Craft beer has boomed over the past 30 years, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing up anytime soon. There’s already an extraordinary craft brewery in every state, and new types of craft beer pop up every year. If you consider yourself a serious beer drinker, you should know about varieties like hazy IPAs, session beers, sours and wild ales.
How do I choose a craft beer?
For starters, beers are categorized by three types of yeast. The two most common are ale yeast (a top-fermenting yeast that works best at warm temperatures) and lager yeast, which ferments on the bottom at lower temperatures. The third uses a spontaneous yeast in the environment to make sour and wild beers.
What does that mean for you? The yeast affects the overall flavor of the beer. Lagers—like Mexican beers, American pale beers, pilsners and German bocks—are usually easy to drink with light and crisp flavors. Ales, on the other hand, are denser and lean towards higher alcohol contents. There are a wide variety of ales, from hoppy IPAs to dense, dark porters and stouts, so it’s hard to make general statements about their flavor.
Before you dive into the different varieties of craft beer, take a second to make sure you’re ordering (and pouring) your beer correctly.
1. American Lager
These beers have very little hop or malt presence, making them light, crisp and clean. They’re almost always straw or golden colored and contain alcohol contents lower than 5%. This is my go-to pick if I’m out fishing, camping or kayaking and don’t want to be weighed down by a heavy beer.
Popular Brands: Budweiser, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Miller, Coors, Corona
2. Vienna Lager
Although they’re darker in color (somewhere between pale to medium amber), these beers still have a light flavor and are as easy to drink as American lagers. These 4.5 to 5.5% alcohol beers originated in Vienna but they’re most popular in Mexican breweries.
Popular Brands: Dos Equis Ambar, Sam Adams Boston Lager, Victoria
3. Japanese Rice Lager
Rice lagers have the same light, crisp profile as American lagers, with one notable distinction: They contain a lot of rice! This keeps the flavors light but adds a signature dry finish, making them a perfect pairing with sushi. You can find rice lagers with as much as 6.5% alcohol, but most of them hover around the 4 to 5% mark.
Popular Brands: Asahi, Sapporo, Kirin
4. German Pilsner
Unlike other straw-colored lagers, German pilsners have a notable sweetness from the malts used during the brewing process. They can contain a slight hop bitterness, which balances out the sweet flavors to finish crisp and refreshing. They are usually less than 5% alcohol by volume.
Popular Brands: Warsteiner, Beck’s, Victory Prima Pils, Firestone Walker Pivo Pils
Helles German beers are perfect for hot, summer days! They’re light-colored and sweet like pilsners, but with a spicy hop presence and a fuller, more bread-like malt character. They tend to lean closer to 5.5% alcohol by volume.
Popular Brands: Weihenstephan, Hofbräuhaus, Spaten, Paulaner
This unique beer uses lager yeasts but is fermented at warmer, ale temperatures. Like its lager cousins, it’s light in color but with a fruitier flavor and a dryer finish. Kolsch beers are as refreshing as lagers, but their spicy, herbal hop presence and full mouthfeel make them as satisfying as ales.
Popular Brands: Alaskan Brewing Kolsch, Ballast Point California Kolsch, Samuel Adams East-West Kolsch
7. Cream Ale
Like kolsch, cream ales are also hybrid beers. They’re usually brewed with ale yeast and finished with lager yeast (or, mixed together with a lager beer). That gives them the creamy texture they’re named after. Because there is so much leeway with this style, you’ll find low-alcohol, sweet versions of cream ale and 8% imperial cream ales with a lot of hop bitterness. If you can find one of these beers on nitro, go for it; the lack of carbonation amps up the creaminess.
Popular Brands: Genesee, New Belgium Dayblazer, Anderson Valley Summer Solstice, Pelican Pub Kiwanda Cream Ale, Sun King Sunlight Cream Ale
8. Blonde Ale
Despite their pale, golden color, blonde ales are usually made with ale yeast (although, it gets tricky because sometimes they’re lagered instead). They’re one of the easiest drinking ales with a smooth flavor and no dominant malt or hop presence to speak of. They are sometimes called golden ale because of their vibrant color and range from 4 to 5% alcohol.
