Beer 101 – Reading a Label

Beer 101 – Reading a Label

We’ve all been there. Standing in an aisle at some store trying to make a decision. Trying to read the labels. It’s the same with beer. Each time you walk down the beer aisle there is something new, and it feels like it’s getting harder and harder to make up our minds.

Beer is a delicious science full of jargon that can be less than delicious to understand. Strange terms are on every label for every beer you look at, and they’re often dressed up with fancy colors and designs that make it look more appealing. Dressing it up doesn’t always help, but understanding some of the key terms might help make the process of choosing a beer just a little easier.

One of the most important and familiar things you’ll find on your beer will be the ABV or the Alcohol by Volume. This percentage tells you how much alcohol is contained in that bottle or can. It could be something like 4-4.5% for a nice pale lager that you can drink a few of while fishing, or it could be a much stronger 9% Imperial stout that’ll warm you up in front of a campfire.

IBU, or the International Bittering Units, let you know how bitter your beer is. More specifically, it measures the resins, or alpha acids, left in your beer from the hops. This gives a bitter taste like grapefruit or pine to the beer, as well as a chalky mouthfeel as if you just ate a handful of sweet tart candies. IBUs are usually higher in IPAs and other hop-forward brews.

SRM, or Standard Reference Measure, is all about the looks. It gauges the color of your beer, the low end of 0-5 being close to clear and the higher end of 40 being black. This can be very useful to those who prefer a lighter or darker beer but be careful about those Black Lagers and IPAs that are darker in color because of roasted malts. They still carry their style’s characteristics.

Yeast is often hard to become familiar with, but when it comes down to it, you only really need to know two things: lager or ale. Lagers are lighter and crisper in general and are made with lager yeast. This yeast ferments from the bottom of the beer and does it slowly at cold temperatures. Ales have a heavier body and more yeast characteristics or esters. Ale yeast ferments at the top at a much faster rate and a warmer temperature. Lagers are beers such as Pale Lagers, Bocks, Marzens, and Pilsners, while Ales are IPAs, Ambers, Porters, and Stouts.

Gravity is one of the most interesting measurements that is offered on beer labeling. It is a chemistry term that refers to the number of sugars present, or the density of a beer. There are two types of gravity. There is the Original Gravity, OG, which is a measurement before fermentation, and there is the Final Gravity, FG, taken after fermentation. A higher OG often means a higher alcohol content or a stronger beer. Brewers use this number to measure consistency or quality in their beer. It is listed in Brix or Plato, symbolized by °P. Plato can be found more often on labels.

Bottle Conditioned beer is one that is naturally carbonated. Instead of pumping CO2 into the beer before bottling, the brewers add a little sugar to the bottle. This sugar wakes up the dormant yeast that ate the beer’s sugars in the original fermentation. Through the process of consuming the sugars, yeast lets off CO2, which in turn carbonates your beverage. This process can leave behind harmless sediment at the bottom of your bottle. You can include the extra yeast flavors by swirling the bottle before pouring, or you can choose a cleaner flavor by gently pouring, leaving some beer remaining with the sediment.

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