The most basic classification of beers breaks down to two main types; ales, which humans have been brewing in one form or another for thousands of year, and the young new upstart Lager which perhaps dates back as far as the 15th century.
So what separates the two?
In effect it all comes down to the yeast. Brewers of Lager beers use a different strain of yeast to ales, this yeast thrives at colder temperatures where ale yeast would usually go dormant. The cooler fermentation reduces the yeast derived fruity aromas and flavours (called esters) found in ales and produces the cleaner taste profile associated with lagers. Check out the excellent Montto experience the classic crispness of Bohemian style pilsner.
Of course not all Lagers are light bodied and pale. Until the middle of the 19th century lagers would have been predominantly dark beers using dark malt for a robust, sometimes toasty, character. And Union Dark Lager and Hirsch Doppelbock are two dark lagers definitely worth seeking out.
And with all things in the craft beer world, styles are continually evolving and you will find an increasing number of hoppy lagers on the shelves. Check out Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp Hoppy Lager or Eight Degrees Nomad for two great examples of this emerging style.