billion 2.25-gallon cases of beer, representing about $98 billion in retail dollar sales (combined on- and off-premise). And since the mini-explosion of micro/craft/specialty brews in the early 1990s, consumers have become more aware of the wide range of beer styles available. But it’€™s unlikely that they understand the differences any more than they understand the various characteristics of different distilled spirits.

By now, it’€™s become a given tenet of retail merchandising that product education is often a boon to retail sales. The good retail salesperson is someone who is able to describe to the curious customer the difference between an ale and a lager, just as he or she is able to discuss the differences between a blended or a single malt Scotch. And with the many types of beers available, both imported and domestic, in the U.S. market, a growing number of beer consumers are likely to be waiting for that friendly salesperson to help them choose a different (and more profitable) beer than they are accustomed to.

So, the following is designed to provide some product knowledge on the all-important subject of beer. Just a reminder: Many books have been written about this subject, so these pages are in no way meant to be a complete exploration of this subject. Rather, we hope to provide some basic information that retailers and their staff can hopefully translate into better customer service and increased sales.



There are three main ingredients in beer ‘€” water, grain and hops. Yeast is also a basic part of the brewing process, although it is considered a catalyst for fermentation rather than an ingredient in and of itself.


As much an art as a science, brewing is the fundamental, yet not-so-simple practice of changing water and grain into beer. At its most basic, the process consists of the mixture of grain (primarily malted barley) and water; yeast is introduced to initiate fermentation and hops are added for flavor and aroma.

Water. Since it is responsible for the liquid nature of beer, water quality does have an effect on the final taste, and some brewers, large and small, have made the source of their water a point of product differentiation. Water’€™s mineral content will vary from source to source and, generally speaking, hard water (with a higher content of natural salts such as calcium) will produce a better ale, while soft water will produce a better lager. However, this was a more important consideration in days of yore. Today, water is typically treated in large breweries to obtain a certain taste or quality level and to maintain consistency.

Malt. Malting is simply a process that gets the grain ready for fermentation. The process begins with barley steeped in water until it begins to germinate (sprout), which allows the starches in the grain to be more easily converted to fermentable sugars. Germination is usually halted prematurely by allowing the grain to dry, either naturally, or in a kiln. Once dry, the barley is ready for fermentation. However, the degree to which the barley is dried, and whether it is then subjected to roasting, and if so to what degree, has an enormous effect on the flavor of the malt and the eventual taste and character of the beer. And, of course, more than one malt can be blended to produce a single style of beer, wherein lies much of the art of beer making.

Barley has been the grain of choice as the chief ingredient of beer for thousands of years because it is one of the most suitable for malting. Wheat is obviously used in ‘€œwheat beer’€ and corn (as well as rice) is also used by some brewers to supplement barley as it tends to impart a lighter, milder taste.

The moisture content of the barley (or wheat) at the time of drying, the temperature of the kiln, and the duration of kilning all have a tremendous influence on the outcome of the malt and the ultimate flavor of the beer. The most lightly kilned or ‘€œfloor dried’€ malts are used in pilsner-style beers. Malt that is cured a little longer, but not toasted, is used for pale ales. Lightly toasted can produce malts suitable for Vienna style beers. A moister stewing produces a caramel or Munich-style malt. Even further roasting produces chocolate malt and black malt, which has the character of burned toast. And there are a wide variety of shadings in between.

A brewer may use only one or as many as eight different styles of malt in combination to produce a specific beer. In the U.S., corn and rice have long been used as adjuncts to barley to smooth out the taste of the beer, but more traditional recipes for beer call for only barley malt. Malt is often referred to as the ‘€œsoul’€ of beer and has a sweet taste.

Hops. There are many strains of this herbaceous, climbing vine and it can be found in many parts of the world. Hops look almost like a cross between tiny pine cones and artichokes. They are used principally for their taste characteristics. With their bitter, dry flavor, hops counterbalance the sweetness of malt. Hops also act as a sort of natural preservative; an especially important role in beer that is not pasteurized.

Brewers may use different varieties of hops at different stages of the brewing process to give a beer its particular flavor and aroma.

Yeast. For brewing, these are specially cultivated strains of fungus that simply but importantly convert sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Different yeasts ferment sugars in different ways thus producing their own unique alcohols and flavors.

The Brewing Process

The malt releases its fermentable sugars in an infusion or decoction of hot water. In the infusion method, favored by British brewers, the dried malt is steeped in hot water (about 150 degrees F) for one to three hours in a vessel called the mash tun.

