For the first two years of my beer drinking career, every glass I held looked more or less the same: copperish liquid with a fluffy white head. This was the color of my comfort zone. If a beer label said "amber" or "brown" anywhere on it, it was probably in my fridge.
That was it for a while; one Newcastle or Fat Tire six-pack replaced another in the chilled space between my eggs and leftover pizza. It wasn't until I started digging around in stacks of old beer books and exploring the geekiest corners of the internet that I understood that there was an enormous range of flavor—and colors—in beers that I hadn't tried yet.
I was missing out. I needed guidance: a list of essentials that would help me get a handle on the vast world of beer. Eight years on, after exploring just about every corner of the beer industry, I can think of a few great places for past-me to have started. Whether you're stuck in an amber ale rut or a little tired of IPA, consider this your checklist: 20 styles of beer you really should try to broaden your beer horizons—and specific bottles to seek out.
The most common beer styles you'll encounter in just about any American beer store are, no surprise, American styles. These are beers generally established as spin offs from the world's other great beer traditions, modified and tweaked to showcase American-grown ingredients and please the palates of our countrymen.
Light American Lager
Why you should try it: To get a true understanding of the American beer landscape, you're gonna have to drink some light (or is that 'lite'?) American lager. Despite craft beer's recent success, this stuff is still the most popular beer in the country. You'll be offered one soon enough at a house party or barbecue, so you probably don't have to run to the store to seek one out.
The classic light American lager is a softly sweet-tasting, highly carbonated beer made in part with corn or rice. The result is a light-bodied refresher with a gently doughy, somewhat corn-like flavor. It was originally modeled after the pale lagers or Europe, but has little of the depth, bitterness, or refinement of its distant forebear the pilsner.
Seek out: This one's easy. Let a light (or "Lite") American lager seek YOU out. Mission accomplished.
Steam Beer/California Common
Why you should try it: Many learned beer folks credit San Francisco's Anchor Brewing Company with sparking America's interest in flavorful, high-quality beer. A man named Fritz Maytag took control of the brewery in 1965 and found success in a rare American original conceived during the Californian gold rush: the steam beer. Patriotism aside, there's a whole lot to love about this stuff: it's toasty, crisp, and perfectly balanced, with a snappy, woodsy, hoppy finish. It's still totally delicious and popular today.
Seek out: Anchor's classic, or find another brewery's take. Hint: if you're looking to find a non-Anchor steam beer, keep an eye out for the words "California common." These beers are typically labeled as such out of respect for Anchor's trademark on the "steam beer" name.
American Pale Ale
Why you should try it: The early beers of Anchor paved the way for a new generation of craft breweries founded in and around the 1980s. The wave of brewing creativity that followed is perhaps best represented by the American pale ale. Early examples of the style, like Sierra Nevada's, are somewhat malty beers with a bitter finish brought on by citrusy, floral-tasting hops like Cascade and Centennial.
If you dig IPAs like I do, you can thank these guys for priming the American palate for the hoppy stuff. As time has passed, the humble pale ale has branched off in other delicious directions to include less-malty, less-bitter examples that are built to showcase the juicy and pungent aromatics of newer hops like Citra, Galaxy, and Motueka. If you're interested in checking out hoppy beers for the first time, pale ales are the place to start—they tend to be a bit gentler than IPAs, but show off American hop aromas just as well.
Seek out: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Three Floyds Zombie Dust
Why you should try it: American brewers are known for pushing beer styles to their limits. The double IPA (aka imperial IPA) is what happens when you take pale ale and make everything bigger. The ingredients that go into it are more or less the same, but there's way more of them. Expect an intense beer with a whole lot of citrusy, pungent, and floral hoppy flavor. While pale ales ales are usually around 5-6% ABV, double IPAs start around 8% ABV and can shoot way up from there. Many are quite bitter and alcoholic in flavor, but my favorites have a unified balance and are dangerously drinkable. The bright, booming, and unmistakable aroma of American hops should always be the star.
