The days when you could pick up a bottle of beer and know immediately what it was all about are largely over, unless you’re still drinking Big Beer, of course. These days, you’re likely to encounter a wide range of strange and even bizarre terms on the bottles you buy. Knowing what those various terms mean will make the difference between an enjoyable brew and a rather unpleasant surprise. So, what do some of the more common terms mean, and how do they apply to the craft beer lover? Let’s go over a few.
Know the Rules First
First and foremost, it’s generally considered best practice to know what a particular style is all about before you start branching out into variations. For instance, you should know what a standard IPA should taste like before you jump into a white, black or Belgian one, or a triple-hopped variety. You should know if stout is your thing before you pick up a bottle of imperial stout with chocolate and chicory. You should know what… Well, you get the idea.
Get the basics down first. If you’re new to craft beer, try to limit the majority of your exploration to standard styles. That’s not to say you can’t indulge your taste for adventure, but understand that you may not really be able to appreciate what a particular brewer brings to the table with their variant if you don’t know what the style’s about to begin with.
So, hone your palate. Explore the basic styles. Get to know the craft beer world. Then branch out. Now, let’s talk about some of those terms.
You see this one a lot these days, although not as much as you might have a couple of years back when stouts were really en vogue (they’re still popular, but IPAs and session beers have eclipsed them). Imperial can mean different things depending on the brewery and the style of beer in question.
Originally, it was applied to beer brewed for the courts of the Russian Czar (thus, the imperial moniker). Then it became a designation for luxury or high-end beers. There are still a handful of breweries that use the word in this sense today. For instance, Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout is brewed in the traditional manner, so it’s not what you might expect if you’ve tried a lot of American imperial brews. Today, it’s changed yet again.
Most imperial brews are bolder, stronger versions of a particular style, and you’ll find imperial stouts, porters, IPAs (which are sometimes called doubles rather than imperials), and a great deal more. It’s become a term that can be applied to almost anything if it’s been amped up. In terms of alcohol content, imperial style beers generally fall between 8 and 12% ABV but that varies a great deal.
Saison is French, and it means seasonal. Saison style beers are farmhouse brews. They generally aren’t as clear as some other styles, staying truer to their homebrew roots. ABV can vary massively here, ranging from session/table styles to potent brews that will really knock your socks off. Some saisons have a Belgian influence, which is noticeable in the earthy/fruity/yeasty taste.
Since we mentioned session beers, it’s worth digging into what this particular style has to offer. Really, the name does say it all. They’re low ABV beers designed so that you can have more than one or two without getting drunk (session, get it?). You’ll find them available from a growing number of breweries, both on tap and in bottles/cans.
Dry hopped beers have become very popular in the past couple of years, but what does that actually mean? Dry hopping doesn’t have anything to do with moisture content. It’s more about when the hops are added to the brew. In the regular hopping method, they’re added during the boil. This releases their natural bittering agents and depending on when you add them to the boil, the amount of flavor, aroma and bitterness can be controlled. Dry hopping is performed in addition to regular hopping, not instead of and it’s done because of what happens when you don’t boil your hops first. Rather than adding more bitterness, it lends more taste and aroma to the beer. Depending on the variety in question, you might get grassy notes, floral scents, citrus flavors or something completely different.
This one sounds a little confusing, and it might make you think that the beer has been aged in the bottle before release. That’s not the case. Bottle conditioning simply refers to the process of carbonation. Some beers are carbonated using artificial methods and then bottling. In this process, sugar and yeast do the work right in the bottle. Breweries have to get the dose of additional sugar just right, though. Otherwise, the bottle can become over pressurized (which is very dangerous).
While some breweries put this on their labels, you won’t find it everywhere (although it would be really nice if they all did it so you knew exactly what you were getting). IBU stands for International Bitterness Units. It’s accompanied by a number that tells you how many parts per million for isomerized alpha acid from hops. Essentially, it tells you how bitter the beer should be, but not necessarily how bitter it will be on your tongue. The higher the number, the more bitter or hoppier the beer is. Don’t let this number fool you. A beer with an IBU of 50 can be much bitterer than a beer with an IBU of 75. It’s more about the sweetness of the beer, the ABV and the adjuncts used in the brewing.
These are just a few of the many terms you’ll encounter on bottle labels from today’s craft brewers. There are many others and given the inventiveness and dedication to innovation in America’s small breweries today, there are likely to be many new ones added in the not so distant future.
Have you encountered any terms that cause confusion? What have been some of your most eye opening, “aha!” moments when it comes to beer and bottle terminology?