Popular Brands: Deschutes Brewery Twilight Summer Ale, Kona Brewing Big Wave Golden Ale, Victory Summer Love, Firestone Walker 805 Blonde Ale
Traditionally, German hefeweizen beers are made with 50% barley and 50% wheat, although sometimes they contain even more wheat than that. This gives them a light color, an almost chewy texture and a cloudy appearance. The ale yeast used for these beers has a banana-like flavor, and many hefeweizen beers also contain clove-spice flavors. These beers range in alcohol, but generally settle between 4 to 5%.
Popular Brands: Ayinger, Weihenstephaner, Spaten, Widmer Hefeweisen
10. American Wheat
The American version of hefeweizen skips all the fruity flavors and aromatic clove-like phenols and have more of a neutral flavor. They still have all the chewiness of a German hefeweizen, but they’re usually filtered to remove the cloudy appearance. Some American breweries also add a moderate amount of hops to give these wheat beers a bitter edge for balance. Like hefeweizen, you’ll find these beers from 4 to 7% alcohol.
Popular Brands: Blue Moon, Bell’s Brewery Oberon, Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat, Southern Tier Hop Sun
11. Belgium Witbier
Belgium’s version of wheat beer is often brewed with oats to give the beer a darker pale color and a cloudy appearance. The yeast used also gives the beer a spicy flavor, and additional spices like coriander and orange peel are often added to boost the fruity characteristic. Traditional wits have low alcohol by volume, although they can go as high as 7%.
Popular Brands: Hoegaarden Original White Ale, Shock Top Belgian White, Avery White Rascal, Unibroue Blanche de Chambly
12. Farmhouse Ale
Farmhouse ales don’t describe a single beer, but rather a category of styles (including saison, which we’ll talk about in a minute). If it has a slightly funky flavor, an aroma that reminds you of wet hay, or a tart, crisp finish, it’s probably a farmhouse ale! These beers are typically low alcohol and have a dry character that makes them easy to drink on a hot summer day.
Popular Brands: Boulevard Brewing Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale, Goose Island Sofie, Brasserie Fantôme Hiver, Brooklyn Brewery Sorachi Ace
These Belgian beers are the most popular form of farmhouse ales. They are often bottle-conditioned, which means yeast is added to the bottle to naturally carbonate the beer. That makes them extra yeasty-flavored and give them a hazy character. Many saisons are light and crisp, although some have high amounts of hop bitterness. The original saisons were less than 5% alcohol by volume, although today you can find them as high as 8.5%.
Popular Brands: Saison Dupont, Fantome Saison, Great Divide Colette, Brewery Ommegang Hennepin
14. Session Beer
A session beer can be any type of craft beer: Breweries brew session IPAs, pale ales and ambers. It just has to have less than 5% alcohol by volume, which makes it easy to drink, light and refreshing. If you’re planning to drink all day, you should probably reach for a session beer!
Popular Brands: Bell’s Brewery Oarsman, Lagunitas Day Time, Firestone Walker Easy Jack IPA, Founders All Day IPA
15. American Pale Ale
With American pale ales, we start getting into darker-colored beers that range from dark gold to amber. These beers also have more hop presence, although they’re not as bitter as IPAs. If you’re looking for a beer that has a good balance between caramel flavor and hop brightness, an APA is the right choice. They also have moderate alcohol percentages, ranging from 4.5 to 6.5% alcohol by volume.
Popular Brands: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale, Deschutes Brewery Mirror Pond Pale Ale, SweetWater Brewing 420 Extra Pale Ale
16. Belgian Pale
Unlike American pale ales, Belgian-style pale ale has less hop presence and a sweet, more malt-forward flavor. The yeast used for these beers also adds a fruity flavor and a spicy aroma that’s missing in American versions. Expect to see 4.5 to 7% alcohol on these beers.
Popular Brands:Orval Trappist Ale, Petrus Aged Pale, Boston Beer Beltian Session, Russian River Redemption, Spencer Trappist Ale
17. American IPA
American IPAs take hop presence to the next level! Instead of using hops just as a preservative (as they were in the original India pale ales), breweries use hops to add extreme levels of bitterness as well as piney, herbaceous or citrusy flavors. These beers tend to be higher in alcohol than most ales, ranging from 5.5 to 7.5%.
