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Beer Terms Deciphered

Sometimes it's easy to forget that not everyone is as much of a beer geek as I am. Beer and brewing has its own language that has developed over thousands of years. I thought it would be productive and helpful to those readers that are not yet as enthusiastic as I am about beer, to provide a list of some of the most commonly used terms with a short definition. Some of these can get pretty technical, for instance, here is a brewing science definition for Wort: pronounced wurt:
The liquid obtained when malt enzymes attach a heated aqueous slurry of ground endosperm of malted and unmalted cereal. And here is a layman's definition: the sweet liquid that the brewers gets after adding malted grain and other starches and sugars to warm water, it is called wort up until the yeast it pitched, then it is called beer.  I'll try to keep everything simple. So, in no particular order, my decoded brewing terms:

  • Mash: n. A fermentable mixture of starches and water from which alcohol can be distilled.
                 v. To convert (malt or grains) into a mash (see above).
  • Sparge: To distribute heated water over the grains in a mash in order to wash out the remaining sugars.
  • Trub: pronounced troob: is the haze or flocked protiens and other matter that appears in wort while boiling and cooling. The wort is usually separated from the troob by siphoning before it is fermented. Trub also refers to the thick layer of sediment that settles out after the yeast finish fermenting the beer.
  • Alcohol by Weight (ABW) vs. Alcohol by Volume (ABV): After Prohibition ended, the large American breweries were decidedly skittish about the alcohol content in their beers. Thus, they wanted their beers to seem more modest, so they went with the measurement system that provided the lowest number, which is ABW (because alcohol is lighter than water). Today, most macrobreweries use ABW whereas most craft breweries and pretty much all the foreign breweries use ABV. To give you a rough comparison of the measurements, a beer with 3.2 percent ABW is equal to a beer with about 4 percent ABV (in other words, what's known as "3.2 beer" is really 4-percent-ABV beer).
  • International Bittering Unit (IBU): An IBU is a measure of the actual bitterness of a beer as contributed by the alpha acids from hops. Because the apparent bitterness of a beer is subjective to the taste of the drinker (ie. the balancing malt sweetness of the beer will sometimes mask the bitterness) this is not always an accurate measure of the "hoppiness" of a beer. But, generally speaking, beers with IBUs of less than 20 have little to no apparent hops presence. Beers with IBUs from 20 to 45 are the most common and have mild to pronounced hops presence. Beers with IBUs greater than 45 are heavily hopped and can be quite bitter. They say that humans can only detect differences of 6 IBUs and there is a limit to how much bitterness a beer can hold. So, published IBUs can be quite high even though any more than about 100 IBUs are redundant.
  • Ale: Ales are the oldest kinds of beers. These beers are fermented with yeast that float on or near the top and are often referred to as "top fermented" beers. Ale yeasts typically ferment best at warmer temperatures. All yeast will ferment best at warm temperatures, but some will put out some pretty nasty byproducts we don't want in our beer. Ale yeasts seem to do just fine though and with the warmer fermentations, produce lots of nice fruity esters and spicy phenolics which add a lot of flavor to the beer. Ales generally don't require much aging prior to being released and prior to the Craft Beer movement in the US, weren't very popular.
  • Lager: Lagers are relative newcomers to the beer world, having only been around for the last three hundred years or so. Through natural selection, lager yeasts were the only ones to survive the cold temperatures in Germany and surrounding areas. These yeast ferment very well at cold temperatures and since they are fermenting cold, they don't produce nearly as many fruity esters or phenolics as the ale yeasts do. Lager beers are usually cold conditioned for several months to further smooth out the rough edges of the fermentation and thus when released are super clean tasting beers. Most of the beers you have been drinking throughout your life were probably lagers. Pilseners are the most popular beer style in the world and have been for over a century. The light American lagers that most people drink are very light versions of some of the fuller flavored pilseners. Additional sugars and adjuncts such as corn or rice are added to the barley to make the beer lighter (and unfortunately less flavorful).

Well, there are some of the most common terms you may encounter when reading these or other articles about beer. Hopefully as you become more informed you can read some of the beer labels and be able to decode what the brewery is trying to tell you. Be patient though, as I said before, man has been brewing beer since civilization began and along with it came its own language. Pretty soon you will be able to read beer labels like a pro.

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