Which Brew’s For You?

Want to know a bit more about that refreshingly golden—or brownish or reddish—beverage in your beer glass? In honor of National Drink Beer Day, celebrated on Sept. 28, let’s take a look below the foam and some food pairing ideas.

Judging by the vast selection of beers out there, who would guess that there are only two main types—ale and lager? The main difference between these two is the way they are fermented. From there, brewers work their magic to create as many styles as there are bubbles in a bottle.


The ale category uses yeast that ferments at the “top” of the fermentation vessel at a typically higher temperatures (60–75°F) than lager yeast, which makes for a quicker fermentation period of seven to eight days at the most. Since top-fermenting yeast works well in warmer temps but is unable to ferment some of the sugars, the beer is fruitier and sweeter. Ales tend to be heavier bodied, contain more alcohol, and have a darker hue than lagers, and sometimes they are cloudy with a slightly yeasty character. That ale yeast can lend flowery and fruity aromas such as apple, pear, pineapple, grass, hay, plum, and prune.

Brews: Often associated with Britain, Ireland, and Scotland, there are many varieties in a wide range of colors, flavors, and strengths including Belgian Ale, Brown Ale, English-style Pale Ale, India Pale Ale (IPA), American Wheat, English Bitter, Porter, Red Ale, Stout, and more.


Lager is a “bottom” fermented brew made using a different species of yeast that tolerates cold temperatures well and takes longer to ferment than ales—anywhere from one to three months. Lagers are brewed at around 34°F and are often further stored at a cool temperature to mature. (In German, lagern means “to store.”) The result of the cold fermentation is a lighter, crisper, and smoother beer that is maltier and less hoppy than ales. Lager yeast produces fewer byproduct characters than ale yeast, which allows for other flavors to come through.

Brews: Types include traditional German bock, doppelbock, pilsner; American lite lager, standard, dry, cream ale/lager, and dark; Vienna; and Oktoberfest.


Within the lager category, the beer that started it all for Oktoberfest was originally brewed in March (März in German), and was the last batch for the season before refrigeration and modern brewing methods were developed. Since alcohol is a natural preservative, these spring brews were intentionally made with higher alcohol content and then stored in ice-filled cool caves or cellars for the summer. This style of reddish-amber beer called Märzen (pronounced Maer-tsen) matured and improved over the summer, most likely making it especially good at season’s end. Some of the stocks would be used during summer, but by October any remaining beer was usually finished off to make room for the batches of beer made with grain and hops from the new harvest season. What better reason to celebrate?

The first Oktoberfest started as a wedding celebration when the citizens of Munich attended festivities held on the fields in front of the city gates when Crown Prince Ludwig, later to become King Ludwig I, was married to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen on Oct. 12, 1810. Everyone had such a great time the party lasted about 16 days, and the fields were even named Theresienwiese, meaning “Theresa’s fields,” in honor of the Crown Princess. They commemorated the event the following year, which started the Oktoberfest tradition.

The early Märzen beer style used for Oktoberfest evolved with advancements in brewing and experimentation. In the last few decades, bronze or golden colored malt accented beers with slightly less alcohol by volume (ABV) have joined the options. Most of Munich’s large breweries still make a Märzen for this time of year but there are also many styles available for varying tastes. For instance, traditional style is an amber-gold lager that is bottom fermented. Malty sweetness and toasted malt aroma and flavor are dominant in this medium- to full-bodied brew with a creamy texture.

Oktoberfest has become a popular style for brewers in the United States, too, and there are many great choices from craft to large-volume brewers. American craft breweries’ fest beers are often slightly higher in alcohol, richer in hops and aroma flavor, and redder in hue than European fest beers.

Want to celebrate your own Oktoberfest but can’t swing the trip to Munich? While the folks in the old country sure know how to throw a party, you can certainly give them a run for their euro. There are many great beers to choose from right here (including these recent award-winners), and all you need to do is pair it with some delicious food—and perhaps sport just the right attire with Lederhosen or dirndl.

To join even more merrymakers, this last weekend of the Minnesota Renaissance Festival is raising a glass to Oktoberfest (more info here) and you can check out the Twin Cities Oktoberfest at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds next weekend Oct. 5-6 here.

Food Pairing

Much discussion centers around food and wine pairing, but what about food and beer pairing? Beer pairs very nicely with not only the proverbial burger or brat, but with a number of other selections.

• Cheese: A nice Brie or Camembert goes quite well with a pale ale, bock, pilsner, or fruit beer. Cheddar, Swiss, Edam, Gruyère, and Jarlsberg also pair nicely with these brews. An eisbock makes a good match with sharp cheese such as blue or cheddar
• BBQ: The spicy flavors of barbecued food work well with pilsner, and just as a white wine is a good choice with most fish, so too is a hoppy pilsner.
• Burgers and brats: German weizens, Hefeweizen, or bock are an excellent choice. Oktoberfest styles naturally pair well with traditional sauerkraut-topped wurst.
• Roasted meats: Bock’s sweetness with a touch of bitterness makes it a good match for foods that have a lot of flavor. Try roasted or grilled game or pork. Brown ales are a good match with pork or beef and good in recipes that call for beer.
• Game and steak: The more robust Trappist and abbey varieties work nicely with roast game and steaks.

Cooking with Beer
To cook with beer and add layers of flavor, try the recipe for Stout-Marinated Grilled Tri-tip by meat expert Bruce Aidells highlighted in this post.

Follow up with Coffee
The day after National Drink Beer Day is National Coffee Day on Sept. 29. Coincidence? In addition to enjoying coffee in your cup, it lends layers of flavors to recipes such as this other selection by Bruce Aidells highlighted here.

Mary Subialka is the editor of Real Food and Drinks magazines, covering the flavorful world of food, wine, and spirits. She rarely meets a chicken she doesn’t like, and hopes that her son, who used to eat beets and Indian food as a preschooler, will one day again think of real food as more than something you need to eat before dessert and be inspired by his younger brother, who is now into trying new foods.