Cicerone’s Beer Savvy Bootcamp and the Six Beer Styles

Last May, I participated in Cicerone’s “Beer Savvy Bootcamp” to help prepare for the Certified Cicerone® exam. A key element of the course was developing flavor profiles for the six beer styles.

Yep. You read that right. There are only SIX styles of beer.

“Uh, wait a minute,” you say. “What about (fill in the blank)?” Yeah, OK. I get it. I’m in the same boat. I willingly raise my own hand and say, “Only six?”

I’ve seen “six styles of beer” articles floating around the internet and I’ve thought about what those six styles might be. I never quite could commit to only six and was somewhat skeptical when I found out we were learning about only six styles in the class. I was perhaps hoping there was ‘one right answer.’ But, I came away from the boot camp with a new way to think about beer and a new mental schema to help me remember the dozens and dozens of styles that are produced today.

First, it is fair to say the Cicerone’s Beer Savvy class is organized around six foundational styles. I’m pretty sure the Cicerone organization isn’t throwing thousands of years of beer history out the window or turning their back on hazy IPA (well, I may have to rethink that last point). Rather, through infographics (and tastings!), Cicerone shows how all modern styles derive from these six basic categories of beer.

Second, Cicerone identifies these six beers in a totally unique way—by assessing the ingredients. Rather than identifying six known styles and calling them sacred, Cicerone identifies groups of styles based on what brewers can do with the ingredients. Craft brewing’s tendency to tweak styles with adjuncts aside, beer is only composed of barley/malt, hops, yeast, and water. Thus, in our class, style classification came from what is happening with these elements. In other words, there are six basic ways to brew beer. Everything else is ‘tweaking.’

So, what are the six styles? [Drum roll...]

Malty Lagers: When it comes to yeast, brewers only have two choices. You’re gonna make a lager or an ale. When you make a lager and the malt is more prominent than hops, you have ‘malty lagers.’ Malty lagers are the ever-day beer in Germany, particularly Bavaria. A prime example would be Munich Helles. Festbiers, Märzens and Bocks all fall into this category, as well as “American Lite Beer.” [Bud, Miller, and Coors are simply American riffs on Munich Helles.]

Hoppy Lagers: Yep…this is the other side of the lager coin. When you make a lager and don’t emphasize the malt, you get…Pilsners. Typified by Czech Pilsner. Just to make things really confusing, Malty Lagers are made with Pilsner malts, but they aren’t ‘pilsner’ beers. Even more off the scale, Kölsch beers are ales made with lager techniques, but they fall into this beer family.

Hoppy Ales: Now, we switch yeasts to make ales. Hoppy Ales are typified by IPAs. Historically, this category of beer originated in England, in Burton-on-Trent. Over time, Burton’s brews gave way to Porters and Bitters. Years later, American craft brewers revived the style, starting with the Pale Ale, and then went hog wild with the hops, creating American IPAs, DIPAs, TIPAs and more. American beers are typified by crazy focus on hops. We’re obsessed with them. England, however, seems content with their mellow bitters and even more mellow cask ales.

Dark Ales: I was surprised that Cicerone didn’t call this category “Malty Ales” but given the styles of beers in this family, simply calling them dark ales makes sense. The Porters and Stouts that populate this group are all made with darker malts certainly, but neither are they completely devoid of hops like true malty lagers. Foreign Stouts and Irish Stouts in this category do have some hop dryness to them.

Fruity/Spicy Ales: Now that we have exhausted what malt and hops can do for beer, the last two style families focus on the yeast. Fruit and spice notes in beer are the result of esters and phenols present in the yeast. Thus, in this family, we find Saisons and German Weissbiers along with the entire array of Belgian beers, including wits. Flavor in this family is all about what’s happening with the yeast. [I was really surprised by this, to learn that Belgian Dubbels, Tripels, and Golden Ales are driven by yeast, as opposed to other elements.]

Tart and Funky: The final category/family of beer was called ‘tart and funky’ because all these beers rely on wild yeasts and bacteria to develop their defining characteristics. In this group, we find Gueuze, Gose, and Berliner Weisse as well as Lambics, Flanders Reds and the whole panoply of sour beers. Definitely my least favorite style of beer. I think I’ve had ONE Berliner Weisse in my life and only tasted Gueuze once, when I used it to steam mussels.

As an educator, I know that the key way one learns new information is by ‘transforming’ it—you have to think about the information in new and different ways. That can take any number of forms: writing a summary, creating infographics, creating a blog, and so forth. Looking at beer this way, with Cicerone’s Beer Savvy Bootcamp that focused on six families of styles derived from ingredients (rather than just six individual styles), has helped me see beer in a whole new way. One step closer to passing my exam!