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Which 2-3 types of beer generally take the shortest time to brew from start (very first step with all ingredients) to finish (drinking), and what makes them take so little time?

I want to understand what makes a beer brew quickly/slowly, but specifically for a few examples.

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If you're talking about "brew day" time, that's influenced much more by your brewing equipment and process (i.e. do you do all-grain or extract? fly sparge / batch sparge / brew-in-a-bag?). This typically doesn't change much from one type of beer to another (with a few exceptional cases where a particular style may require an extra step or two that will make it take longer than usual)

If you're talking about fermentation time, that can depend on a lot of variables, many of which are specific to the beer style:

  1. Temperature: Generally, the warmer the fermentation, the faster it goes (within reason). For this reason, ales usually go faster than lagers, since they're intended to ferment at a higher temperature.
  2. Gravity of the wort: The higher your OG, the longer the fermentation will take. This is both because the environment is more stressful for the yeast, and just because there's a lot more sugar for them to work through before they're done. Obviously, this means lighter beers will typically ferment faster than big, heavy, highly alcoholic ones.
  3. Strain of yeast: This is an important one that's often overlooked. Not all yeasts are created equal, and some will just naturally be more vigorous than others. This also ties in a bit with temperature, as some yeast strains work better at higher temperatures (and produce fewer off-flavors, etc) so you can "run them a bit hotter" if you need to.
  4. Oxygen and other nutrients: The happier your yeast are, the more they'll reproduce, and the faster the whole process goes. This is usually more a general "equipment and procedures" issue than a "style of beer" thing, but there are some styles of beer (with a lot of non-malt additions) which may be somewhat deficient in some nutrients, which can cause them to run slower if not otherwise supplemented.
  5. Post-fermentation conditioning: Many styles of beer require lagering or cold-contitioning after fermentation to get an acceptable level of clarity or to drive off certain off flavors. Others just take a while in the keg or bottle before all their flavors really "meld" together to really taste their best. In general, lagers will need some extra time for this, and heavier or more alcoholic beers often require more mellowing time after fermentation.

It's kinda hard to pin down 2 or 3 specific styles, because often there's a lot of variation depending on the brewer, the location, and other factors which might make different people's results vary, but what I can tell you is based on the above, if you're looking for quicker styles of beer to get a finished product, you're generally going to be looking for:

  • An ale
  • On the lighter side (i.e. a "session" beer, etc)
  • Using either a highly-flocculating yeast, or a style where cloudiness isn't a big deal (so you don't have to condition it for clarity)

Given this, wheat beers are probably a good choice (typically lighter ales and they're supposed to be cloudy). I've also had some nice quick brews when working with some British/Irish style ales, as the esters from higher temperatures are often part of the style, and the yeast strains are often fairly vigorous (I just did an Irish Red that finished fermenting in about 5 days).

BYO actually has an article specifically on this topic as well, with some recipes, which you may want to check out: https://byo.com/aging/item/1397-speed-brewing

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My understanding is that there are three primary factors involved in how quickly a beer ferments:

  1. Gravity: beer with more fermentable sugars will take longer for the yeast to consume.
  2. Amount & Type of Yeast: the lag time before fermentation starts relates to these factors. The yeast starts fermentation by multiplying until it runs out of resources to do so. So the more yeast that is pitched the quicker it is able to do this and the healthier it will be when it gets there. Different yeast strains also ferment at different rates.
  3. Temperature: in a higher temperature environment the yeast tends to ferment more quickly. This often leaves behind more byproducts, however, which the yeast may go back to clean up later on if possible.

That said, the amount of time the beer is left to ferment is somewhat at the discretion of the brewer. Once the beer has reached final gravity a brewer may choose to bottle/keg immediately, though most leave the beer to condition/age for some amount of time.

Regardless, if looking for quick fermentation, you'd certainly want to stick to ales (higher temperatures). Beyond that, sticking to lighter color beers is probably best as darker beers are generally left to age longer.

For the above reasons, you're looking for a lower-gravity, lighter colored ale. Session pale ales, session IPAs, and mild ales can all fit into this range.

Beyond the details of the beer itself, kegging can cut down the time waiting for carbonation.

Also, this BYO article on speed brewing covers a lot of this in more detail, including more specific yeast/process recommendations.