Popular Brands: Bells Two Hearted Ale, Ballast Point Sculpin, Dogfish Heat 60 Minute IPA, Stone IPA, Lagunitas IPA
18. Imperial IPA
Also called double IPAs, these high-alcohol beers are an amped-up version of American IPA. With robust malt profiles and extreme amounts of hops, expect a full-bodied beer with flavors that almost punch you in the face. Don’t try to drink a lot of these beers, either; the alcohol content can vary from 7 to 12%.
Popular Brands: Russian River Pliny the Elder, Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA, Green Flash West Coast IPA
19. Brut IPA
A relative newcomer to the craft beer scene, Brut IPAs appeared in California in 2017. These beers are lighter in color than regular IPAs, and they have a bubbly, dry mouthfeel like champagne. Their alcohol content is pretty similar to regular IPAs, ranging from 6 to 7.5%.
Popular Brands: Sierra Nevada Brut IPA, New Belgium Brut IPA, Anderson Valley Brut IPA, Sixpoint Brewery Sparkler
20. New England IPA
Another new beer style is the hazy IPA originating from New England. These beers are full of hops, but they’re added at the end of the brew, giving the beer a huge burst of hop aroma and flavor without any extra bitterness. Many brewers also add oats or wheat to the grain bill to make the beers hazy. Expect to see these beers in the same alcohol range as American IPAs (6 to 7.5%).
Popular Brands: The Alchemist Heady Topper, Tree House Brewing Julius, Hill Farmstead Abner, Trillium Brewing Congress Street IPA
21. Black IPA
Also referred to as Cascadian Dark, these IPAs are as dark as porters and stouts without most of the heavy, roasty flavors. They are hopped as aggressively as regular IPAs, giving them a bitter taste with citrusy and herbaceous notes, and they have the same alcohol content as regular IPAs (6 to 7.5%).
Popular Brands: 21st Amendment Back in Black, Uinta Dubhe, Odell Brewing Mountain Standard
22. California Common (Steam Beer)
Like kolsch, the California common bear (also known as steam beer) is brewed with a lager yeast that works best at warm, ale temperatures. These beers have darker colors, ranging from light amber to deep red. They have a decent malt presence and a full-bodied texture but finish light and slightly hoppy. You’ll find these beers from 4 to 6% alcohol by volume.
Popular Brands: Anchor Steam Beer, Widmer Brothers Columbia Common, Steamworks Brewing Steam Engine Lager
23. Extra Special Bitter (ESB)
Although the word “bitter” is in the title, these beers don’t taste bitter at all! They are dark gold or copper colored and have a balanced, super drinkable flavor. If you can find this beer on cask, go for it; they taste even better if they’re barely carbonated. Many ESBs are low in alcohol, but they can go as high as 7%.
Popular Brands: Fuller’s EXB, Redhook ESB, Black Sheep Ale, Left Hand Brewing Sawtooth
24. English-Style Mild
Like ESBs, English-style mild ales are low in hop bitterness and have a decent grain bill, giving the beer its deep amber color. You can expect these beers to have toasty flavors and chewy textures, but they drink easy like a lighter colored beer. It helps that they’re often less than 6% alcohol by volume, too.
Popular Brands: Surly Brewing Mild, Guinness Generous Ale, Goose Island Mild Winter, Jester King Commercial Suicide
25. Amber / Red Ale
Amber beers are often called red ale. They’re low-alcohol (around 5%) with a full-bodied malt characteristic that tastes toasty. Their decent level of hops gives them a balanced flavor, distinguishing them from darker-colored beers where malt presence overwhelms the palate. In general, red ales tend to be hoppier than ambers, but the terms can be used interchangeably.
Popular Brands: Yuengling Traditional, Alaskan Brewing Amber, Mad River Jamaica Brand Red Ale
26. Irish Red
Like ambers, Irish reds have a sweet and malty backbone that’s balanced by hops, which gives it a touch of bitterness. They are often brewed with lager yeasts instead of ale yeasts to give them a crisp finish. Like ambers, you’ll usually find them around 5% alcohol.
