The craft beer craze makes for some wonderful drinking, but understanding the language of craft brews can be enough to make your head foam. A beer is never “just a beer” in the vernacular of craft brewers and the drinkers who love to explore them. To the sophisticated craft brewer and drinker, a beer might be described as having a “caramel malt body with floral aromas and citrus notes of oranges.”
Craft brewers do have a distinct language all their own, and with a little bit of background, you can hang with the beer connoisseurs and maybe even understand what they’re saying. So, tap into some craft beer knowledge with these 10 beer terms that will provide the basics for fluently speaking the language of craft beer.
1. Ale – All beers fall into the category of being either an ale or a lager. Ales are the older of the two brews and are produced by using top-fermenting yeasts (meaning the yeast does most of it’s work near the top of the fermenting liquid). However the main difference is the temperature that ales are fermented at, which is typically warmer, in the 65°-72° range for most, and sometimes up to 90° for certain Belgian ales. It’s also best to serve ales at temperatures warmer than you may be accustomed to which helps accentuate their complex flavors. You’ll know it’s an ale because it will typically have the word “ale” (pale ale, India pale ale, amber ale, etc.), but porters and stouts also fall into this category.
2. Lager – Pronounced “LAH-ger” lagers use bottom-fermenting yeasts and typically fermenting in the 50° range. The name comes from the German term “lagering” or “to keep” when the beer was chilled in cold caves for an extended period. Aside from the standard lagers, Pilsner, Oktoberfest, and bock are another common and popular style of lager. Served colder, lagers are the kind of crisp beers that hit the spot after a hard day working in the hot sun.
3. ABV (alcohol by volume) – Describes a beer’s alcohol content by volume and is expressed as a volume percent. This number can vary anywhere from under four percent in session ales, to up to 10 percent or more in beers like triple IPAs and Imperial stouts. Many of the most recognizable brews fall into the five to six percent range.
4. Hops – Hops are the cone shaped flowers used to create bitterness, flavors and aromas in beer. An essential ingredient in brewing, hops, are generally known for creating the bitterness of a beer, and it’s also used for flavor and aroma. Adding hops toward the end of the brewing process will create hop flavors and hop aromas. You’ll hear the term “hop” used as a noun (“You can really taste the hops”) or as an adjective (“This beer has a hoppy aroma”).
5. IBUs (International Bittering Units) – A rating that refers to how much hop-derived bitterness is present in a beer. The acids found in hops are dissolved into beer when boiled and also act as a natural preservative.
The higher the IBU rating means higher bitterness, right? Mostly, but this is not always the case as a number of factors work together to either accentuate or balance the hops. For reference, a typical macro lager (Bud, Miller, Coors, etc.) has a barely detectable 8-12 IBUs, whereas a porter or stout typically has 20-50 IBUs, and IPAs and barleywines can have higher than 60 and sometimes over 100 IBUs. However, many people cannot taste bitterness in excess of around 100 IBUs.
In short, don’t let a number determine whether you try a craft beer or not, it’s just a number and has little to do with how your palate will perceive the bitterness in a beer.
6. Malt – The type of grain used in the brewing process. Barley is usually the preferred grain for craft beer, but often includes wheat, rye, and specially kilned barley malts to produce a wider range of flavors. Malt needs to be steeped, germinated and kilned, or “malted” so it can be mashed to produce wort, then fermented into alcohol. It also contributes significantly to a beer’s color, sweetness and mouth-feel.
7. Wort – It’s what the brewer makes after steeping crushed malt in hot water and boiling it with hops. Typically sweet, it’s not something you want to drink. Boiled down, wort is simply the pre-beer liquid you get before it’s fermented. If you really want to impress your friends, pronounce it as “wert.”
8. IPA (India pale ale) – An extremely trendy and popular variety of ale in contemporary craft brewing, IPAs are a crucial participant in the hop-craze. An English creation, the name comes from this variety’s 18th century export to India. English IPAs generally have less bitterness and more malt and hop flavor, whereas American IPAs typically have a pronounced hop bitterness and also strive to showcase the unique flavors of a particular hop or combination of hops.
9. Notes – In beer-tasting culture, the term “notes” describes a beer’s flavor elements. Using terms such as “bread-like”, “biscuity”, or “caramel” instead of “malty”; or “citrus notes of lemon and orange peel” as opposed to the generic term “hoppy”, are more accurate ways to describe a beer. Plus, they make you sound more intelligent among your crew!
10. Gravity – You may have picked up a bottle of beer and noticed the brewer lists the beer’s gravity, then shook your head and moved on. But it’s a very real and very integral measurement for a brewer. More of a chemistry term (brewing is a science, after all), it describes the measurement of a beer’s density, or more specifically, how much of the soluble sugars have dissolved. Because the first measurement is taken before fermentation it’s common to see a beer’s OG or original gravity listed. Brewers may also list the finishing gravity or FG. Using an equation to determine the difference between the two numbers provides the brewer with a measure of ABV of the beer.
So beef up your beer vocabulary with the quick and handy list above. After all, it’s important that you understand these words before you start slurring them.
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By Joe Kukura