Seek out: Stone Enjoy By IPA, Firestone Walker Double Jack, Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA
Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout
Why you should try it: If big flavors are your thing, you'll love imperial stouts. They're bold, rich, chocolaty, and potent. When brewers throw those same imperial stouts into old wine or spirits barrels, the flavors only get bigger. Barrel-aged imperial stouts are pricey and time-consuming to produce, but they're worth it. Folks have been known to wait in day-long lines for bottles from some producers. Thankfully, there are great ones out there to be had without having to wait in a line.
Bourbon barrel-aged examples are perhaps the most common, and for good reason. The oaky vanilla-like, coconutty, and woodsy flavors sucked into the beer from the barrel's whiskey-soaked staves complement the roasty, coffee-like, and chocolaty flavors of the beer really well. It's a powerful marriage of the worlds of beer and spirits—a fancy boilermaker in a bottle. These beers tend to be very strong (upwards of 10% ABV), and are usually sold in big 22 ounce bottles, so share with a friend.
Seek out: Firestone Walker Parabola, Deschutes The Abyss (only partially barrel-aged)
The Belgians have a wonderfully diverse beer culture, with a wide range of beer styles expressing an even wider range of flavors. Every bottle seems to have its own celebrated history and quirky methods of production, but these beers do have some things in common. Most of the modern Belgian beer styles are driven by the fruity, peppery, earthy, and tart flavors that can be coaxed from the yeasts and bacterias used to ferment them.
Why you should try it: To many, the idea of Belgian beer is inextricably tied to the image of a robed monk stirring a big pot of grains. That's partly because of the beers we know as "abbey ales," the beer styles commonly produced by monasteries and those secular folks who wish to emulate them. The Trappist monastery Westmalle is given credit for popularizing the two most visible of these styles: dubbel and tripel.
Dubbel is a dark, strong beer of about 6 to 8% ABV. It has a dense fruitiness to it, reminiscent of raisins or plums, that is perked up with a whole lot of carbonation and rounded out with a peppery yeast flavor. Dubbels taste incredible on their own, but where they really shine is at the dinner table. Their aggressive carbonation and alcoholic heft helps them hold their own against even the fattiest of dishes—try a glass with a stinky washed rind cheese or a rich, gamy rack of lamb and you'll see what I mean.
Seek out: Westmalle Dubbel
Why you should try it: Tripel is dubbel's even burlier big brother (7 to 10% ABV). At first glance, they don't really look related: tripels are much paler than dubbels, sporting a clear straw color. But these, too, are fruity, assertive beers that are great with food. While dubbels might remind you of raisins and plums, tripels tend to veer more toward bright fruit flavors: apple, pear, and citrus. Trade your rack of lamb for fried fish with remoulade and your stinky washed rind cheese for baked brie or a triple cream with marmalade.
Seek out: Westmalle Tripel
Why you should try it: Saison is simultaneously one of the most rustic and cutting edge beer styles out there, as important to Belgian beer's past as it is to its future. They're made over and over without variation by hardcore traditionalists, while tireless experimenters avoid ever repeating a batch. How does that happen? Saison's history as a use-whatever-you've-got-lying-around-the-farmhouse beer style has lent the category's definition a certain amount of flexibility. You'll see dark saisons, pale saisons, spiced saisons, and those with ultra-simple recipes. Most are dry, pale, and a bit hoppy, but whatever goes into them, they'll be notably yeasty in flavor, with peppery and fruity aromas that leap from the beer's billowy head. As a group, they're some of the most interesting beers on the planet—without strict style limitations, brewers are free to get really creative while maintaining a recognizable thread of flavors.
