Reading and understanding a beer label is about as simple and straightforward as cracking the nuclear launch code. Beermakers cover their bottles and cans in brewer’s slang, measurements, and acronyms that, to the thirsty consumer, don’t make a lick of sense.
But today, we’re putting to bed all mysteries surrounding the craft beer label. So the next time you walk into a your favorite bottle shop, you know exactly what you’re buying.
Making Sense of Brewer’s Slang
Those of us in the beer biz (FACT: I have a homebrew kit and am therefore considered ‘in the biz’) use brewer’s slang to describe beer styles and production methods. These terms are important to understand because they tell you a lot about how a beer will taste.
Bourbon Barrel Aged
If you like beer and bourbon, then you will love bourbon barrel aged beer. Barrel aging is the process of adding beer to used whiskey barrels. As it ages, the beer absorbs flavors from the wood and formerly residing spirit. Expect notes of caramel, vanilla, and even a little heat from the bourbon.
Dry hopping is the process of adding hops after beer has boiled and fermented. This doesn’t increase bitterness — hops produce bitterness only when they’re boiled. Instead, dry hopping impacts aroma.
Hops contain delicate oils that are often lost during the boil and fermentation. But since dry hops are added later in the beer making process, they retain these oils, producing a beer exploding with happy, hoppy aroma and flavor.
The term imperial goes back to the 1700s when the Russian imperial court drank a special beer that was shipped from England.
To ensure the beer survived the trek across the Baltic Sea, English beermakers brewed a product that was big on alcohol content and hops, both which act as natural preservatives. The result was an inky black monster of a beer known as Russian Imperial Stout.
Continuing with that tradition today, modern beer makers apply the imperial label to anything bigger, stronger, hoppier, or boozier than the average beer.
Nitro beers are carbonated with nitrogen instead of carbon dioxide. This results in a beer with a creamier, smoother mouthfeel.
If you want to crush a 12-pack without blacking out, losing your pants, and ruining your daughter’s birthday party, then the session ale is for you.
Brewed to be low in alcohol content (no higher than 5%), session beer can be enjoyed over a period of time (or a session) while you maintain at least some of your sobriety and dignity.
Every August through September, hops are harvested, dried, and stored for use during the upcoming year. Since hops begin to deteriorate almost immediately after harvest, the drying process is essential to preserving them.
However, each harvest season, a handful of hops skip the kiln and instead go directly to breweries and into beer kettles. This beer, brewed with fresh, unkilned hops, is referred to as wet hopped.
Because unkilned hops retain all of their natural oils, wet hopped beer is notorious for its citrusy and earthy flavors. But keep your eyes open, because it’s only available during harvest season.
What Do All Those Measurements Mean?
ABV, IBU, SRM…S my D. What do these mean? And what do they say about your beer? Let’s find out.
Alcohol by Volume (ABV)
ABV is the measurement of alcohol content expressed as a percentage of total volume. So a 12 oz can of Miller Lite (4.2% ABV) contains ½ ounce of alcohol (4.2% of 12 ounces).
ABV varies based on beer style. Mass-produced domestic lagers like Coors Light and Budweiser range from 4-5% ABV, while bigger bodied beers like imperial stouts can contain up to 17% and higher.
International Bitterness Units (IBUs)
IBUs are often misunderstood. From a brewmaster’s standpoint, they are a measurement of the bitterness of a beer. But to a beer drinker, IBUs tell you little, if anything, about how bitter a beer will taste. I’ll explain.
Specifically, IBUs measure the amount of isohumulone found in a beer (isohumulone is the acid in hops that gives beer its bitter flavor). The unit of measure is parts per million and the scale begins at 0 — most domestic lagers contain about 10 — and extends, in theory, to infinity — the highest I’ve seen/tasted was this Triple IPA with 112.
But here’s the thing: because a beer’s overall flavor is made up of all its ingredients, two beers with identical IBUs can vary in both taste and perceived bitterness. For example, Founders Brewing makes an imperial stout that contains 75 IBUs, while its flagship IPA clocks in at 65. Even though the stout contains more bitter hop acid by volume, it’s big malt profile offsets some of the bitterness, making it taste less bitter relative to the IPA.
So to sum it up: IBUs measure actual bitterness, but because what we taste is perceived bitterness, they don’t always accurately indicate flavor.
Standard Reference Method (SRM)
SRM is the system used to measure the color of a beer. The scale ranges from 0 to 40, and as seen below, the higher the SRM, the darker the beer.
To ensure customers drink fresh beer, many breweries apply date stamps to their bottles and cans. Typically, this stamp indicates either a) the shelf life of the beer or b) the packaging date.
The shelf life date, often expressed as ‘best by’ or ‘enjoy by’, provides a deadline for which the beer will maintain its freshness. Basically, if you won’t drink the beer before the date on the bottle, don’t buy it.
A packaging or ‘bottled on’ date, however, isn’t as straightforward because shelf life varies by beer style. While some beer can age for years — Read: How to Start a Beer Cellar, and Why — most of it should be enjoyed as fresh as possible. So as a general rule, drink your beer within 120 days from its bottling date, and always buy fresh and refrigerate.
Bringing it all Together: Beer Styles
The infographic below details some of the information we just covered as it applies to 9 popular American beer styles.
Note that characteristics vary wildly from beer to beer, even within the same style — an imperial IPA might have 3 times the IBUs and ABV of a session IPA, yet both are categorized as IPAs — so use this information as an average.