011. Understanding beer styles

Understanding beer styles

Beer is perhaps more varied than wine. BJCP Style Guidelines lists more than a hundred different styles of beer, many of which have been around for centuries—or longer! And each of those styles have stories as varied as the cultures from which they originated.


I had a really difficult time knowing what to study for this section. The syllabus isn’t very descriptive about what we should know.

Primary reading material for this section was found in Tasting Beer; an insider’s guide to the world’s greatest drink by Randy Mosher. Much of the materials in this lesson is a book report on Tasting Beer, chapter 1, “The Story of Beer.”

Don’t really focus on memorizing key details in this section, but rather think of it as an overall understanding of how beer styles evolved differently in different areas.

Anyway, this section seems mostly about the historical origins of styles. In the next section we’ll learn the different parameters to evaluate style. After that, we’ll get to know approximately half of the beer styles defined by BJCP.

Gosh, I’m really starting to doubt my knowledge of this section. We’ll see how I do when exam time comes.

The historical development of beer styles

The development of beer styles was first driven by available ingredients, equipment and water.

Initial drivers of beer style

Beer “has ten thousand years of history, with gods, goddesses, heroes, and songs to celebrate its glories,” writes Mosher.

The first known documentation of beer was around 3000 BC, from the Sumerians who had “an expansive vocabulary of ingredients, brewing vessels, and beer types.”

From then on, cultures throughout the eastern hemisphere had a wide variety of beers made from their predominant local ingredients.

Scrapings from a Bronze Age burial, for example, show ingredients of barley, honey, cranberries, meadowsweet and bog myrtle.

The Dyonesians had poppy pods, and the Scythians had hemp. The Finns and Hungarians had juniper, while heather was common in the British Isles.

Hops weren’t introduced until around the year 1000 in Bremen, Germany.

Elsewhere around the region, brewers were using “gruit.” The contents of this herbal mixture are mostly unknown. The main ingredient, however, was bog myrtle, an herb with flavor characteristics not unlike hops.

While the church required brewers to buy and use “gruit” in their beer, Bremen was further away, beyond the reach of the church.

Hops have a great flavor that offsets the malty-sweetness of beer. (We’ll learn more about that in part III.) Hops also act as a preservative in beer, keeping beer good for months rather than weeks. So this new hopped beer was able to be exported to other areas. By 1600, all English beer and ale had hops and eventually hoppy beer was the norm in all of northern Europe.

It’s interesting that, according to Mosher: There is a line south of which grapes grow well and becomes the dominant drink. North of this, ancient Romans encountered enthusiastic beer drinkers at the fringes of their empire.

Even after beer gained popularity across northern Europe, “parts south, such as Italy and Spain, had little or no beer culture.”

Brewing dominated in German states, Flanders, the Netherlands and England. Beer styles developed and evolved in these areas, and gave way to all the classic styles that we know today.

Several factors that changed beer styles

While geographic characteristics played a role in the development of beer, styles were later refined and differentiated by technology, regulation, culture, and consumer appeal.


Public works projects in England in the 1600s opened access to distant markets and ingredients for beer.

Industrial developments of the 1700s and 1800s made great advancements in brewing.

Steam engines were developed for mines around 1700, and many decades later they were adapted to make large-scale brewing possible.

Also in the late 1700s, the thermometer was adopted for brewing, followed not much later by the hydrometer.

In the mid-1800s brewers were starting to use single-cell yeast cultures. By the mid-1900s it was the norm.

Artificial refrigeration was first used in a commercial brewery in Germany in 1873.

Various equipment introduced throughout the 1800s greatly improved roasting of malts.

Louis Pasteur’s “Études sur la Bière” (Studies on Beer), published in 1876, demonstrated the causes of—and prescribed methods for preventing—beer spoilage. The work had widespread affects across the beer world.

Regulation and taxation

Different types of regulation affected beer development in different ways. Perhaps the two most well-know beer regulations are the German beer purity law of 1516 called Reinheitsgebot, and Prohibition in the U.S.

Depending on the source, the Reinheitsgebot was either a food safety law or a famine preventative measure. Perhaps either was an inside racket.

Modern-day northern Germany was rich with varied beer styles. When Bavaria became part of Germany, beer styles were restricted by the Reinheitsgebot. Many local beer styles were lost. A few, like Kölsch, Berliner Weisse, and Düsseldorfer Alt, survived and are still popular today. Others, like Grätzer, Lichtenhainer, and Broyhan, barely survived the passage of time.

Lucky for us all, Belgium never had a beer purity law. Probably Affligem Nöel is the first beer that I really fell in love with. Even to this day, I have an infatuation for that beer, but I digress.

Beer styles in Belgium have never lost the use of ancient spices, herbs, and sugars.

