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Beer Geek Speak - A Glossary of Beer Terms


You read them in beer articles and you hear them in beer commercials, beer bars and breweries. Beer terminology can be confusing. And sometimes it’s like trying to interpret a geeky, esoteric language. So to help you better understand it all, here is a glossary of beer terms with no-nonsense definitions.

Adjunct: Any ingredient used in brewing other than the four main ingredients – malted barley, water, hops and yeast. There are many adjuncts used in brewing, but the popular ones include corn, rice, sugar, rye, oats, honey, herbs and spices. It should be noted that adjuncts are not necessarily bad. More importantly, you should ask why they are used, and if they’re used to enhance or diminish flavor. Many macro/industrial breweries, for example, use adjuncts such as corn and rice to lighten the flavor and the body of the beer, and they also use them because they are cheaper than malted barley. Some adjuncts are even used as a cheap way to increase sweetness and/or alcohol.

Alcohol By Weight (ABW) and Alcohol By Volume (ABV): After Prohibition in America, breweries wanted their beers to seem more temperate, so they used the alcohol-content-measurement system that provided the lowest number, which is ABW (due to the fact that alcohol is lighter than water). Today, most macro/industrial breweries still use ABW, whereas most craft breweries and most foreign breweries use ABV. For reference, 3.2 percent ABW is equal to about 4 percent ABV.

Ale: One of the two major classifications of beer. Ales are made with top-fermenting yeast and they are aged for shorter periods of time at warmer temperatures (relative to lagers).

Balance: To oversimplify, a balanced beer has a complementing amount of sweetness and bitterness. But balance can also mean other things. A beer with a harmonious blend of different flavors and aromas might be described as balanced, for example. And there can be many dimensions of balance beyond flavors and aromas, such as mouthfeel/texture and body (i.e., dry versus cloying, over or under carbonated, etc.). It should also be noted that hop bitterness isn’t the only element in beer that can be used to counteract malt sweetness. Sometimes sharply roasted notes and/or nips of alcohol can cleave off some of the sweetness, and thus balance out the beer.

Barrel: Unit of measurement in commercial brewing equal to just over 31 U.S. gallons. A “half-barrel,” which is 15.5 gallons, is the most common keg size. Even though there are many different keg sizes, when people refer to a “keg,” they’re usually referring to the 15.5-gallon size.

Barrel-Aged Beer (aka, Oak-Aged Beer): Beer that was stored in a new or used oak barrel for a period of time – anywhere from months to years. In the last decade or so, barrel aging became quite popular in America. At first, used whiskey/bourbon barrels were all the rage, and the most common styles to age in these barrels were imperial stouts and barley wines. Of course, they are still popular today. But in recent years, many breweries have started aging a variety of beers styles in other types of barrels that were previously used for other spirits or wines (red and white wines).

Body: A quality of beer – typically modified with “light,” “medium” or “heavy” – that is determined by the amount of proteins, carbonation, unfermented sugars and hop oils in the beer. Light-bodied beers may feel thin and watery in your mouth, whereas heavy-bodied beers may feel thick and chewy.

Cask Beer or Cask-Conditioned Beer (aka, Real Ale): Unfiltered and unpasteurized beer that undergoes its final fermentation in the serving vessel, where it is allowed to condition and carbonate naturally (instead of being force carbonated with carbon dioxide or nitrogen), just before serving. To pour the beer, a handpump, also known as a beer engine, is used to siphon the beer up from the cask to the glass. Cask simply means container. And a firkin is a traditional British cask that holds 10.8 U.S. gallons or 9 Imperial gallons. Cask beer was popularized in England and it’s gaining popularity in America.

Craft Brewery (formerly known as a Microbrewery): According to the Brewers Association, a craft brewery is small (producing less than 6 million barrels annually), independent (less than 25 percent of the brewery is owned or controlled by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewery) and traditional (where the brewery brews all-malt beers or beers that use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor). Many people also use the term “craft” to describe artisanal, innovative and creative breweries that put quality and flavor ahead of quantity and appealing to the masses.

Dry Hopping: The practice of adding hops to fermenting beer, which imbues it with additional hop aromas but no additional bitterness.

Fermentation: To simplify, fermentation is a biochemical process whereby yeast consumes sugars (and propagates) and then produces alcohol, carbon dioxide and yeast esters.

Finish / Aftertaste: “Finish” typically refers to the flavors and aromas detected right after swallowing, whereas “aftertaste” typically refers to the flavors and aromas that linger during the moments after swallowing. Contrary to what multi-million-dollar ad campaigns want you to believe, aftertaste is not necessarily a bad thing.