You don’t have to drink Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day; Irish Red is one of our favorite substitutes!
Popular Brands: George Killian’s Irish Red, Samuel Adams Irish Red Ale, Three Floyds Brian Boru Old Irish Ale
27. Brown Ale
As their name suggests, brown ales have a deep caramel or chocolate color. The roasted malts used in the mash gives the beer a full body, and they tend to be almost nutty in flavor. Most English-style browns are low alcohol and have no hop presence, but American versions can range up to 8% and have a slight bitterness from the hops.
Popular Brands: Newcastle Brown Ale, Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale, Sweetwater Georgia Brown, Big Sky Moose Drool Brown Ale
These German-style beers are big and strong, clocking in at 6.5 to 8% alcohol by volume. Originating in Bavaria, these beers were brewed by monks to accompany food. They have a sweet, malty flavor, but they’re not too sweet; they almost remind us of toasted bread. They’re absolutely perfect with cheese soup or braised pork dishes.
Popular Brands: Troegs Brewing, Spaten Optimator, Paulaner Salvator Doppel Bock, Samichlaus Classic Bier
These dark beers always surprise me! Although dunkels are dark in color, they’re smooth and easy drinking, thanks to the lager yeast they’re brewed with. They have almost no hop presence, but the malt flavors are deep and rich. Because they’re so light in flavor, they’re also light in alcohol; they settle in around 4 to 6%.
Popular Brands: Hofbrauhaus Dunkel, Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel, Harpoon Dark, Spaten Dunkel
These German-style brown ales are rested for longer period of time than most beers. In fact, the word “alt” literally translates to “old.” Because they rest for so long, these dark amber beers are mellow and smooth. They have more hop presence than most German beers, although brewers usually use spicy hops instead of more citrus-forward varieties.
Popular Brands: Ninkasi Sleigh’r, Uerige Doppel Sticke, Lagunitas Doppel Sticky
Most American-brewed marzen beers are labeled as Oktoberfest, but these golden-colored beers are actually the same style. Before refrigeration, it was impossible to brew beer in the summer, so beers brewed in the spring were labeled as Marzen, the German word for March. They’re light in alcohol (usually less than 6.5%) and have a full-bodied, malt-forward flavor.
Popular Brands: Samuel Adams Oktoberfest, Spaten Oktoberfest, Paulaner Oktoberfest, Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest Amber Marzen
32. Pumpkin Beer
American brewers couldn’t help but brew fall-flavored beers with pumpkin, and they are so popular they became their own category! These beers use both real pumpkin and artificial flavorings, depending on the brewery. They can be made from ambers, IPAs, stouts, porters and more.
Popular Brands: Southern Tier Pumpking, Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale, Avery Brewing Rumpkin, Elysian Night Owl Pumpkin Ale
33. Rye Beer
These beers are spicy and aromatic, thanks to the addition to rye in the mash. In general, ryes are not very hoppy, but they can be sweet or dry, depending on whether they’re made with ale or lager yeast. Many of these beers have alcohol volumes as high as 7% to accentuate the rye’s naturally spicy flavor.
Popular Brands: Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye, Founders Red’s Rye IPA, Sierra Nevada Ruthless Rye IPA
If you’re looking for something rich and fruity, you might want to check out this Belgian-style ale. These beers are dark colored and sweet like caramel. They have a full body and high alcohol content (as high as 9%). The original Dubbels were brewed by Belgian monks and are called Trappist ales.
Popular Brands: Westvleteren 8, Unibroue Maudite, Brewery Ommegang Abbey Ale, Trappistes Rochefort 6, Westmalle Trappist Dubbel
Don’t be fooled by the bright yellow color of tripel beers. They use three times the malt of Trappist table beers, making them as high as 12% alcohol by volume. They have a bitter presence to balance out the super sweet, dense, creamy flavor of the malts, but they also finish fruity. Many brewers add Belgian candi sugar to add alcohol to the brew, which can make these beers quite sweet.
