Happy spring, everyone! This week, I thought I’d give a brief tutorial for those of you who wonder what all the terms and numbers actually mean in the beer experience.
When you grab a crowler or a pint from a local brewery, there will be a description of the beer on the menu.
This tasting guide will describe what flavors to expect, color, alcohol percentage, ingredients, body, hop load, finish and often some more extensive descriptive tidbits to look for in the beer.
When I write a descriptor, I usually talk about the style the beer is based on. This gives the imbiber a basic reference to start from and an opportunity to gather some history if they have interest. Sometimes, I’ll share a short story, if it’s a particularly famous beer or style.
Next comes the color. We brewers work hard to combine ingredients to create an eye-pleasing glass of beer. Is it golden, amber, orange, dark brown, midnight black, purple, red, yellow? The combinations of malt (grains) we use determines the color of the beer. Additional ingredients, such as fruit, can also add to the color. If your eye finds the beer attractive, that is step one. Step two is aroma.
The nose on the beer is very important in the process of getting it in your mouth. Is it fruity, with citrus, tropical, berry, melon, dried fruit? Is it floral, with rose, lily, perfume, lavender? Or sweet, with caramel, honey, chocolate, vanilla, bubblegum, maple? Maybe spicy, with black pepper, white pepper, clove, cinnamon or hot chili pepper? It could be grassy, with fresh mowed lawn, lemongrass, hay; or woody, with pine, cedar, tobacco, oak; or like cereal, with bread, graham cracker, biscuit, toast and even roasted with hints of coffee, smoke or sulfur. The aromas are described for the drinker and allow them to more easily identify them after they smell the beer. This is one of my favorite parts about beer. The aroma, or nose — as with wine — is a huge part of the skill and work in making a beer.
Next in the beer description will be flavor. Is it sweet, sour, bitter, salty, fruity, hoppy? I also mention mouthfeel, which describes the body of the beer: light, medium, or heavy. Then, on to carbonation, high or low? The finish, after you swallow the beer, is also important. Is it dry (the absence of sweet), coating (leaving a lingering aftertaste that may seem slick in the mouth), cloying (syrupy and sweet) or mouthwatering (common in hoppy beers)?
These guideposts allow the drinker to have a strong idea of what to expect.
Ingredients are also key. First the grain, a list of varieties used (there are more than 100 available), then the hops (more than 250 available), then any special additions, such as fruit or spices. And let’s not forget the water! Up here in the Northland, Lake Superior provides some of the very best.
The last part of the description is the numbers.
Alcohol percentage is, of course, very important. Color, listed in SRM (standard reference measure), is a color scale from 0-80, with 0 being clear and 80 being pitch black. An example could be the very tasty and somewhat rare ESB, lighter than brown; the number would be 16-18. (Bent Paddle makes an excellent example.) A light beer like Coors would be 2.5, and North Tower Stout from Earth Rider a very dark 40.
The last number is IBU (international bittering units), a scale to gauge hoppy and bitter flavors on a scale of 0-110. This is a favorite for hop lovers. My go-to standard of excellence, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, comes in at 36 IBU. The beer is dry and balanced, so people feel that it is a more hoppy beer than it seems, but Surly Furious at 90 IBU is all about the hop. White Pine Project IPA from the North Shore’s Castle Danger, at 55, is a well hopped delight.
So, I hope I helped decipher the mysteries of beer descriptions for you.
Be safe. I am so hopeful that by July 4, we may be living a truly new normal with gratitude.
Dave Hoops lives and works in Duluth and is a veteran brewer and beer judge. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.