Hoppy: A vague term used to describe a beer made with lots of hops. Depending on the types of hops used, how much are used and when they’re introduced into the boiling wort, hops can imbue beer with different levels of flavor, aroma and bitterness, and there is an infinite combination of those variables. “Hoppy” can sometimes equate to “bitter,” but some beers can be aromatically “hoppy” yet have low bitterness levels. Most “hoppy” beers contain flavor notes that can be described as floral, piney, citrusy and/or grassy.

Hop Back / Hopback: A hop-filled container between the brew kettle and the wort chiller that contains whole hops. When the hot wort passes through the hops, it takes on additional hop flavors and aromas.

Hybrid Beers: Styles of beer that are difficult to classify as either an ale or a lager. California common, made famous by Anchor Brewing’s Steam Beer, is one example of a hybrid style because it is brewed with lager yeast but it is fermented like an ale (i.e., at a warmer temperature). Kolsch is another example, which is a beer style that is brewed with ale yeast but aged like a lager (i.e., cooler and for longer periods of time).

Hydrometer: A measuring device used in brewing to calculate the specific gravity of wort and beer. Specific gravity is a measurement of density, relative to the density of water, and it can tell how much fermentation has taken place. It can also help to calculate the beer’s alcohol percentage.

International Bitterness Unit (IBU): This is the most popular unit of measurement to describe hop bitterness in beer. Rough IBU calculations are made using a complex formula that is based on variables such as amounts of hops used, percentage of alpha acids in the hops used, length of time the hops are boiled in the wort, and the wort volume. IBU numbers range from the single digits (which is the level you find in many mainstream light lagers) to more than 100 (which is what you might find in many double/imperial India pale ales). A side note to keep in mind: The maltier and stronger a beer is, the more it will obscure the perceived bitterness in the beer. In other words, a 50-IBU pale ale will seem to have more bitterness than a 50-IBU barley wine.

Lager: One of the two major classifications of beer. Lagers are made with bottom-fermenting yeast and they are aged for longer periods of time at cooler temperatures (relative to ales). Lager, as a verb, comes from the German word lagern, which means “to store.”

Lautering: Filtering or straining sweet wort from spent grain by using a “false bottom,” which can range from a metal screen to a manifold made of copper pipes with holes drilled in the bottom. Lautering is not the same as sparging, which is rinsing the sugars from the grain. These two processes are typically done together, which is why there is so much confusion between the two.

Lightstruck: A “skunky” off-flavor in beer caused by exposure to light, especially sunlight. Cans block out all light and brown bottles block out most light, but green and clear bottles offer little to no protection from light.

Mashing: Mixing and soaking malted and crushed grains, known as grist, in hot water – sometimes at varying temperatures – for specified amounts of time. During the mash, enzymes convert starches and complex carbohydrates to fermentable sugars.

Malt: Barley and other grains that have gone through the processes of germination, drying and, for some types, roasting to different degrees. Right before malt is used in brewing, the grains are crushed (i.e., slightly cracked, not pulverized) in a grain mill.

Malty: A vague term used to describe a malt-forward beer that might have flavors such as toast, nuts, caramel, cereal, toffee, chocolate, bread, etc. “Maltiness” does not necessarily equate to “sweetness.” In other words, a “sweet” beer might be described as malty, but a “malty” beer may or may not be sweet.

Mouthfeel (aka, Texture): How beer feels in your mouth. Texture qualities in beer are mainly produced by its level of carbonation (carbon dioxide or nitrogen) and body (proteins, unfermented sugars, hop oils, etc.). Beers can vary from thin and watery to thick and chewy, and carbonation levels can range from nonexistent to livelier than sparkling wine.

Pasteurized Beer: Beer that has been sterilized by heat. Pasteurization helps to extend shelf life, but many believe it robs the beer of some of its flavor. Most macro/industrial beers are pasteurized whereas most craft beers are unpasteurized. It’s best to keep unpasteurized beer cold, but it can be left at room temperature for short periods of time. Hot temperatures (i.e., the trunk of your car on a hot day), on the other hand, can really impact the beer in a negative way.

Session Beer: An easy-drinking beer that you can drink a lot of in one “session” without becoming too bloated or drunk. Session beers, which may also be described as sessionable beers, typically have low levels of alcohol, sweetness and bitterness.

Sparging: Rinsing the grains with hot water to extract as much of the remaining sugars as possible after mashing. Sparging is typically done in a lauter tun, though it can also be done in a mash tun. (See “Lautering” above.)

Wort: Unfermented beer. This is the sugary liquid derived from the mash. After the yeast is pitched, fermentation begins.

Zymurgy: The science of fermentation.

- Aubrey Laurence

April 16, 2012 1:06 PM MST