Like wine, beer is a fermented product and no two bottles taste the same. In North America there are two main types of beer, ale and lager, named after the yeast used to ferment them. Different from the yeast used in bread-making, these yeasts are fermented in different ways resulting in various varieties. Understanding the differences will help you know what tastes to expect and which varieties to choose for your recipes.
Ales are 'top-fermented' beers. The fermentation happens at a higher temperature than lagers, and as a result, more quickly (within 2 - 7 days). The ale yeast clumps together and rises to the surface, where it's skimmed off. The quick fermentation results in robust flavours with citrus fruit notes and spicy aromas. Think of ales as the red wine of beers. Here are common types of ales found on North American shelves and examples of dishes they're best in.
Pale Ale: With a flavour like molasses, a splash of pale ale adds big character to baked beans.
Stout: Made with roasted barley or roasted malt, this beer is dark in colour with a deep, roasted coffee flavour and chocolate notes. Creamy and thick, stouts are good in lamb stews or chili.
Porter: Dark with a sweet, malty flavour and medium body. Perfect for chili and in homemade barbecue sauce.
Wheat Beer: Some of the barley is replaced with wheat grains. Its big flavour can range from fruity and sweet to tart and tangy. Use the sweeter varieties in fish and seafood recipes and the less sweet in meat stews.
Lagers are 'bottom-fermented' beers, fermented at cooler temperatures than ales and for a slightly longer period (usually 6 - 10 days) and during the process, the yeast falls to the bottom. The result is a beer with a cleaner, crisper taste. Think of lagers as the white wine of beers. The majority of North American beer production uses the lager method.
Here are a couple of common lager varieties and the dishes to use them in:
Pilsner: Golden in colour with an assertive hops flavour and a dry, crisp finish. They tend to be highly carbonated, making them great for adding air to batters.
Bock: An amber beer with a dark, sweet, full-bodied flavour. Bocks tend to be heavier in weight and good in stew or sharp cheese sauces.
Now that you know a bit about the flavour profiles of ales and lagers, there's a third type called lambic beer that's worth seeking out. This is a Belgium beer made with wild yeast and sometimes re-fermented with fruit to make a sweet, non-carbonated beer that's delicious in dessert sauces.
With better beer understanding, you can now choose the best variety for the job for any of these recipes: