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Glossary of beer terms


ABV – Short for alcohol by volume, the measure of a beer’s alcohol content as a percentage of the total liquid. It typically ranges from around 5 to 8 percent for most microbrews, compared to 12 to 15 percent for wines, and 40 to 45 percent for hard liquor. The standard measure worldwide, it has become common in the United States with the advent of craft beers, in place of the previously used alcohol by weight – which is a lower number since alcohol is lighter than water (a 5 percent ABV beer is 4 percent ABW).

ADJUNCT – An ingredient used in place of malted barley to provide fermentable sugars in a beer recipe. Cheaper adjuncts like corn and rice, used in mass-produced macrobrews, are generally frowned on by craft brewers, since they contribute little body or flavor. However, many craft beers contain such alternative grains as wheat, oats and rye.

ALE – A beer made with yeast that ferments at warmer temperatures, contributing complex, fruity flavors. Popularized in England, it’s the type of beer commonly produced by craft brewers, in part because it usually takes only a few weeks to make, compared to a month or two for lagers.

12 String beer engine
Twelve String pours its weekly cask-conditioned
beers through a hand pump.

ALPHA ACID – The compound in hops that contributes bitterness to beer. The earlier that hops are added to the boil phase of the brewing process, the more bitterness they produce.

BARREL – A unit of measurement used by brewers; in the United States, one barrel equals 31.5 gallons. Smaller nanobreweries use brewing systems capable of making only a few barrels at a time, while major craft brewers can produce hundreds of barrels in a single brew.

BEER ENGINE – A hand pump used to dispense beer that’s naturally carbonated, such as cask-conditioned ales, without introducing pressurized carbon dioxide like a typical tap would do. That retains the creamier, less carbonated mouthfeel of those beers.

BELGIAN LACE – The foam that sticks to the side of a glass as a beer is drunk. A consistent pattern is considered to be a sign of a quality beer, though lace won’t form properly in a glass that’s not clean.

Selkirk Abbey bombers
Like most smaller microbreweries, Selkirk Abbey
packages beer in 22-ounce bombers.

BOMBER – A 22-ounce bottle of beer. This larger size is favored by craft brewers who can’t afford full-scale bottling operations for 12-ounce bottles, or are packaging beers designed to sell at a higher price per ounce.

BOTTLE CONDITIONING – Adding yeast to beer as it’s bottled to continue fermentation – producing a more natural carbonation and longer shelf life – as opposed to pumping carbon dioxide into the beer before bottling.

BRETT – Short for brettanomyces, a type of yeast that produces the complex, earthy, funky flavors found in many sour beers.

BREWPUB – A restaurant that sells beer made it its own brewery. Similar businesses that sell only beer from other breweries are simply pubs.

CASK CONDITIONING – Allowing unfiltered beer to continue carbonating naturally in sealed containers, resulting in a smoother, more flavorful product. Cask-conditioned ales are usually served at slightly warmer temperatures through a hand pump, not a regular tap, to avoid added carbon dioxide.

CHILL HAZE – Cloudiness caused by the proteins and tannins in beer when served at colder temperatures. It does not affect flavor, and goes away as the beer warms.

CICERONE – A certified beer expert who has gone through a specialized training program, similar to a wine sommelier. There are three levels: certified beer server, certified cicerone and master cicerone.

Laughing Dog firkin
Laughing Dog taps special beers from a smaller firkin.

CRAFT BREWERY – A relatively smaller, independently owned, community-based brewery that makes more flavorful beers using traditional, quality methods and ingredients. According to the Brewers Association definition, a craft brewery cannot make more than 6 million barrels per year; breweries of that size account for about 3 percent of U.S. sales, though many are growing rapidly.

DRY HOPPING – Adding hops to beer later in the brewing process, while it ferments and conditions, to impart aroma and character without increasing bitterness.

FIRKIN – A smaller container, one-fourth the size of a regular beer barrel, used for cask-conditioned beers. It’s tapped by driving a spout into the firkin as it sits horizontally, with the beer flowing naturally by gravity.

Iron Goat fresh hop
Iron Goat brews a variety of
fresh hop beers each September.

FRESH HOP – Sometimes called wet hop, this refers to beers made with freshly harvested hops from the year’s crop each September, which often are brewed the same day the hops are picked.

GRAVITY (SPECIFIC) – A measure of how much dissolved sugars are present in beer as it’s brewed. The difference between the starting (original) gravity and the final gravity when the beer is finished fermenting indicates how much alcohol has been created; the bigger the difference, the stronger the beer. Strong beers often are referred to as “high-gravity.”

IBU – Short for International Bitterness Units, a measure of bitterness based on how much alpha acid is isomerized, or dissolved into the beer. A beer still can have plenty of hop aroma and flavor, but a relatively low IBU, if the hops are added later in the brewing process.

KEG – A standard U.S. keg is a half-barrel, containing 15.5 gallons of beer. Quarter barrel (7.75 gallons) and sixth barrel (5.16 gallons) are other common sizes.

LAGER – A beer made with yeast that ferments at cooler temperatures, producing a cleaner, crisper character compared to ales. Popularized in Germany, it’s the process used for mass-produced American macrobrews; few craft brewers make lagers, largely because of the longer fermentation times involved.

Orlison Brewing lagers
Orlison is one of the few craft breweries focusing on more time-consuming lagers.

LIGHT STRUCK – This is what happens when beer is exposed to light and heat, resulting in a skunky flavor. Brown beer bottles are better at keeping light out, which is why imports packaged in clear or green bottles often have a skunkier character.

MALT – Barley or other grain that has been germinated, then dried and kilned to various degrees; the more the malt is roasted, the stronger flavors and colors it will impart to the beer. The malting process produces more usable sugars and enzymes for fermentation.

NANOBREWERY – A brewery that makes beer in very small quantities. While there’s no official definition, nanobreweries are generally considered to produce no more than three or four barrels of beer at a time.

NITRO TAP – A tap that dispenses beer using a mixture of nitrogen and carbon dioxide, as opposed to the typical straight carbon dioxide. Since nitrogen bubbles are smaller, the beer has a creamier mouthfeel. Guinness and other stouts often are poured this way.

OXIDATION – A chemical process that happens as beer ages, resulting in stale, papery and cardboard-like flavors. Some stronger beers will age well, but most styles don’t.

River City Randall
River City regularly serves flavor-infused
beers through a Randall.

RANDALL – A special tapping system that infuses beer with extra flavors as it’s poured. Originally designed for hops, Randalls are being filled with everything from fruits to coffee beans to wood chips.

SESSION BEER – A lower-alcohol beer that allows for a few bottles or pints in a single “session,” popular in pubs in the United Kingdom and catching on in the United States. Session beers are generally lower than 5 percent alcohol by volume (often much lower in the U.K.), though some breweries apply the label to slightly stronger ones.

SOUR – An increasingly popular type of beer based on traditional Belgian and other European styles. Sour beers typically get their tartness from a wild yeast, brettanomyces, and two types of bacteria, lactobacillus and pediococcus, used alone or in various combinations. Sour beers often are aged for long periods in wine barrels, though some (called “kettle sours”) are soured during the regular brewing process.

WORT – The basic beer liquid produced by steeping malted or other grains in hot water, producing a sugary solution that will ferment into alcohol and carbon dioxide.