In the decoction method, more commonly used in Europe, the process starts at a lower temperature of about 95 degrees F. Periodically, portions of the mash are removed from the vessel, heated at a higher temperature, then replaced until gradually increasing the temperature of the mash to about 169 degrees F. The decoction method takes five to six hours. A method that combines elements of both techniques is called step infusion.

The sweet liquid formed in the mash is filtered through a false bottom in the tun or in a separate vessel and drawn off. This liquid is known as wort. Often, more water is sprayed on the mash to extract more wort.

The actual brewing process takes place when the wort is boiled for an hour or more. During this brewing, the principal addition of hops is made. Hops add flavor and aroma to beer, and can be added in the form of the hops flower or blossom, compacted hops pellets or a hops extract. Traditionalists argue that the whole hop blossom best retains the resins and oils that impart flavor and aroma.

Hops may be added one or more times to the brew, and in a variety of combinations. The earlier hops are added to the brew kettle during the boil, the drier or more bitter the resulting beer. Those that impart bitterness are generally used early in the brewing process, and varieties that impart more aroma are generally used later.

After brewing, the hops are removed, and the clarified wort is passed through a centrifugal whirlpool to remove unwanted protein from the liquid. The wort is then cooled to temperatures suitable for fermenting.


Once the wort passes into the fermentation tanks, yeast is added. For ales, a top-fermenting yeast is used; a bottom-fermenting yeast is used for lagers.

Brewers really didn’€™t know how yeast worked until 1857 when Louis Pasteur started developing a real understanding of yeasts. They only knew that some rose to the top of the fermentation vessel, and some sank to the bottom, and that the substance could be skimmed off the top of the vat (or recovered from the dregs) to start a new batch of brew.

Eventually, Emil Hansen at Carlsberg in Denmark successfully broke down a bottom-fermenting type of yeast into a single strain. Brewers subsequently found out that single strains cold produce more dependable, consistent results.

Yeast is essentially an organism that feeds off certain types of sugars. The enzymes in the yeast break down these sugars and convert them to alcohol and carbon dioxide. Different types of yeasts ferment sugars in different ways, producing their own distinct alcohols and flavors.


The primary fermentation for ales takes only a few days; lagers may take one to two weeks. After this primary fermentation, the wort is passed to conditioning tanks where it is allowed to age. Some beers are conditioned in casks, and some even in bottles.

During this conditioning period, brewers may add more hops to the brew to enhance the aroma. The technique is known as ‘€œdryhopping.’€ At the same time, brewers may stimulate a secondary fermentation by adding a portion of unfermented wort to the brew, a fresh dosage of yeast, or even sugar. All of these methods create more buildup of natural carbonation and tend to more completely convert fermentable sugars in the brew, giving the resulting brew a mellower flavor.

The classic form of lagering, where this secondary fermentation, conditioning and aging takes place, may last as long as three months. Once the beer is aged, it is either filtered or pasteurized before leaving the brewery.

Beer Styles

All malt beverages are rightly referred to as ‘€œbeers,’€ but there are two distinct types: ales and lagers. With a few exceptions, beers made before the 1800s were ales. That is, they were brewed with yeasts that fermented at the top of the fermenting tank. In the early days, beer had been allowed to ferment naturally, with the yeast always rising to the top. Bottom-fermenting yeasts were discovered about 1830, making the production of lagers more prevalent.


Ales are still brewed around the world, but most of the distinctive styles known today originated in Britain. The British did not add hops to their ales until around 1500, but almost all ales now use hops in the recipe, though some use additional flavorings. Ales also are commonly conditioned or aged in the bottle to develop strength and flavor. Here are some of the major top-fermenting ale and beer styles.

Altbier. A German style of top-fermenting beer, altbier comes from the German ‘€œalt,’€ meaning old. These light ales are cold-conditioned, making them more similar in taste to lagers than ales.

Bitter. British ales, usually bronze to deep copper in color, are heavily hopped, giving them a high degree of hops bitterness.

Brown Ale. A sweet, dark brown ale brewed in southern England. Brown ales in northern England are more reddish in color, slightly higher in alcoholic content and have a drier finish.

Cream Ale. An American invention, cream ales are usually blends of pale golden, mild, light-bodied ale and lager.

Lambic. Brewed in Belgium, lambics are made with both barley and 30% to 40% unmalted wheat. The mash is left to ferment spontaneously with wild yeast from the atmosphere for a night, then barreled for the rest of the primary and secondary fermentation. Lambics are sometimes casked with cherries, raspberries, or other fruit. Young lambics are dry, sour, cloudy, and similar in taste to a cider. Aged lambics are more mellow and settled.