“Coriander, orange peel, cumin, grains of paradise (a pungent, peppery spice), and many kinds of sugars find their way into Belgian beers, often in quite subtle ways,” writes Mosher. “For a beer lover seeking new experiences, Belgium is a wonderland of the highest order.”

As for Prohibition, the U.S. is not the only country to have outlawed beer. There’s not enough space here to talk about it comprehensively.

Prohibition in the U.S. started in 1920 and ended in 1933. Before Prohibition, there were thousands of breweries in the U.S. There was a resurgence of breweries after Prohibition, but consolidation reduced the number to a low of 44 breweries in 1979.

Now we’re back to more than seven thousand breweries—and quite a diversity of beer! But if we had the number of breweries per capita that there was before Prohibition, we would have more than 30,000 breweries in the U.S. today.

Culture and consumer appeal

Pilsner was invented in Plzen, Bavaria and made that little town famous. Limited competition brought about by the Reinheitsgebot helped solidify Pilsner’s widespread popularity.

Various accounts describe the rise in popularity of Porter and Pale Ale. Whatever the case, England’s influence was broad. Many of the practices and preferences in England spread across the world via the British Empire and beyond.

British colonists brought their love of beer to North America. But, according to Mosher, malt didn’t grow well in much of the colonies. Alternatives such as molasses, dried pumpkin, and walnut tree chips were used, but not with much success. By 1800, spirits were consumed 10 times as much as beer in volume. In terms of alcohol, it was about 200 times as much!

The frontier was scarce of infrastructure. It was difficult to transport ingredients or the finished product across long distances over land. So whiskey, rum, and other spirits continued to be much more popular than beer in America.

However, America wasn’t completely devoid of beer. Wherever German or Dutch immigrants were, there was beer, too. American Dreams of beer grandeur come from names that are recognizable to this day: Pabst, Busch, Schlitz.


Regional beer styles were initially established as a result of local ingredients, equipment, and water.

Beer styles evolved differently by region based on technology, regulation, culture, and consumer appeal.

As commerce became more globalized, beer styles spread across the world.

Some styles have remained pretty much the same for decades.

Other beer styles evolve with advancements in technology and science.

In the next section we’ll get into the parameters that define the different beer styles, to see what sets them apart from each other.

Flashcards for this section

Based on the reading materials mentioned and my notes above, here are my flashcards for this section.

3 primary drivers in the development of beer styles

  1. Available ingredients
  2. Equipment
  3. Technology

When was the first known documentation of beer?

The first known documentation of beer was around 3000 B.C. with the Sumerians.

When and where were hops introduced into beer?

Hops were introduced into beer around the year 1000 in Bremen, Germany.

In what part(s) of the world did beer dominate and become the styles we know today?

Beer gained popularity across Northern Europe in Germany, Flanders, Netherlands, and England.

What were 4 primary factors in the refining of beer styles?

  1. Technology
  2. Regulation
  3. Culture
  4. Consumer appeal

2 scientific instruments that were adopted in brewing in the 1700s

  1. Thermometer
  2. Hydrometer

What major advancement in brewing happened in the 1800s?

Single-yeast cultures were first used in beer in the mid-1800s.

By the mid-1900s it was the norm.

When and where was refrigeration first used in commercial brewing?

Refrigeration was first used in commercial brewing in 1873 in Germany.

What was published in 1876?

Louis Pasteur’s “Études sur la Bière” (Studies in Beer) was published in 1876.

It had widespread affects across the beer world because it demonstrated the causes of beer spoilage and how to prevent it.

What is the Reinheitsgebot?

Reinheitsgebot is the German beer purity law of 1516.

It limited the ingredients allowed in beer.

Many beer styles from Northern Germany were lost from the Reinheitsgebot.

What did Prohibition do to the number of breweries in the U.S.?

Before Prohibition, there were thousands of breweries in the U.S.

After Prohibition, there was a low of 44 breweries in 1979.

Where was Pilsner invented?

Pilsner beer style was invented in Plzen, Bavaria (Germany).

Where were Porter and Pale Ale invented?

Porter and Pale Ale beer styles were invented in England.

Beer Style Flashcards

Beer Style Flashcards

Beer Exam School flashcards, beer styles set. Formatted for perforated business card sheets. Compatible with Avery 8371.

    I'm Nathan Pierce. I drink beer, I quit my job, and I'm planning to start a brewery. I also host a podcast about how to start a brewery. So I’m studying for Cicerone® Certification Program, Certified Beer Server exam.

    Study along with me!

    Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published.

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    4 thoughts on “011. Understanding beer styles

    1. Hi Nathan,

      What a great site! I’m just starting the International beer sommelier program (Doemens) here in Holland. These are very useful notes, thank you! Did you pass your exam?