Beer can seem pretty one note before you dive into the colorful world of craft. All over the world mass market brewers produce a very similar pale lager. Crisp, clear, and almost boringly “beer-flavored” it still represents the basic and most quaff-able brew around. However, things can get a little confusing after you poke around the booming international craft beer scene. What does it all mean, and more importantly, how does it all taste? Well, here is a (very) short guide to basic beer styles, with links given to beers that will be present at this spring’s Keyaki Beer Festival. Recommendations come from both my own experience and the excellent Craft Beer in Japan: The Essential Guide by Mark Meli.
Before we dive in, a quick note on Lagers and Ales. Separating beer styles starts here, as the kind of yeast used in each is different. Beer that uses ale yeast is often a little fruitier, and has a character more informed by the yeast. Ale yeast ferments at the top of the beer, is a little heartier, and can do its good work at a higher temperature. Lager yeast produces a cleaner flavored end result, but requires a lower temperature for fermentation and a little cold aging at the end of the process.
Light lagers are the basic go-to beer of the world. Crisp, refreshing and well balanced, a good lager is about as good as beer gets. Lagers originated in Germany (Lager means “to store” in German) and have since conquered the world. These beers range from a pale gold to an amber color. They have a clean maltiness and spicy hops. Mass market lagers are well represented globally by brands such as Coors, Sing-ha, Corona and Sapporo. Craft lagers often have a more complex flavor than those macro-brews, with nice bread or biscuit malt flavors and German and Austrian noble hops. Lagers are more hop-forward flavor wise than a stout or a porter, but are not as overloaded as most India Pale Ales. Coming to Omiya all the way from Shimane prefecture is the Shimane Beer Hearne Pilsner. Another interesting lager is the Hokkaido Brewing Organic Pilsner.
Pale lagers have conquered the world since their introduction in the mid 1800s, but before that revolution most beer was much darker. Dark lagers are the sort of beer that the monks have made for centuries. Indeed, the Paulaner dopplebock has its origins in beer created to sustain the monks during fasts. These dunkels, schwartzbiers, bocks and dopplebocks are rich, malty beers with dark amber to black coloring. They have no detectible hop flavors, instead relying on the malts for flavor. The dark lager styles have the clean flavor profile typical of all lagers, which sets them apart from the darker ales. Some of these beers can pack a pretty strong alcohol punch, with dopplebocks starting at around 7%. There will be a German brew representing a German style, with Flensburger Dunkle being available. Another option is the Schwartz from Shonan Beer.
Moving from lagers to Ales, we also move from Germany to England. Pale Ales came about in the early 1700s, when coke dried barley malt became available. This new method did not burn the grains, and allowed for a much lighter color and less burned flavor. Today the term “pale ale” covers a wide variety of beers. In the UK there are bitters and red ales, which are often fairly malty, with some hop flavors. American Pale Ale is usually a deep gold, with a pronounced hop presence. Golden ales are the lightest expression of this style and can be similar to light lagers. Belgian ales like Duvel also fall under the pale ale moniker, and are often quite strong. Nagano based Oh! La! Ho! will bring both their Golden Ale and their Pale Ale. Up from Ise prefecture is Isekadoya and their Pale Ale.
While most beers are made with malted barley, wheat beers contain a significant portion of malted or un-malted wheat. This gives them a lighter flavor, a giant sticky head, and a cloudy appearance. Wheat beers are especially popular in Germany and Belgium. German weissbier is usually from Bavaria, and is sometimes unfiltered (Hefeweizen) . The suspended yeast and wheat leads to a very cloudy beer indeed. These beers are often fermented at a slightly higher temperature, which can bring interesting flavors like clove or banana out of the yeast. Belgian Witbeer is a bit of a throwback to the time before hops were the go to flavoring and preservative herb. These beers will add things like coriander and orange peel to flavor the beer. For an American take on the Belgian style we will have Avery Brewing’s White Rascal. Coedo has Shiro, a very nice expression of the German style wheat ale.
Some beers already taste fruity, from citrus-hoppy IPAs to super banana flavored Weizens. While none of those have the fruit in question as an ingredient, many brewers do like to add some fresh produce to their beers. At their best fruit beers can be complex, interesting and absolutely fantastic. At their worst, fruit beers can be a cup of hot garbage. Luckily, many brewers have become quite good a producing subtle and well balanced fruit beers.
From Nagoya the brand new Y Market Brewing has a Mango Orange Ale. Hokkaido Brewing will have several fruit beers, including their Apple Ale. Venturing outside of Japan, and strictly speaking away from “fruit” there is Rogue Ales Chipotle Ale. Outsider Brewing is bringing a Peach Cider, which should be quite refreshing.
India Pale Ale
The term India pale ale originated in the late 1700s England. English export style ales were more strongly hopped, and legend has it that they survived the long sea voyage to India better than other styles. They became very popular in India, and then became widely sold in England as well. The traditional English version was highly hopped for the time, but modern American craft brewers have gone hop crazy. Modern American West Coast IPAs and Double IPAs are fully focused on hop flavors. Strong malt sweetness backs up explosive hop aroma and bitterness and a greater than average alcohol punch.
IPAs will be very well represented, and several have caught my eye. Coedo is bringing their new Session IPA. Lagunitas will have both their IPA and Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale. The combination heavy metal bar/ IPA brewer Thrash Zone will have Hopslave Double IPA, and that is one I think I have to try. Devil Craft will have a lighter, friendlier IPA with Red Godzilla IPA. Information on this one is sparse, but it seems to be a collaboration with Silver City Brewing in Washington. Will it be showing up on the menu once the Hammamatsucho location starts brewing? I will have to ask and find out.
Brown Ale is a very middle of the road style. Popular on both sides of the pond, brown ales are made with darker, sweeter malts than the pale ales. These beers are a deep brown color and are usually very malty, with a caramel flavor and a medium amount of hops providing balance. The British version is maltier and lighter on the alcohol than corresponding American versions. For the festival, North Island Beer will be bringing their nicely balanced Brown Ale.
Porter and Stout
Porter had its birth in London in the early 1700s, and was the first mass-produced beer in the UK. Stout started life as “Extra Stout Porter” denoting a higher alcohol content, before becoming its own style. These gloriously dark beers are now brewed with roasted grains that impart the deep color and toasted flavors. The modern porter is a dark beer with a low to medium hop character. Stouts are often even darker, with a deep red to black coloring and a creamy mouth feel. The bitterness and flavor comes primarily from the burned malts used, and not from hops. Stouts are also a popular style for experimentation, with ingredients like chocolate, oatmeal, coffee, milk sugars and even oysters sometimes added to the beer.
Niigata brewery Swan Lake will bring their very well regarded Porter, and Colorado’s own Left Hand will supply their excellent Milk stout. Shonan Beer will also have their highly recommended Chocolate Porter.
Well, there you have it. A “brief” introduction to the vast and wonderful world of Beer. With so many breweries and their beers represented, I have hardly scratched the surface. But that is ok, as one of the most fun things about dipping your toes into the world of craft is the sense of discovery you get when you find something unexpected and amazing. I will leave off with two beers that did not really fit within the styles above. I think part of what I love about craft beer is that it lets you celebrate centuries, and even millennia, of history while also celebrating modern innovation and creation. In that spirit, I raise a glass to Isekadoya’s Imperial Red Ale, and North Island’s Coriander Black. Kanpai!