Seek out: Saison Dupont
Why you should try it: Gueuze (the Belgians say something like "hyur-zuh," but most Americans pronounce it "gooze") is ridiculously delicious and sadly, it's getting tougher to find every day. It's a style that falls into the broader category of "lambic"—funky and tart beers that are made by just a handful of brewers in the heart of Belgium. That funkiness comes from fermentation; rather than using a highly-controlled, predictable dose of yeast from a laboratory, brave lambic brewers allow the beer to ferment spontaneously, using the wild yeast and bacteria that's floating by us all the time. The result is bracing—and some might find it a little off-putting at first. The flavors in lambic range from cheesy and barnyard-like to puckeringly lemony and tropical, sometimes all at once. Gueuze is made by blending pale lambic beers of varying ages—what's in your glass is complex and eye-opening stuff.
Seek out: Drie Fonteinen Gueuze*
Why you should try it: If gueuze's intense sourness is a bit much for you at first, check out the style known as Flanders red. Like lambic, these beers have a sharp tang to them from a bacterial fermentation. In this case, the beer is richer and maltier, and its sourness has a decidedly vinegary edge to it. Expect dense, lush flavors of berries, red wine, dark fruits, and balsamic. In fact, if there's a beer-hating red wine drinker in your family, try to win them over with this one—some like to refer to Flanders reds as the "Burgundies of Belgium." They're some of the most wine-like beers out there.
Seek out: Rodenbach Grand Cru
Why you should try it: Witbier is quite unlike the other Belgian beer styles. Like lambic, it's brewed with wheat, but its fermentation is more tightly controlled. Instead of sour and barnyardy fermentation flavors, you get spicy and fruity ones. But the spicy-fruitiness doesn't end there—these beers are typically flavored with a subtle addition of orange peel and coriander. The wheat used in witbier gives it further depth, offering a smooth creaminess and a fresh, crisp flavor. They taste great out in the summer sun and are perfect sushi beers.
Seek out: St. Bernardus Witbier
The best setting for experiencing British beer is in the back of a warm English pub with a proper pint poured from a well-cared-for cask of ale. But that's not exactly convenient for most of us. Thankfully, there are well-made examples of British-style beers available to us in bottles on American shelves if you know what you're looking for. As a whole, these are beers of exceptional cohesiveness and integrity, built to be drinkable but satisfyingly complex.
Why you should try it: English bitters, to me, represent balance and subtlety better than just about any other beer style in the world. They are generally fairly low in alcohol (3 to 6% ABV), but are full of flavor and will surprise you with their depth. Expect bready, caramelly maltiness that is kept perfectly in check by spicy, earthy hop bitterness. Softly fruity yeast flavors tie everything together. If you can find yourself a pint from a well-maintained cask, you're in for something totally great and unlike anything else in the beer world. Cask bitters served this way are smoother and less carbonated, and are a bit less cold than you might be used to, which lets the beer's more delicate flavors really pop.
Seek out: a fresh example from a local producer served on cask, Timothy Taylor Landlord*, Fuller's ESB
Why you should try it: If you're finding that you are gravitating towards maltier beers, you'll probably like brown ale. Like the bitter above, these are deceivingly simple beers that can be thrown back two or three to a sitting without ruining the next morning. With brown ales, you can expect a nutty, toasty, caramelly beer with an underlying coffee or burnt toast-like roastiness that will keep malty sweetness in check. Keep these in your fridge year round and drink them with roasted root vegetables, pot pies, and barbecue.
Seek out: Alesmith Nut Brown Ale, Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale
Stout or Porter
Why you should try it: Stouts, and in many cases, their close relatives, the porters, are deep black beers that offer a set of charred flavors that aren't really present in other common beer styles. Along with those charred flavors come comparisons to espresso, charred meat, and dark chocolate. Sound tasty? There's probably a stout or porter out there that you'll love. There's a wide range of strengths, levels of sweetness, and other flavors amongst beers that bear the names "stout" or "porter," but that roastiness sets these apart as an interesting corner of the beer world that is especially tasty alongside grilled meats and salty or briny foods like charcuterie and oysters.
