Looking at the names of different styles of beer can be useful in understanding why there are so many. Beer style names come from a variety of sources. The first and oldest is region. Many old beer styles are named for where they developed. Kolsch, for example, is a style that grew out of the brewing tradition of Cologne, Germany and named for the German word for Cologne, Koln. Scottish ale obviously came out of Scottish breweries originally. Depending on the local ingredients and the brewing traditions that developed over the generations, regionally developed beer styles can vary widely from one to the next.
Beer styles are also often named for the ingredients in the beer. Raspberry wheat beer is an obvious example. Rauchbeir, or smoked beer, is a little less obvious. The beer itself isn’t smoked. The barley is smoked much like one would smoke meat before it is used for brewing this smoky treat. There are as many beer styles so named as there are adjuncts to add to beer.
A beer style’s appearance or quality can also led to it’s name. Stout, for example, is a rich beer with big flavors - stout, indeed. Wit beers, a popular Belgian style of beer that is brewed with orange peal and coriander and served unfiltered, is so named with the Belgian word for white because the cloudy beer can appear white in a clear glass. Other examples include black lager, pale ale and cream ale.
Brewing methods can be a descriptive way to name a beer. Lager, the name of one of the two major sub-divisions of beer styles, is a German word that refers to the practice of storing the brewed beer in cold storage for long time before packaging it. Dry-hopped beers are beers that have had an additional dose of hops added after fermentation.
And, of course, there are a handful of beer names whose origin is unknown. Porter is a good example of this. There are a number of stories that attempt to establish how the style got its name but, ultimately, none can be firmly established as the truth.
So, because beer has been developed and re-imagined over and over again through the ages, dozens and dozens of styles have established themselves in that time. And new styles emerge all the time. American pale ale, for example, is a play on the classic, hoppy British-brewed India pale ale. American pale ale, or APA, is similar to IPA but it uses more ingredients from the American brewing tradition like bright, citrusy hops instead of the woodsier, floral hops from Britain.
With so many different styles, some with only subtle differences from one to the next, it could seem a little daunting, not to mention unnecessary, to the average beer drinker. Well, to be honest, it kind of is. The people mostly concerned with beer styles are those entering or judging beer competitions. In order to accurately and as objectively judge beers, the styles need to be precisely defined. Americans seem particularly keen on this point with the beer competitions at big festivals like the Great American Beer Festival being responsible for the huge list of beer styles.
As a beer drinker, it’s helpful to be familiar with some of the broader style categories like stout, wheat or pale ale. It can help in deciding what beer to buy for a particular occasion or to pair with a nice meal. But, knowing the difference between, say, a brown porter vs. a robust porter probably won’t significantly enhance the average beer drinker’s experience.