Mild. The English term for ales that are only mildly hopped, and therefore less bitter than ‘€œbitters’€ or ‘€œstouts.’€ Most are dark brown, though they range in color to copper. They’€™re full-bodied in flavor, but have relatively low alcohol content.

Pale Ale. Pale generally refers to the color of the malt used to brew this ale. The malt is only dried instead of roasted, giving the resulting brew a lighter bronze or copper color than the brown ales, and a lighter, less hearty flavor.

Porter. A style developed in London in the early 1700s in response to customer demands for a blended brew drawn from casks of pale ale and brown or stout, Porter was originally a heavy brew. Once extinct, the style has been revived in recent years, and is made with highly roasted malt. It has a less pronounced malt flavor than other ales, and a slightly sweet taste.

Scotch Ale. In a country known more for its malt whiskies, Scotch ales are heavily dominated by malt flavor, but range in strength.

Stout. Stout has a dark, almost black color (due to highly roasted malt), and a rich malty flavor usually combined with a strong, bitter hops taste. There are a couple of versions of this type of ale. ‘€œDry’€ stout, best exemplified by Guinness, is the Irish style, which is more ‘€œhoppy’€ in character and may contain roasted unmalted barley. ‘€œSweet’€ or ‘€œmilk’€ stout was given its name because of the lactose used as a nonfermentable sugar in the brew, giving it a sweeter taste. ‘€œImperial’€ stout was originally brewed in Russia and adopted as an English style. It’€™s usually medium-dry, very heavy, and generally very strong.

Trappist. Only the order of monks bearing this name may rightly use the term Trappist to describe their brews. The order has five breweries in Belgium and one in The Netherlands that produce a variety of ales under this nomenclature. The ales are usually brewed with candy sugar and bottle conditioned, and range in color from bronze to dark brown.

Weisse (or Weissbier). Brewed from wheat instead of the more traditional barley, weisse beer also is brewed with top-fermenting yeast. Most are light and tart in taste with a bready or yeasty aroma, and pale in color.


When bottom-fermenting yeasts were discovered, their advantages were quickly promoted, first through Europe and then the world. Bottom fermentation takes place at lower temperatures than top fermentation, of between 40 degrees F and 55 degrees F, and the yeast settles to the bottom of the fermenting vat, out of harm’€™s way. When the process was first discovered, many brewers produced the new lager during the colder winter months, and continued to brew ale in the spring and summer. As advances in refrigeration techniques took hold, brewers were able to brew the new type of beer year-round.

Lager comes from the German word ‘€œlagern,’€ which means to store. The beer was not only brewed at lower temperatures for a longer period of time (anywhere from five to fourteen days instead of the two to four days for ales), it was then stored in cold cellars to undergo a slow second fermentation and aging process.

The new method of brewing became so popular that a wide range of styles developed almost overnight. Here are a few of the major styles still popular throughout the world.

Bock. A German term for strong beer, bock beers are usually brewed for consumption in the late winter, spring or autumn. They can range in color from golden to tawny to brown, and a generally stronger than typical lagers (more than 6.25% alcohol by volume). Versions of bock beer include ‘€œMaibock,’€ a bock brewed to be consumed in spring, and ‘€œDoppelbock,’€ an extra strong (7.5% alcohol by volume) tawny or dark brown beer.

Dortmunder. Technically, this is a beer brewed in the German city of Dortmund, but it often refers to the city’€™s classic style of Export. There are actually seven brewing companies in the city of Dortmund producing a wide variety of beer styles with the name Dortmunder. The Export style is a beer that is pale and medium-dry, with a little more body and alcoholic content than pale lagers from Munich and Pilsen.

Dry. Originally a style in Germany where carbohydrates were diminished by a very thorough fermentation (creating a high alcohol content), dry beer was popularized by Japanese brewers. The mild version brewed in America has a conventional alcohol content, and it is noted for having no ‘€œberry’€ aftertaste.

Ice. First introduced in Canada in 1993, this style was embraced by several large U.S. and Canadian brewers in the mid-1990s, but has since declined in popularity. At its most basic, ice beer is created by brewing at cooler-than-normal temperatures to form ice crystals, which are then filtered out.

Marzen. Originally a beer that was brewed and casked in March for consumption through the summer months, Marzen eventually came to be associated with one specific style ‘€” a malty, medium-strong version of the Vienna style.