Seek out: Deschutes Obsidian Stout, Fuller's London Porter, Firestone Velvet Merlin
Why you should try it: English barleywines are some of the most decadent beers you can find, full-bodied, dense, and lush with malt flavors that span the range from toffee-like and honeyed to leathery and tobacco-esque. These are meant to be unpacked and savored slowly, on their own or with a Stilton sidecar. A focused appreciation of these complex sippers reveals serious greatness. But tread lightly: these are strong beers that can rocket upward of 9% ABV.
Seek out: JW Lees Harvest Ale
The beer scenes of Germany and the Czech Republic are centered around lagers: beers fermented with a species of yeast that thrives at cool temperatures. These beers showcase the flavor of European hops and malt without the heavy influence of the spicy or fruity flavors that can come from yeast. Still, there are the exceptions: the hefeweizens, weizenbocks, and altbiers that are made with a different species of yeast—one that ferments at warmer temps and leaves behind a touch (or a lot) of character. It's a fun section of the beer store to explore...here's where to start:
Why you should try it: Hefeweizen a hazy, flavorful delight made with wheat and a distinctive yeast strain that gives the beer a flavor that is often compared to bananas, bubblegum, and cloves. It's one of the most refreshing things you can drink, and it can't be beat alongside a vinaigrette-dressed salad.
Seek out: Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier, Paulaner Hefe-Weissbier
Why you should try it: There simply isn't a better food beer than Märzen. It's a toasty, caramelly amber lager that's closely associated with the fall Oktoberfest celebrations, but there are great examples to be had year-round. They're delicious with bratwurst and sauerkraut, but they'll taste great with just about anything that comes from the oven or grill.
Seek out: Paulaner Oktoberfest Märzen, Jack's Abby Copper Legend, Heater Allen Bobtoberfest*
Why you should try it: If you're into bacon, check out rauchbiers. They're a specialty from the German town of Bamberg, made with malted grain that has been dried over a beechwood fire. This lends the beers a smoky edge that can taste bacony and bonfire-like; it's a taste of the rare savory side of beer. Drink one with a pork chop or your next burger.
Seek out: Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen*, Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Urbock*, Spezial Rauchbier Märzen*
Why you should try it: Pilsner is the one beer style that has had the greatest impact on shaping today's beer landscape. For that reason alone, it's worth a taste. When it was first released in the Czech town of Pilsen, the world hadn't really seen anything like it—it was shockingly pale, unusually easy-drinking, and full of character, marrying techniques borrowed from British and Bavarian brewers. It was something totally new and delicious, from a town previously known for making terrible beer. It blew drinkers' minds on such a profound level that its influence is still reverberating throughout the beer world today.
Without pilsner, we probably wouldn't have a whole bunch of pale beer styles that are still popular, including helles, Belgian strong pale ale, and yes, American light lager. But pilsners aren't just important because they were different, they also taste crazy good when they're done well and served fresh (this is important—these beers can taste flat and unexciting if they've been sitting on a shelf for too long. I only buy bottles with "packaged on" dates from the last month or two, or pints from bars that go through beer quickly.) The best of 'em are bright and lively, with a balance of crackery malt flavor and earthy, floral hoppiness. Despite their reputation as easy-drinking brews, pilsners can be surprisingly powerful, with full, round texture and lasting bitterness.
Seek out: Pilsner Urquell, Trumer Pils
Why you should try it: Doppelbock will make you rethink your understanding of lager. This ain't your grandpa's can o' suds. These are beers that pour a deep brown color that hints at the rich concentrated maltiness that lies within. They're smooth and hearty, with flavors that suggest plums, caramel, chocolate, and molasses. If you're eating duck confit, it's in your best interest to have a doppelbock within reach.
Seek out: Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock, Andechser Doppelbock Dunkel
*These beers are distributed in the state of California by the author's employer, Lime Ventures.