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How Strong is Your Beercabulary?

by Lisa Diggs

July marks Craft Beer Month here in Michigan. The quantity and quality of craft beers continues to grow each year, here in the Great Beer State, leading more and more people want to taste new versions. Unfortunately, in some cases the beer tasting process can be almost as intimidating for some as wine tasting traditionally is. That's why we thought it was a good time to celebrate with a beer vocabulary primer. The more you know, the easier it is to figure out what you like, why you like it, and how to ask for it. Here are some of the most commonly used terms by brewers and beer aficionados alike.

Alcohol By Volume (ABV) – The measure of the amount of space the alcohol in a beer takes up as a percentage of total volume. This is the worldwide standard for measuring the alcohol content in beer.

Ale – Beers fermented with top fermenting yeast. Ales typically are fermented at warmer temperatures than lagers, and are often served warmer.

Barley – The primary malt grain used in the brewing process. It’s also used to make many spirits.

Body – Refers to the thickness of a beer in the mouth; typically full, medium, or thin-bodied.

Boiling – A critical step during the brewing process during which unfermented beer is boiled inside the brew kettle. During this process, one or more hop additions can occur to achieve bittering, hop flavor and hop aroma in the finished beer. Boiling also sterilizes a beer.

Brew – To make beer using the following steps: mashing, lautering, boiling, and fermentation.

Brewpub – A brewery that sells 25% or more of its beer on site, and often also includes food. Their beer is brewed primarily for sale in the restaurant/bar, though it is sometimes for sale in growlers to go.

Cellaring – Storing or aging beer at a controlled temperature to allow maturing.

Color – The hue or shade of a beer, which is typically determined from grains used, though sometimes influenced by fruit or other ingredients in the beer. Beer styles made with caramelized, toasted or roasted malts or grains will exhibit increasingly darker colors. The color of a beer may often, but not always, allow the consumer to anticipate how a beer might taste. It’s important to note that beer color does not equate to alcohol level, mouthfeel or calories in beer.

Craft Beer – In the U.S. this is typically defined as beer produced by a brewery that is designated as small (producing no more than 6 million barrels of beer annually), independent (less than 25 percent of the brewery owned or controlled by an industry member that is not itself a craft brewer), and traditional (majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers are those whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation).

Dry Hopping – The addition of dry hops late in the brewing process to add a hoppy character to the beer without affecting the beer's bitterness.

Esters – Volatile flavor compounds that result from the interaction of organic acids and alcohols during fermentation. They are quite common in ales and contribute to the fruity aroma and flavor of beer.

Fermentation – The chemical conversion of fermentable sugars into approximately equal parts of ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide gas, through the action of yeast. The two basic methods of fermentation in brewing are top fermentation, which produces ales, and bottom fermentation, which produces lagers.

Filtering – Passing beer through a very fine filter that removes any particulates and most of the yeast. Beer must be filtered cold.

Fresh Hopping –Sometimes also known as wet hopping, this term describes the addition of freshly harvested hops that have not yet been dried to different stages of the brewing process. This is only possible during the fall, immediately following the harvest, and adds unique flavors and aromas to beer that are not normally found when using hops that have been dried.

Grist – Ground malt and grains ready for mashing.

Growler – A jug- or pail-like container once used to carry draught beer bought by the measure at the local tavern, brewery or market. Growlers are usually ½ gal (64 oz) in volume and made of glass. Brewpubs, and now even some markets in Michigan serve growlers to sell beer to go. Often a customer will pay a deposit on the growler but can bring it back again and again to be refilled.

Head – Foam on the top of the beer when poured into a glass. Some are light foam, some are thick.

Hops – A cone-like flower grown on a bine, that is responsible for the bitterness in beer. It can also add balance by counteracting the sweetness of malts, and act as a preservative. There are currently more than a hundred varieties of hops grown around the world, including some here in Michigan.

Indian Pale Ale (IPA) – A hoppy beer style within the broader category of pale ale. A double or triple IPA means a higher bitterness level, and typically more alcohol.

International Bittering Unit (IBU) – The scale which measures the amount of bittering substances in beer, often characterized by the amount of hops. The higher the number, the more bitter the beer.

Lager – A lager is any beer that is fermented with bottom-fermenting yeast at colder temperatures. They are most often associated with crisp, clean flavors and are traditionally fermented and served at colder temperatures than ales.

Lautering – A process in brewing beer in which the mash is separated into the clear liquid wort and the residual grain. It usually consists of three steps: mashout, recirculation, and sparging.

Malt – One of the main ingredients of beer, malt is typically barley which has been steeped in water, allowed to germinate, and then heat-dried to stop germination. The type of barley, the level of germination allowed, and the temperature of drying all influence the resulting flavor of the malts. Other cereal grains can also be malted, such as wheat or rye.

Mashing – The process of mixing crushed malt, and possibly other ingredients, with hot water to convert grain starches to fermentable sugars and non-fermentable carbohydrates that will add body, head retention, and other characteristics to the beer. Mashing also extracts colors and flavors that will carry through to the finished beer. Mashing requires several hours and produces a sugar-rich liquid called wort.

Microbrewery – A brewery that produces less than 15,000 barrels of beer per year with 75% or more of its beer sold off-site.

Mouthfeel – The textures one perceives in a beer, which includes carbonation, fullness and aftertaste.

Nitrogen – When used for the carbonation of beer, Nitrogen contributes a thick creamy mouth feel as opposed to carbon dioxide.

Pasteurization – Quick heating of beer to 140-174°F to stabilize and sterilize it.

Session Beer – A category of beers that are marketed for their notably lower alcohol level typically, less than 5% ABV.

Wort – The sweet liquid resulting from the mashing and lautering process while brewing. It is essentially unfermented beer.


Yeast – Unicellular celled organisms of the fungus family that are responsible for converting the sugars contained in wort into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Yeast comes in two major classifications for the making of beer: ale yeast and lager yeast.

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