Munchener (or Munich-style). This dark brown lager is full-bodied with a sweet malt flavor and slight hop taste that is more creamy and aromatic than a light lager. The dark color and malty flavor come from roasted barley. Most dark superpremiums and imports are fashioned after Munchener beers.

Pilsner (or Pils). Like Dortmunder, a true pilsner can only come from the town of Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, with Pilsner Urquell (‘€œoriginal’€) being the only true pilsner still around. Even so, most of the ubiquitous light lager beers available in the U.S. are modeled after this style, defined by a light, pale golden color and a distinct hop character, though that is not emphasized in many of the mass-produced pilsners in this country.

Steam Beer. The only beer style indigenous to America, steam beer was invented in California when early brewers tried to make bottom-fermenting beers without adequate supplies of ice. The brewers used bottom-fermenting yeast, but brewed their beers in wide, shallow vessels at the higher temperatures characteristic of ale brewing. The technique produced beer with the combined character of lager and ale.

Vienna. An amber-red lager originally produced in Vienna, the term Vienna also still refers to the amber-red kilned malt that produces this style of beer.

The U.S. produces more lager beer than any other country in the world. Most of the lagers in this country are made with an adjunct of rice or corn in addition to barley malt, making them smoother and paler than all-barley brews, giving them less body and character than imports.


4300 BC

Babylonian clay tablets from this time depict brewing and show detailed recipes for beer. Beer was produced in large quantities and there were about 20 varieties. Royal decree stipulated the proportion of water and grain to be used in brewing. Beer was also popular in ancient Egypt where it was brewed commercially.

2300 BC

There is evidence that the Chinese brewed a form of beer (‘€œkiu’€).

1600 BC

An Egyptian text from this period contains 100 medicinal prescriptions that call for beer.

1200 AD

Beer-making is firmly established as an important commercial enterprise in Germany, Austria and England. Commercial brewing grew significantly in the next several hundred years with the rise of great brewing houses, first in Germany and then in Great Britain.


German brewers begin to make lager. In years to come, in England, ale (a top-fermenting malt beverage) was the beer of choice, while in Germany, lager (a bottom-fermenting beer) was the favorite. The production of lager, which requires a longer and colder fermentation process than ale, was well suited to Germany where the beer could be stored, even through the summer months, in ice-cold caves in the Alps.


Germany’€™s ‘€œReinheitsgebot’€ purity law takes effect (it states that the only ingredients permitted for brewing beer are water, malted barley, malted wheat and hops).


Dr. Alexander Nowell discovers that ale will keep longer if stored in glass bottles, sealed with corks.


The Pilgrims land at Plymouth Rock, bringing beer with them.


The New World’€™s first commercial brewery is built in Manhattan.


Molson, the oldest surviving brewery in the New World, is founded.

Late 1700s

Many of the American colonists and Founding Fathers, including William Penn, Samuel Adams, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, brew their own beer.


Ale is proclaimed ‘€œthe proper drink for Americans’€ at a huge parade in New York City.


In the first year in which the U.S. Constitution is effective, James Madison proposes in Congress that a duty of 8 cents per barrel be levied on malt liquors in the hope ‘€œthat this low rate will be such an encouragement as to induce the manufacture of beer in every State in the Union.’€


Oktoberfest is established in Munich as an official citywide celebration.


The first clear, golden-hued lager is produced in the town of Pilsen in Bohemia. (The town was granted brewing rights by King Wenceslas in 1295.)


The modern era of brewing in the U.S. begins to take shape as German immigrants bring a love of lager and the technological expertise to make it to their new land. By the late 1800s, aided by the development of commercial refrigeration, automatic bottling and pasteurization, the modern era of big brands is in full swing. Brewers like Adolphus Busch and Frederick Pabst were able to make and sell their beers nationally by the turn of the century, giving rise to America’€™s great brewing dynasties.


The first federal excise tax on beer was imposed as a ‘€œtemporary’€ measure to help the Union during the Civil War.


Louis Pasteur publishes Studies on Fermentation ‘€“ The Diseases of Beer, Their Causes, and the Means of Preventing Them.


Approximately 2,300 breweries are operating in the U.S. By 1914 the number of active breweries drops to 1,400. By 1935, only about 160 breweries survive Prohibition. By 1960, there are only 34 brewers left in the country.


Pabst is the first U.S. brewery to sell more than 1 million barrels of beer in a single year.


Prohibition ends for beer on April 7.



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