How to Read a Beer Label

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 Hopped

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.

Imperial

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

Nitro beers are carbonated with nitrogen instead of carbon dioxide. This results in a beer with a creamier, smoother mouthfeel.

Session

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.

Wet Hopped

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.

SRM Grid

Dates

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.

Beer Styles

 

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On My 30th Birthday, 12 Things I Thought I’d Have Figured Out By Now

The worst part about turning 30 is the days and nights before turning 30. I just never imagined that entering a new decade would induce a full-blown identity crisis.

Should’ve I traveled more? Picked a different major? Accepted that job out of state? Should’ve I drank less? Drank more? Should I drink right now?

A lot happens in your twenties. You enter the era as some shithead teenager and exit some bill-paying, responsibility-having, big dick-swinging adult. It makes sense that the end of such a defining and transformative decade triggers a second guessing of EVERYTHING.

But what’s most terrifying is I’ve always assured myself that at 30 I’d have ALL the answers. No matter how many times I played the I’m In My Twenties card to slack off/be irresponsible/go out, it would be okay because when my twenties were over, by God, I would be on track…not even close.

But really, what fun is having it all figured out? On any given day I can do something life changing like quit my job to fulfill my lifelong dream of writing swear words on the Internet. I might succeed! Or I might fail so miserably that I’m exiled from my social circle and my wife leaves me for some prick with gainful employment. The fact that both could happen make the risk worth taking and life worth living. It’s not about having it figured out; it’s about figuring it out. So here now, in the spirit of ignorance, are 12 things I haven’t figured out at 30 years old.

Why am I still afraid of the dark? Now that I have real worries (my health, losing my job, failing as a father), you would think some of my make believe fears would go away. But they haven’t.

Sometimes I can’t even go downstairs after dark to retrieve a phone charger. Should I just leave it? My phone will die and my alarm won’t go off and I’ll miss work and get fired and we’ll lose the house and the dog will starve, but what choice do I have? I must remain safely upstairs on the off chance 5 half-dead ghost children are waiting to crawl out of the kitchen cupboards.  

Sometimes, I bring the dog with me. After you, buddy. I am a coward.

Where is my metabolism? Where in the hell did it go? I went on an insane health kick last year. For 140 days, I lived off chicken, spinach, and protein shakes. I pounded the weights and did phase 2 of Insanity verbatim. Have you done phase 2 of Insanity? Of course you haven’t. Nobody does phase 2 of Insanity, because phase 2 of Insanity is awful.

Anyway, if I followed this workout/diet combo when I was 22, I’d look like the 8th wonder of the world. At 29? I looked 8 weeks pregnant. I have reached a point where no amount of high intensity interval training can rid my body of its paunch and man boob fat. These are now permanent fixtures, no different than a foot or a finger, and that is a bummer.

Where are my dad skills? For Christmas my daughter got a Fisher Price swing, a heavy-duty plastic one made for a backyard playset but which we were going to hang from the rafters in our unfinished basement.

My dad was adamant that he help with the assembly, because a) he likes this stuff, and b) the thought of me (and me alone) engineering a structure that would suspend his 8 month old grandaughter 4 feet above a concrete basement floor was probably keeping the old man up at night.

Anyway, we were installing a 2×4, and for the life of me, I could not drill a screw in. I used a drill bit. I stood on a chair. I placed a few extra screws in my mouth and cursed through clenched lips. Nothing worked. It was hopeless.

My dad said the screws “were shit”, but I know he was just defending me from my own embarrassment or himself from his blatant failure as a father. I’m a dad now, so where are my dad skills?

When did I become so antisocial? When I was 17, a buddy of mine went out of town with his parents, so three other buddies and I did what any group of 17 year olds with half a brain between them would do: we broke into his house to crush 40s.

We couldn’t get in, however, because his mom engaged the slide lock on the garage door. But instead of going home, we crushed the 40s in the family’s broken down conversion van parked behind the house.

So there we were, four guys crushing 40s in a broken down van…if you’re living like a hobo for the sake of your social life — that is some dedication.

Now, however, you can’t get me out of the house. I don’t care if you’re partying at the Playboy Mansion, sipping lemon drops from Kate Upton’s cleavage. If I can’t be in bed by 10, I’m not going.

Why do I pee so much? So I hit 30 and suddenly my bladder has the permeability of a handful of sand?

When will my skin clear up? Why am I still popping zits like I’m in goddamn high school? Will the pores on my nose ever just close, or are they damned to be a blackhead feeding ground until I’m dead and the skin rots from my face?

Where are these moles coming from? And is this one raised? Because it feels raised. That’s bad, right? Oh God, is it cancerous? Should I see a doctor?

What’s with this heartburn? Am I doomed to a sleepless night of breathing fire every time I eat more than one spicy meat variety?

Am I getting hairier? Now, full disclosure: I’ve always been hairy. But until recently, there were clear-cut stopping points, like a tree line on a mountain. My question now is — is this going to stop? Because the urban sprawl up my triceps and asscheeks is really weighing on my self-image.

Where is my old man strength? I’m a hairy, moley, heartburn-ridden old man, so where in cripes’ sake is my old man strength? Can someone get the lid off these pickles?

Am I at greater risk for injury? Because it sure feels that way. Even in my mid-twenties I could play backyard football or take a digger out drinking with few repercussions. Now, I lift a leg too high ripping a fart, and I’m laid up for a week.

Why don’t I feel 30? The best part about turning 30 is that I don’t feel 30. Minor physical ailments aside, I’m as spry and boyish as ever, while intellectually I’m the same goddamn person. And you know what? I’ll take it. If dick jokes and foul language will keep me from growing into some crusty old asshole, then gimme all the immaturity I can handle. I’ll figure things out when I’m 40.

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