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Brewing: depends on your process and tools. If you do a decoction or multiple step infusion, you'll always take longer than in a single infusion. If your burner is weak, you spend more time heating and boiling. If your wort chiller is good, you spend less time chilling.

Some ingredients may require more time, for example, if you use wheat you may want to use a protein rest of 15 minutes.

Fermenting: ales at higher temperatures ferment faster than lagers at lower temperatures. If you dry hop in a secondary or add e.g., fruit to a secondary fermenter, that increases the time till bottling or kegging.

Lagering: some ales like wheat beers or IPAs are good to drink after a few days or weeks, while others beers (strong porters and stouts, lagers) benefit from months of aging. Of course, this is especially true for anything wood aged.

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Your fastest beers will be session strength (5% ABV) ales that do not depend much on yeast esters or brilliant clarity. Allowing you to full pitch yeast, and no need for a lot of fining.

So if you have style you like, and enough yeast they can be done very quickly.

My fastest turn around was 4 days from brew to serving. A juicy sessions IPA 5 gallons, that was pitched 64oz of yeast. Actual fermentation completed in 20 hours. It could have benefited from a diacytl rest but that would have added a couple days had very low levels but detectable. Most of the 4 days was dry hopping and cold crashing.

By far the most unnecessary time loss in homebrewing is bottle conditioning. You will never regret upgrading to force carbonation and kegging.

  • "By far the most unnecessary time loss in homebrewing is bottle conditioning." I respect that others have different opinions but I personally do not believe the above quoted statement to be true. Bottle conditioning is not the same as "natural carbonation". IMHO most beers improve after a month or two of conditioning. And many stronger/heavier beers improve over the course of 6 months to a year. One can force carbonate anything (eg Coke Cola TM) but that does not necessarily make it taste good nor is it the same as "conditioning". – barking.pete Jun 3 '17 at 5:06
  • @barking.pete Bottle conditioning only means natural carbonation, in the bottle. It's not "aging" – Evil Zymurgist Jun 3 '17 at 12:43
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Like others have said, most beers will take approximately the same amount of time if they have the same ABV. If you brew at a higher temperature, it will go even faster. The next step is conditioning. You can skip this step, but pretty much every one agrees you really shouldn't. A lot happens in this stage that positively affects the taste of the beer.

In general the longer the primary fermentation takes, the longer you should condition. There's a whole chapter about this on how to brew. So in short, most beers will take about the same amount of time before you can drink it, but they can very in time before you should drink them. As for actual styles? IPAs and wheat ales are your best bet.

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Does Ginger beer count? Than can be as ready as it ever will be after 2 days.

detail update: Inoculate made up solution of a small amount of ginger powder and sugar and bottle. Ready in two days. This is "real ginger beer" that uses a SCOBY based on Lactobacillus and Saccharomyces - not the yeast based variety. There is little alcohol produced and the gas carbonates the drink. The flavour is a tart/ginger lemonade. Very refreshing and a useful probiotic for digestive issues.

  • The comment has been removed and added to the answer. – barking.pete Jun 2 '17 at 6:34
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Assuming that you have the ability to brew, cool, and pitch the yeast all in the same day, you can be drinking your beer in a little as a week if you are kegging and force carbonating. Add two weeks for the same beer if bottling. All of the other posts are true, but in a nutshell, low gravity ales with low alcohol, and fast working yeast. Think low alcohol IPA's, blondes, wheats.

The reason why is mostly due to the recipe and the yeast. Beers with more gravity (fermentable sugars) just give the yeast more work to do. More sugar means more food for the yeast to eat which takes longer. Also, beers with more gravity and alcohol (think a barley wine) need time to "mellow". If you were to drink these too soon, the alcohol would be "hot", like a cheap whisky compared to a nice smooth whisky.

Some beers with yeast that like higher temps will ferment faster like some Belgian ales. But that doesn't men you can just throw in a high temp yeast into any ale or you could get some weird beer. Use a yeast relevant to the style of ale you are making.

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I'll offer up a less technical answer. Brew an English Mild/Bitter. Ferment with Danstar Nottingham (this stuff is fast). Ferment in the mid 60's and the beer will be done fermenting in roughly 24-36 hours. Chill for 24 - 36 hours to drop as much stuff as possible then rack to keg and force carbonate. That's about 3 days. Beer - actually pretty darn good for 3 days. This works well as a cask offering too.

Better- plan your production schedule appropriately, don't get into rushing everything.

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