Popular Brands: Unibroue La Fin Du Monde, Chimay Tripel, Tripel Karmeliet, Victory Golden Monkey
These Belgian Trappist beers don’t mess around: They can be as high as 14% alcohol! They have a bolder flavor, darker color, and fuller body than tripels and dubbels, but they’re also full of phenols that make them spicy. Because they have such a high alcohol content, they cellar quite well.
Popular Brands: Trappistes Rochefort 10, Brewery Ommegang Three Philosophers, Westvleteren 12, Firestone Walker Stickee Monkee
37. Strong Dark Ale
Like Quadrupels, these beers are high in alcohol (12%) and have bold, strong flavors. They can be complex with fruity flavors or simply offer a deep, dark drinking experience. These beers are intense and are best drank as a slow sippers.
Popular Brands: Chimay Grande Reserve, Unibroue Trois Pistoles, Dogfish Head Raison D’Etre, Gulden Draak, North Coast Brother Thelonious
38. American Porter
You’ll find the American porter has many hats. It can be brewed with coffee to add bitter flavors or chocolate to accentuate the roasted malts. They may even be aged in whiskey barrels to add depth and heat! In general, they’re dark-colored with low levels of hop bitterness and stay under 7% alcohol by volume.
Popular Brands: Deschutes Black Butte Porter, Rogue Ales Mocha Porter, Maui Brewing Coconut Hiwa Porter, Breckenridge Brewery Vanilla Porter
39. Baltic Porter
These strong, 7 to 10% alcohol beers are dark brown in color and have a bitter finish. They were originally brewed strong to survive their shipment across the North Sea, becoming pleasantly acidic along the journey.
Popular Brands: Smuttynose Baltic Porter, Arcadia Brewing Shipwreck Porter, Surly Brewing Smoke
40. Scotch Ale
Scotch ale’s are sweet, spicy and smoky. They’re similar to barley wines in their malt presence, but heavier and more caramel-forward. They taste like a big beer, but they usually range from 6.5 to 8.5% alcohol.
Popular Brands: Oskar Blues Old Chub, Gread Divide Claymore, Alesmith Brewing Wee Heavy
Like porters, stouts are dark in color but finish dryer and roastier, thanks to the use of roasted barley in the mash. They can have coffee and chocolatey flavors, or they can remain unflavored to accentuate the bitterness of the roasted grains. Like porters, they’re usually under 7% alcohol by volume.
Popular Brands: Rogue Ales Chocolate Stout, Deschutes Brewery Obsidian Stout, Samuel Smith Organic Chocolate Stout
42. Irish Dry Stout
These beers are so dark, you almost can’t see light through the glass! Like stouts, they use roasted barley, but they have a more coffee-forward, robust profile and a creamy mouthfeel. Look for these low-alcohol, 4 to 5% stouts on nitro, where the lack of carbonation helps them finish sweet.
Popular Brands: Guinness Draught, Murphy’s Irish Stout, O’Hara’s Irish Stout, North Coast Old #38 Stout
43. Milk Stout
Can you guess what the secret ingredient is in these stouts? Milk sugar or lactose is added to the beer to give it more body, accentuating the stout’s sweet flavor and caramel notes. Anyone with lactose intolerance will definitely want to avoid these 3 to 6% alcohol beers.
Popular Brands: Left Hand Milk Stout, Young’s Double Chocolate Stout, Southern Tier Creme Brulee Imperial Milk Stout
44. Russian Imperial Stout
These stouts have a super high alcohol content — as much as 12%! Like most stouts, they have a dark color and a dry finish, but their high alcohol content also brings out dried fruit aromas and dark chocolate flavors. If you’re planning to eat raw oysters on the half shell, try pairing them with one of these.
Popular Brands: North Coast Old Rasputin, Firestone Walker Parabola, Bells Brewery Expedition Stout, Sierra Nevada Narwhal
45. Sour Beer
Like session beers, sour beers can describe any number of craft beer varieties. A beer can become sour from the introduction of a wild yeast or inoculated with bacteria that adds acidic, tart flavors. They can range in alcohol content, and the ones with higher alcohol can be cellared for years. If the beer is soured in stainless steel instead of wooden barrels, it’s usually called a kettle sour.
