This is the first post in the Beer Basics series.
Anyone entering the world of craft beer understands the overwhelming feeling that you should have a map to navigate there. It’s easy to get lost. Breweries are creating new beers, resurrecting old ones, and as the industry becomes increasingly “gentrified,” craft beer will become more complex. The craft beer industry is a cousin to the macro beer industry; they’re from the same family, but they’re very different now. It’s a separate industry now, and in this industry, there are many terms to know. Forgetting the myriad styles of beer for a moment (what’s the difference between East Coast IPAs and West Coast IPAs?), we’re still left with a list of acronyms to understand. Why should we care? Taste. It might not matter so much when your options are Budweiser, Blue Moon, or some other super-macro brewery, but the craft industry has so many options that you will come across a brewery you’ve never heard of. And you will need some indication of what the brewery’s beer will taste like before you drop fifteen dollars on a six-pack.
Here, I’m going to explore the basic terms that you might come across when perusing a beer bottle or six-pack container. I will also explore how each of these things can affect the taste of a beer, and why we should pay attention to them when shopping for beer. First, let’s define the different beer industries. This has nothing to do with taste, but it is an essential to know. Craft beer is defined by the Brewers’ Association as, “small… independent… traditional.” Microbrewery tends to be interchanged with craft brewery, but the definition requires 6 million barrels or less be produced yearly for a brewery to be considered craft. A craft brewery also needs to be independent; a company like Coors or Anheuser Busch cannot own more than a quarter of the brewery. The “traditional” requirement seems a little vague to me, but I am not a brewer and am not well-versed in brewing methods. Craft breweries must have the majority of their alcohol production come from beers, “whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation.” Ingredients like corn and rice cannot be added to the brew. Only traditional ingredients like wheat, hops, and malt in addition to ingredients for flavor like herbs and fruit.
In short, anything owned by Coors or Anheuser Busch is not craft beer. Sam Adams, however, may be. Their owner, The Boston Beer Co., sells about 4 million barrels a year. That’s under the Brewers’ Association limits. The owner of the Boston Beer Co. is Jim Koch, the founder and owner of Sam Adams. That means that Sam Adams probably qualifies as being less than 25% owned by a non-brewer company. I think technically Sam Adams counts as craft beer, but after looking further into it, their status is very controversial. They may not be a craft brewery in a few years.
ABV and ABW
The next essential terms to know are ABV (alcohol by volume) and ABW (alcohol by weight). They both measure how much alcohol is in a beer, but due to the different metrics, the numbers will be different. In the U.S., beers are usually labeled with the ABV. This used to not be the case, but ABV is a more accurate measurement apparently. The higher the ABV or ABW, the more alcohol a beer has. Generally, light beers have an ABV of around 4.2 – 4.3 (3.36 – 3.44 ABW). Average beers have between 5% and 7% ABV (4% – 5.6% ABW). ABV and ABW are affected mostly by the amount of sugar in the beer, since the yeast produces alcohol as a byproduct of the sugar and grain it consumes. The more sugar in the brew, the more food the yeast has and thus the more alcohol it will produce.
ABV and ABW affects the taste of beer simply because the more alcohol is in a beer, the higher the likelihood that you’ll taste it. Meantime Brewing, a brewery in London, explains the effect of ABV :Anything over 5.5% will have a slightly sweetish/fruity alcohol taste, and body. Also, as a side effect, if the mashing process produces a Wort rich in fermentable Maltose, it will also tend to be rich in unfermented Dextrose. Therefore a beer with a high alcohol level after fermentation will also tend to have a lot of Dextrose in it, which will increase the rich malty flavours and give the beer plenty of body, both of which tend to counterbalance any alcohol “burn”. Brewers can also add ingredients to balance out the taste of the alcohol, but sometimes the ingredients don’t work, and the beer tastes too strong or will taste like molasses. It depends on what flavors you like.
IBU stands for International Bittering Units. It’s a scale used to quantify the bitterness of a beer. The bitterness of a beer comes from the amount and type of hops used in the brewing. This is why beer styles like IPAs are always more bitter than styles like stouts and porters. IPAs are brewed with more hops. IBU measures the amount of iso-alpha acids present, which come from the hops. IBU is tricky because the amount of malts or strong flavors can affect the perceived bitterness of the beer. Generally, the range of IBU is going to be from 5 to 120. It’s important to remember though that this number only measures the amount of the iso-alpha acids present in the beer. It does not measure how bitter the beer with taste.
How can we tell how bitter a beer will taste by looking at this number? We can’t necessarily compare IBU and taste between different styles of beer, but if you’re comparing two IPAs or two Amber Ales, you will have a much better chance of predicting which one will be more bitter. In general, the higher the IBU, the more bitter a beer will be, other flavors and ingredients can soften the perceived bitterness of a beer, so a stout that has a higher IBU than a pale ale might not seem as bitter, despite having a higher IBU. That’s why I think it’s best to compare IBUs within the same beer style rather than across the board.
The Standard Reference Method is a system used to measure the color intensity of beer. The SRM can help determine the type or style of beer you are drinking, or at least help predict the typical style. The SRM range goes from 0 to 40, with 0 being the lightest color and 40 being almost black. The SRM itself doesn’t indicate taste or flavor, but knowing what styles of beer are within that number range will give you a general idea of the body and flavor of the beer. The SRM cannot be used alone to determine taste, but used with the other measurements mentioned here, it will help.
Original Gravity and Final Gravity are the “before” and “after” measurements of the amount of sugar in the wort. The wort is the liquid mixture of unfermented ingredients used to brew the beer. The wort contains the sugar that will be eaten by the yeast and converted into alcohol. If you remember earlier when I talked about ABV and ABW, I said that the amount of sugar consumed determines the amount of alcohol in the beer? This is how brewers find that amount out. By measuring the original gravity and then later the final gravity, brewers can determine how much sugar was consumed by the yeast, and that helps them determine the ABV and ABW.
If either of these numbers are on a bottle or a six pack container, it can give you an idea of how strong the beer will taste alcohol-wise. If both numbers are available, you might be able to predict the body and taste of the beer. With both numbers, you can see the relationship between the two gravities, and that can tell you if the beer is dry and light, full-bodied, or sweeter.
These numbers alone won’t tell you too much. All together however, they provide a larger picture that can be used to predict whether you’ll like the beer you’re about to drink. Once you determine what styles or elements you like, you can use these numbers to help you find similar styles. There are many styles out there and brewers are constantly creating hybrids; it can be hard to know if you’ll like something just by reading their description. Looking at these measurements can make things easier.