Nearly all beer is made from water, hops, cereal grains and yeast, which makes brewers among the most creative people in human history. With those four ingredients, they've concocted simple beverages with a range of colors, tastes, aromas and potencies.
They earn a pat on the back for variety. It's the spice of life. It also can be the annoyance of life, as when encountering lukewarm suds far darker than your Natural Light. Fear not: We're here to help you through the finer points of pints.
Are brewed at warmer temperatures, usually 60 to 75 degrees, and with top-fermenting yeast. This process allows for the production of chemicals called esters that result in secondary colors, smells and tastes.
In short: Popular among microbreweries, this type includes American and India Pale ales
Color: Deep golden to amber; usually clear
Taste: Often dominated by bitter taste of hops, though varieties can be fruity, malty or buttery
Fun fact: IPAs were first brewed in England and shipped to British troops in India during the 1700s; the brews had to be extra hoppy to survive the long boat trip.
Examples: Bass, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Sam Adams Boston Ale
In short: This is the dark, heavy stuff that most often scares novice drinkers
Color: Reddish-brown to jet black; often opaque
Taste: Thick, creamy texture and coffee-like notes, thanks to roasted barley and ingredients like oatmeal
Fun fact: Darkness doesn't always mean stronger beer. Guinness Draught has less alcohol and fewer calories per serving than Budweiser.
Examples: Guinness, Murphy's, Sam Smith's Imperial Stout
In short: Also known as "white beer," it's brewed with significant portions of malted wheat and barley
Color: Dark yellow to bright red; often murky or cloudy
Taste: Varies significantly, due to rampant specialization, but often sweet
Fun fact: In America we often cut the taste with lemons (for German "hefeweizen") or oranges (for Belgian "witbeer").
Examples: Blue Moon, Bell's Oberon, Elevator Hefeweizen
Are brewed at cooler temperatures, usually 45 to 55 degrees, and with bottom-fermenting yeast. This process allows for a clearer, cleaner and crisper liquid.
In short: This type of pale lager has little to no hop character or malt flavor. It's the beer you think of when you think of beer
Color: Light or golden yellow; almost transparent
Taste: Crisp, cold and delicious during 30-hour game-day benders; little to no aftertaste
Fun fact: During World War II, many brewers started malting rice, along with barley, to offset the high cost of grain; this led to weaker color and flavor.
Examples: Budweiser, Coors, Miller Genuine Draft
In short: This strong German lager is usually brewed for special occasions
Color: Varies, but often amber; generally transparent
Taste: Malty flavor, often with hints of caramel or toffee, outweighs bitter taste of hops
Fun fact: Bock's disputed origin includes Christian and pagan traditions. Many have a goat's head on the label as a nod to the custom of only brewing during the sign of Capricorn.
Examples: Shiner Bock, Michelob Amber Bock, Sam Adams Winter Lager
In short: It's a common alternative for those looking to move on from American standards
Color: Pale to golden yellow; always transparent
Taste: Very crisp, with strong hop character
Fun fact: Upset with dark, cloudy beer from Germany - which was sometimes of low quality - the people of Pilsen (now in the Czech Republic) founded their own brewery in 1839.
Examples: Beck's, Pilsner Urquell, Stella Artois
Sources: BeerAdvocate.com, Wikipedia, Sir Thomas the Alcohol Man, Tastings.com, CAMRA.org.uk, 18 years of combined drinking experience