The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, digitized and searchable, gives fascinating information on beer and how it was sold in this period. I will summarize salient points from about a dozen articles written between about 1875 and 1895.
Reporters made fields trips to saloons and breweries and reported in detail on these topics. No taste notes are given, except in the sense of noting that each brewery made a beer distinguishable by devoted consumers. Also, beer faults are noted, e.g., if it was "acetic", "muddy", or not the right temperature.
It was observed that whiskey was generally consumed by those who imbibed earlier in the century but slowly beer became more popular, to the point that "seventeen out of twenty" drinkers in a barroom would call for lager beer. Of the remaining three, two wanted ale and the last whiskey.
I suspect (although this is not stated) that in the North East, inexpensive whiskey (young or little aged or blended) lost its market largely to beer, but quality bourbon and rye became favored by the well-off classes, as did mixed drinks.
It was noted (as is known to beer historians) that German immigrants brought lager beer to America and this became much more popular than "ale" (the latter included stout and porter). It was explained that lager's cold temperature made it "the" summer drink, and it was preferred by many in other seasons as well. Ale was regarded as potentially of good quality, as e.g. in England (constantly cited as a model), but was inferior to lager because often served too warm or cloudy. While not stated as such, clearly top-fermented ales were going sour more often than stable, long- and cold- aged lagers. However, it was noted that ale quality was improving in that ales were becoming "lighter", "clearer" and colder. Indeed, cream ale and other blonde ales emerged by the end of the 1800's to take back some of the market lost to lagers.
The color of lager is never (that I found) mentioned except in a vague sense of referring to a refreshing "amber" quaff. Probably lagers then were dark or amber, mostly, although Budweiser was of a color similar today's since it followed the Pilsener style (broadly) emerging in Pilsen, then part of Austria. Old beer ads of Bud I've seen (circa-1900) seem to confirm its light color.
Lagers were fermented at near freezing temperatures using bottom fermenting yeasts and ales were made at 60 F. or over using top yeasts - the distinction then seems similar to that today. The best lager breweries then aged their lagers for 8 months - few would do that today. Lager was also sold new and this is referred to as "Schenk" beer and some of it was possibly unfiltered.
Ales in common use were India Pale Ale, Pale Ale or XXX, Canada Malt ale and Burton, the latter clearly patterned after the famous ales of Burton-on-Trent. Ale, too was sold new or aged. Burton was by the mid-1800's in England not as strong and sweet as it had been, and probably was like a good special bitter or ESB in the UK (and parts of the U.S.) today. The Canada name in Canada Malt ale came from the origin of the barley malt used for this type, it was grown in Bay of Quinte on Lake Ontario. This beer was dark and not well-hopped. It was said to be somewhat in a Scotch ale style, which would make sense since much of Ontario was settled by Scots and they would have brought the taste. Perhaps that beer would taste like a modern MacEwan's Scotch Ale.
India Pale Ale was stated to be well-hopped as one would expect, the color is not mentioned but other sources of the time suggest these beers were not amber or dark but truly pale as the name suggests. It was stronger than XXX or regular pale ale.
One Daily Eagle article states (1870's) that ale quality hadn't much improved in the previous 20 years except that one did not see any more "handpulls" and "goosenecks". This appartus, familiar to anyone who knows real ale well and which has endured in England uninterruptedly since the early 1800's, had disappeared from Brooklyn by the 1870's! How amazed would the scribes of the Daily Eagle be to see beer hand pumps reappear behind some bars in modern America! The article did project however that ale would improve and it did of course as I have stated - by transmuting ultimately into an ale/lager hybrid. (Canadian sparkling ales, such as Molson Export Ale, devised in around 1903, represented a similar evolution).
Perhaps the American climate, more extreme than the U.K.'s, made this change inevitable although of course today the pre-lager styles have come back full bore via the microbreweries. It is still true though that these ales are more stable, even without pasteurisation, than their forbears. This is due to modern methods of filtration, temperature control and packaging.
Ale was also regarded as stronger on average than lager beer - true then as now (broadly speaking of course).
Beer was served in "seidels", a German term for mug, or "schooners". I recall a restaurant in Plattsburgh, NY in the early 1970's serving draft beer in glasses called schooners on the menu. Probably the term has since completely died out, but it hung on for 100 years in some parts of New York State after the time in question.
One aspect of beer sales which has disappeared (mostly) is selling beer in "cans" or "growlers", i.e., in containers to be taken out for drinking at home. Young people often were sent to the saloons for this purpose, and it was noted they became adept at insisting on full measure and receiving the correct change.
It was claimed that little margin was earned on selling beer in cans or growlers, but that it was a loss leader and no barroom could afford to dispense with the practice.
The institution of the "free lunch" was analysed with picturesque or wry references to patrons who abused the practice. The items on offer varied but included pretzels, "Saratoga chips" (these must have been our modern potato chips), smoked and other herrings, cheese, crackers, and sausages of different kinds.
The intermittently busy life of a bartender was described with some compassion for people who worked, then, 6 days a week, and long hours on each day, and who spent their one free day often at "Sheepshead" (Sheepshead Bay on Long Island) or Coney Island, which needs no introduction. Despite their grueling schedule they often retained their good humor. It was noted that a good bartender was the guarantee of success of an establishment - little has changed in this respect.
Reading through these articles, one gets a sense that overall, saloon life was becoming oriented around draught beer (as it still is to a large degree), and whiskey was becoming more a specialist item available on its own or in mixed drinks. The fashion for mixed drinks seems to have waxed and waned, one article in around 1875 states that cocktails were losing popularity in favor of whiskey unadorned - there were trends and fashions then as now...
To the pioneering drink journalists of the later-1800's Brooklyn Daily Eagle I lift a glass, for the engaging apercu they gave us of drink types and customs in their time - a time withal that despite many changes is quite recognisable today.