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TFW you achieve a state of free-flowing, easy reciprocity (Photo: Getty Images)
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PartnersDecember 12, 2018

Better know your brew: the concise guide to beer varieties

TFW you achieve a state of free-flowing, easy reciprocity (Photo: Getty Images)
TFW you achieve a state of free-flowing, easy reciprocity (Photo: Getty Images)

How much do you really know about the beer you’re holding – and how it’s different to the one your mate is drinking? Elevate your Christmas party chat with the Spinoff’s guide to beer varieties. 

Standing in the chilled beer fridge at your local liquor store, the cold air carries a tinge of anxiety as you contemplate the hundreds of choices of beers in front of you. Dozens of different ales, lagers and stouts are desperately begging you to drink them while the air conditioning slowly chills you to the bone. But what’s the real difference anyway? How do you choose? What do you even like? Who are you anymore? Choice is not always a good thing.

A 2018 survey by the Brewers Association found that despite beer being New Zealand’s favourite social beverage of choice, it was largely misunderstood by the majority of drinkers, and few even knew what ingredients are used to make it. So as the beer list at the pub increasingly rivals the wine list at fancy restaurants, The Spinoff has created a fundamental guide to the core varieties, allowing you to purchase with confidence, knowing what style of beer it is that you actually like. We’ve included some history and some tasting notes too, to upskill your beer banter and help you learn the essential lessons about who you are as a beer buyer.

A note worth making – while the individual styles have a shared history and basic recipe that uses just four key ingredients: water, malted barley, hops and water – they can range in flavour. An American pale ale from one brewery can taste totally different to an APA from another brewery. So get out and taste – but do it with confidence and knowledge.


In basic terms, what differentiates a lager from an ale is the type of yeast used. Lagers are made with a bottom-fermenting yeast that ferments at relatively cool temperatures, and the name in German means ‘storehouse’ — stemming from the technique of storing the beer in cold cellars for long periods. Pale lager — clear, highly carbonated, refreshing and dry — is the most widely consumed beer in the world, but lagers can be amber and dark too. Very good on a sunny day after a game of sport, or on a sunny day after doing almost nothing at all.  

The crisp golden freshness of a lager (Image: Getty Images).


Pilsner is a more heavily hopped type of pale lager that takes its name from the Bohemian city of Pilsen (now in the Czech Republic). In 1838, the town’s brewers took the drastic step of dumping barrels of ale because they felt the beer had become undrinkable. By this stage, the importance of yeast was beginning to be understood, and the brewers of Pilsen decided to hire a Bavarian brewer called Josef Groll to teach them the German lagering method of brewing. He brought with him some English malt and used the locally grown Saaz hops, and the pilsner was born. It was a smash hit, and the rest is history — it’s now one of the world’s most popular beers.


Ales are brewed with top-fermenting yeast at warmer temperatures than lagers. Pale ales first appeared in the early 1700s with the invention of coke, a non-smoking form of coal that allowed maltsters to create pale malts (before this, all ales had been dark). A wide range of beers come under the pale ale umbrella, but in New Zealand pale ales are generally influenced by the American craft brewing movement and are less malty and more hoppy than English pale ales such as bitters.

The vastly diverse and delicious ale (Image: Getty Images).


India pale ale is a subset of the pale ale category, and a hugely popular one at that. What it is, exactly, is not so easily categorised. In the 1700s, brewers began using more hops and upping the alcohol content of pale ales that were to be exported to India and the West Indies – one theory is that they’d last the journey better, another is that the extra bitterness would mask the fact the beers had gone bad. Whatever the true origin story, these beers became known as India pale ales. With the advent of refrigeration, IPAs fell out of fashion until the late 20th century, when they were reborn with a notch cranked up on the flavour spectrum, thanks to the more pungent American hops courtesy of the burgeoning craft beer movement in the US. The American IPA, with its pine and citrus characteristics, has pretty much taken over the world, but the English IPA is still a relatively common style – it’s less hop-forward and more malt-driven. New Zealand IPAs, meanwhile, have developed their own characteristics, tending towards tropical fruit flavours.


Traditionally APA stands for American pale ale and uses American hops. So what’s the difference between an APA and an American IPA? Good question. The lines are certainly blurred, but as a general rule, APAs aren’t as strong or assertively hopped as American-style IPAs, with more balance between the hops and the malt. As brewers are wont to do, here in New Zealand we’ve put our own spin on APAs with Kiwi hops. Tuatara makes two APAs, the Tomahawk American Pale Ale and the Kapai Aotearoa Pale Ale.

Lol. Former US President Barack Obama before the G7 summit at Castle Elmau with a wheat beer (Photo: A.v.Stocki/ullstein bild via Getty Images).


Another confusingly broad category that can be roughly divided into German and Belgian styles. Witbier is the Belgian version. It’s white and cloudy – think Hoegaarden – with citrus and spice notes and a slightly sour aspect thanks to the the presence of lactic acid.

The German wheat beers – hefeweizen or weizenbier – use around 50% wheat in place of the traditional malted barley and often have banana and clove notes as a by-product of the specialist yeasts used.

Other German wheat beers include Berliner weisse, a kettle-soured version, and a salted wheat beer called gose.


There’s not much differentiating these two famous styles of dark beer, but stouts tend to use roasted barley, which gives them toasty coffee, almost dark chocolate notes, while porters are milder with a lighter mouth feel and flavours of toffee, liquorice and earthiness. According to myth it was a porter that started New Zealand’s craft beer movement when Richard Emerson made his famous London Porter in his mum’s kitchen.

Both go really well with cheese. (For more on the subcategories that come under these two, and other dark beer varieties, check out this story.)

Barrels of sour beer (Photo: Jacob Biba for The Washington Post via Getty Images)


Taking a risk with a sour beer can be a life-changing experience that takes you to a place you had no idea existed. The taste can be surprisingly different to your average understanding of what a beer should be, and it can twist your face into contortions. But it can also be light and fun, a great entry-level beer for those wanting to explore.

There are various ways to make sour beers. Kettle-souring is a method used in beers like Berliner weisse (see wheat beer above), where bacteria is added to the beer in the boil kettle before fermentation. Spontaneously fermented beers, on the other hand, occur when the brewer allows wild yeast or bacteria into the brew during fermentation. This creates a huge diversity of flavours from mouth-turning sourness, a rich funkiness, to a thrilling sweet richness.

Many sour beers are fruity and tart, refreshing and sharp. Look for grapefruit notes, feijoa, even a splash of balsamic vinegar.

This content was created in paid partnership with the Brewers Association. Learn more about our partnerships here

This content was created in partnership with the Brewers Association of New Zealand. Find nutritional facts on New Zealand’s favourite beers here.*

* Average carb and calorie content of leading beers (by sales volume).
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