• Christopher Sidwa

A beginners guide to making beer

We can’t talk about brewing beer without first talking about beer styles. We need to have an idea of what we’re trying to make, before we set off making it. Beer is categorised based on its colour, flavour, intensity and visual appearance, and the ingredients used to make it. Descriptors like pale or dark, sweet or dry, hoppy, bitter and fruity are all great for communicating what you want your beer to taste like — but not what style you want it to be.

Thankfully, generations of brewers before us have identified the many different beers into clearly defined categories, so we can have a much simpler conversation about what beer we want to make.

Beer can be broken down into two main styles: ale and lager. What separates the two is the type of yeast used to ferment the beer, and how long the yeast needs to do its thing.


Ales are made using yeast strains that are most productive at a relatively warm temperature — around 19ºC (66ºF). Because these yeast strains are allowed to work at warmer temperatures, they complete their ferment process faster, leaving behind more pronounced flavour.

Some styles of ale are ready to be consumed in as little as 10 days, or as many as 16 days.

Let’s take a closer look at the different styles of ale.

Pale ales

The traditional Pale Ale is pale in colour, with a slight herbal hop aroma, and is fermented using ale yeast. Its big brother is India Pale Ale, which was born in the 1800s when soldiers of the British Empire stationed in India were thirsty for beer that suited the hot climate and yet tasted of home.

This new beer, brewed in England to be consumed in India, depended on the inherent anti-microbial properties of hops to keep the beer-spoiling bacteria at bay on its six-month journey across the Equator and around the Horn of Africa. The result was a very hoppy pale ale that was brewed with extra alcohol, another mitigant against bacterial contamination.

In the quest to drive creativity and capture drinkers’ attention, marketers have come up with some wild names of late: XPA (Extra Pale Ale), Double IPA, Triple IPA, New England IPA. Under the new guard of headline-grabbing brewers, we’ve expanded this genre from Pale Ale and India Pale Ale to something that is impossible to untangle. Whether your low-alcohol, hoppy beer is a session IPA or an XPA, it’s still pale and uses lots of hops. And while I personally have brewed, marketed and sold beer with the monikers listed above, I think most don’t need to exist.

The chart opposite gives an approximate breakdown of each.

A ‘dry hop’ is a quantity of hops added to the beer while it’s in a fermentation vessel, to impart extra aroma and flavour into the beer.

Original gravity (OG) is the amount of sugar in the wort before yeast is added. Final gravity (FG) is the amount of sugar remaining after fermentation is complete. By comparing these values, a brewer can calculate the amount of alcohol created by the yeast.

Amber ale

On the spectrum of beer colours, the next shade darker than Pale Ale is Amber Ale. These beers get their colour through the addition of malts that have been roasted to varying degrees, deepening their colour and intensifying their flavours. As we add more of these malts, we move from a pale colour to golden, then amber.

Pale Ale probably originated in England in the early 1700s. Before that time darker beers, such as porters and stouts, were more common, due to the wood (and then coal) used to heat the malting kilns, which darkened the grains and added colour to the malt and subsequent beer. However, as beer-making technology advanced, it became easier to create a paler malt, and pale ales gradually became more popular than the darker ales.

As in the world of Pale Ale, there is ambiguity around what qualifies as Amber Ale. Once upon a time, beer labelled Amber Ale implied it was ‘malt forward’ — meaning the first flavour experience would be malt, followed by a minimal hop presence. That’s no longer the case. Now, we have traditional, low-bitterness English-style amber-coloured beers, and we have big imperial ambers with 8% alcohol and a high bitterness rating.

My suggestion is to pay little attention to what style guidelines require of your amber ale and focus on what flavour you want to create.

Want a hoppy amber ale? Research your hops and find one to complement the rich flavour added by the roasted malt, or the residual sweetness from a dark crystal malt. Once you decide what your beer will be, learn to communicate those flavours, so your drinkers understand what the beer is intending to do. Does it show nuance and balance of malt and hop? Or is it sticky sweet, to carry the huge charge of hops you added at the end of the boil? Both can be amber ales — the trick is to give your drinker more info so they understand what they’re getting and can judge your beer based on that, and not on a generic term like ‘amber ale’.

Brown ale

Sometimes called ‘the pinot noir of beer’, Brown Ale is an incredibly versatile style that drinks well on its own, and pairs with a broad range of foods. Like Amber Ales, Brown Ales can be either ‘hop forward’ or ‘malt forward’. Their defining flavour comes from the use of chocolate malt — a type of malt roasted to a point where chocolate flavours are created.

Good Brown Ale should also create a perception of malty sweetness, without a high level of residual sugar. Traditionally, the style used hops sparingly to create a balance of sweet and bitter, but leaned towards malty and sweet. Excellent examples of this style exist in the relatively low 4% alcohol range, but fuller, bigger versions can drink very nicely at 6%.

The malty base of Brown Ale can also be an excellent base to experiment with adding various spices, teas and fruits to your brew.

Porter and stout

The use of brown malt traditionally defined these styles, but economics, taxation and technology advancements in the early 1800s saw a combination of pale malt and heavily roasted black malt being used instead. Some traditionalists still believe in the addition of brown malt, but a good Porter or Stout doesn’t require it.

The line between a Porter and a Stout is vague. A ‘Stout Porter’ was once a strong porter — a beer brewed with the same ingredients, but to a richer flavour and higher alcohol level than regular porter. Eventually the term Porter was dropped from the name, and Stout emerged as a stand-alone style. Since then, wars, tax policy and consumer tastes have moved the strength of stouts down to where porter traditionally sat.

Today, you could be forgiven for calling your black beer a Porter or a Stout. But once again, don’t get hung up on names. Understanding your ingredients and what each fermentable offers in terms of colour, texture and flavour will get you closer to making great-tasting beer than memorising style guidelines for what makes a porter or a stout.

Wheat ale

This style was once defined by the use of malted wheat, coupled with a yeast strain that produced flavours of banana and clove. The traditional Hefeweizen (hefe means ‘yeast’ and weizen means ‘wheat’in German) is still wildly popular, but the Wheat Ale category has grown to include wheat-based beers fermented with yeast strains that express different flavours.

There are the fairly yeast-forward versions like the traditional Belgian Witbier, and more modern hop-forward versions being produced by innovative American craft brewers. So what determines a wheat beer these days is simply that the brewer uses about half wheat as the grain component in their brew — the yeast, hops and other flavours are totally up to the brewer.


A word of caution before we spend too much time on lagers: I want everyone who reads this book to be successful in their brewing journey. Attempting to brew lager beers before developing and refining your process for making ale is like learning to ride a bike in traffic up a hill.Why set out to do it the hard way? Definitely start by nailing your ales first, then venture into lagers later.

The word ‘lager’ means ‘to store’ in its native German. The yeast strain selected is happiest working in relatively cool temperatures — around 10ºC (50ºF). Being a living organism, yeast, like us, moves a bit more slowly when it’s cold. This slower ferment leads to a less pronounced flavour profile than you’ll experience in an ale. Lager beer must be stored for enough time, and at a cool enough temperature, for this particular yeast to complete its work. In many cases this means 5–6 weeks, but it can be as many as 12 weeks or more.

So, the features that distinguish lagers from ales are the time used to make them, the temperature at which they are fermented, and the yeast strains used (which have been selected because they work at these lower temperatures).

Images and recipes from Brew a Batch by Christopher Sidwa, Murdoch Books, RRP $39.99 Photography by Chris Chen, Illustrations courtesy of Brew a Batch Co.

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