Types of ale – a guide for the novice beer drinker

When you consider that the ingredients in the majority of beers are simply water, malted barley, hops and yeast, the range and variety of beers available is extraordinary.  They can basically be divided into two categories – lagers and ales.  The difference between the two is the type of yeast used.  Lagers use a type of yeast that sinks to the bottom during fermentation, and are fermented at cooler temperatures, and ales use yeast that floats on the top, and are fermented at higher temperatures.  Lagers generally produce a lighter, often drier beer.  There are a number of different types of lager available, but that’s a subject for another day!  Here we will be looking at the different styles of ale that you might encounter.

Barley wine

This is generally the strongest and ‘biggest’ ale, with the most alcohol, the most malt and the most hops – it packs a punch with a big flavour. In terms of strength, it often comes in at between 10 and 12% – as strong as many wines! It is a style of beer that has been around since the 18th century, and unlike many beers, it benefits from time to mature.

Pale Ale

Pale Ales were so called because they were lighter in colour than the traditional brown ales, brewed using pale malt. Lower in hops and with a gentler, malty flavour, there is a very wide range of styles in this category, from the very pale, crisp blonde ales which have a character similar to lager, to the more robust IPA (India Pale Ale).

IPA (India Pale Ale)

Although strictly speaking a Pale Ale, India Pale Ale deserves a special mention.  It is, by contrast, very hoppy.  It was first brewed for export to India during colonial times, when the additional hops and higher alcohol content helped preserve the beer in the hotter weather and on the long journey.


Bitter originally developed from Pale Ale but it is darker in colour, and generally contains plenty of hop flavour.  It ranges from around 3.5% to 4% ABV, but extra strong bitters marketed by some breweries can reach about 5%. Light bitters are also available, which have a lower ABV, and also generally a slightly lighter colour.


Mild is a traditional style of ale that has been around since at least the 17th century.  It is generally (although not always) dark in colour, due to the use of darker malts and roasted barley, but it contains fewer hops than bitter, resulting in a smoother, less bitter taste.  After falling out of favour in a big way in the 1970’s it has undergone something of a resurgence in recent years.


It was once popular practice to create hybrid beers by mixing brown ale and mild ale together, and from this concept porter was developed as a beer in its own right.  It became extremely popular for a while during the 18th century, and after an almost complete decline was revived with the growth in the production of craft beer over the past few decades.  It’s a dark-coloured, mid-strength beer, generally measuring between 4% and 6.5% ABV.


Black, thick, strong and creamy, this ale is often thought to be a descendant of porter, and was the strongest (or ‘stoutest’) of the porters.  The most popular and well-known stout is that favourite Irish tipple, Guinness. However, as well as the dry stout that we all know well, there are many other types of stout.  These include sweet (or milk) stout which – would you believe – is sweeter than a dry stout, and oatmeal stout which contains added oatmeal making it smoother and again slightly sweeter than a dry stout. Extra stout is a variety brewed with more hops and a greater level of alcohol, and Russian Imperial stout is the most intensely flavourful and aromatic stout of the lot, with the highest alcohol content.

Wheat Beer

Wheat beer is made with – you’ve guessed it – wheat! Well, to be accurate, a mixture of barley and wheat.  This style of beer is more commonly brewed in continental Europe – mainly Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, and sometimes contains added flavourings.  It has a characteristic thick head, and is generally light in flavour, with an effervescence that makes it a refreshing alternative to lager on a hot summer day.

This list is not a comprehensive guide to every type of ale available, and many people categorise ales slightly differently, but this should get you started with some basic info, so that you can understand the different types of beer, and you can astound and impress your friends at parties with your newfound knowledge!

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