Popular Brands: The Bruery Oude Tart, New Belgium La Folie, Epic Brewing Tart n’ Juicy Sour IPA, Funkwerks Apricot Provincial
46. Berliner Weisse
These low-alcohol beers can be a great introduction to sour beers because they’re not too edgy. Berliner weisse is pale in color and lightly tart, and most of them contain less than 3.4% alcohol by volume. Most breweries serve them with a flavored syrup called Woodruff to balance out the acidic flavors.
Popular Brands: Dogfish Head Festina Peche, 3 Floyds Brewing Deesko!, Bear Republic Tartare, Perennial Artisan Ales Peach Berliner Weisse
47. Wild Ale
Wild ales use bacteria like Brettanomyces, Pediococcus and Lactobacillus to add funky flavors to regular brews. True wild ales aren’t inoculated with lab-created bacterias, but rather use oak barrels that naturally contain these products. Some breweries go one step further to use open-air fermentation tanks to capture these wild yeasts. These beers can range from 6 to 10% alcohol.
Popular Brands: Russian River Temptation, Bruery Terreux Tart of Darkness, New Belgium Le Terroir, Cascade Brewing Sang Noir
48. American Brett
Wild ales that are brewed with Brettanomyces have a specific flavor profile. Some people describe it as barn-yard-like, while others detect horsey or leathery aromas. These beers can be funky, but they’re not necessarily sour with acidic notes. You’ll find Brett beers in a 6 to 9% alcohol range.
Popular Brands: Crooked Stave Nightmare On Brett, Russian River Sanctification, Stone Brewing Enjoy After Brett IPA
49. Flanders Red Ale
These sour, Belgian-style ales almost taste like red wine! They are fruity but sharply sour, finishing dry with wine-like tannins. They are usually aged in oak, and younger beers can be blended with older beers to achieve the perfect flavor profile. Although they taste big, their alcohol content is usually less than 6.5%.
Popular Brands: Duchesse De Bourgogne, Rodenbach Grand Cru, Bruery Terreux Oude Tart, Lost Abbey Red Poppy, Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales La Roja
50. Belgian Lambic
Lambics are an interesting beer: They’re the result of spontaneous fermentation. No commercial yeasts are added to these 5 to 6.5% alcohol beers, so they taste like the place in which they are brewed. They are tart, crisp and very hard to get outside of Belgium, which drives up the price tag.
Popular Brands: Cantillon Iris, Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen Zenne Y Frontera, Vanberg & DeWulf Lambickx
51. Belgian Gueuze
If you blend together young and old Lambic beers, you get a gueuze. These beers are aged for a few years to develop fruity flavors and help the beer finish with a dryer character. Brewers often add fruits (like raspberries) to accentuate and balance out the sour, acidic flavors.
Popular Brands: Cantillon Gueuze 100% Lambic, Lindemans Framboise, The Lost Abbey Duck Duck Gooze, Oude Gueuze
52. Barrel-Aged Beer
Barrel-aged beer refers to any beer—from lagers to pale ales and porters—that are aged in a wooden barrel. Some brewers prefer to use wood chips or spirals instead of using whole barrels. As the beer comes in contact with the wood, it deepens in flavor and sometimes gains vanilla flavors.
Popular Brands: The Bruery Black Tuesday Port, Petrus Aged Pale, Prairie Artisan Ales Pirate Noir
53. Barley Wine
Despite the name, these “wines” are actually beers. They can be sweet and fruity, but they are always very strong thanks to their very high, 8 to 15% alcohol content. To get the alcohol so high, brewers use a lot of malts, giving the beer a thick texture and a dark color. Many barleywines are barrel-aged to temper the intense flavors, and they can be cellared just like wine.
Popular Brands: Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, Great Divie Old Ruffian, 3 Floyds Brewing Behemoth, Alesmith Old Numbskull
This type of craft beer is brewed with salt! You may not be able to taste it, but it’s definitely there, bringing all the other flavors together. Technically, this beer is a sour beer, but it’s usually not tart. Instead, it’s light and crisp, and it blends well with fruits. We love them on hot, summer days, but their odd flavor becomes unpalatable after one or two.
Popular Brands: Anderson Valley Highway 128 Session Series, Dogfish Head SeaQuench Ale, Sixpoint Brewery Jammer