by Mark Hill
So you like drinking beer, and you’re sophisticated enough to have a few opinions on it. But then you talk to someone who says he only drinks “full-bodied bottle conditioned 120 IBU double IPAs made with Cascadian hops that were harvested under a full moon by men named Howard, for hops are known to respect that name” and you start to feel like you don’t know any more than some frat bro who’s currently vomiting up last night’s keg stand.
But don’t worry! That guy’s just being a pretentious douche. Beer can seem overwhelming if you see a menu with 500 different craft beers that use enough terms to fill a small dictionary, but most of the vocabulary is actually pretty simple when it’s not being shotgunned at you by some dude whose skin is made of actual flannel. Let us teach you the language so you can talk about beer responsibly.
After the article, watch Brian and Jason sit down with The Beerists in their video "Understanding Beer".
Ales and Lagers
Beer has three ingredients: water, grain, and yeast. Then, to make it not taste like something a desperate medieval peasant would use as a witchcraft test, you need an additive, usually hops, for flavor. Pretty much every beer that you’ll encounter is either an ale or a lager, so if you hear someone say “I love ales, but I can’t stand lagers,” that’s like saying “I love vanilla ice cream, but I can’t stand French vanilla.”
"CHUG! CHUG! CHUG! CHUG! CHUG!"
The difference is in the kind of yeast that’s used. Ales generally end up darker colored, and have a stronger smell and flavor. Lagers are lighter and more laid-back. Those differences are just generalities though, like how dark and milk chocolate can both be made dozens of different ways, but both will kill your dog. But there are a few kinds of beers you’ll see most commonly, starting with …
Pale lagers are what most people picture when they hear “beer.” It’s what people drink in movies and at football games. Budweiser, Heineken, and many more of the world’s biggest brands are all pale lagers. They’re very light, without much of a kick in either flavor or alcohol content. Snobs love to hate them for being bland, but that’s the idea -- they’re something cold you can drink on a hot summer afternoon. You’ll feel refreshed, but you won’t want to call it a day or suddenly feel the urge to text your ex and swear that things can be different. They tend to have around 4.5% to 5% alcohol by volume, or ABV. The larger a beer’s ABV, the fewer of them it will take to get you tipsy, so they’re a good baseline for judging your alcohol tolerance.
Pfft. Freakin' snobs.
Pilsners are pale lagers with a little more oomph to them. They’re still pretty light and easy-drinking, but they’ve got more flavour, more bitterness, and a little more alcohol. Beer elitists can be sharply divided between whether they’re subtle or just boring, but if they work for you, they work for you. Perhaps the single most important fact about beer is that it’s basically just liquified yeast poop, which helps you remember not to get too judgmental about what yeast poop other people prefer.
If it’s got a German name and looks like a glass of frosty molasses, it’s probably a dark lager. Ranging in color from red to brown to the interior of a black hole, dark lagers often have distinct flavors like chocolate, coffee and licorice. That gives them a much bolder flavor than other lagers, but they’re not too bitter or high in ABV, so they’re still easy drinking if you like the taste. Some beer snobs swear by dark lagers just because they’re commonly associated with Germany, but you’re not inherently more cultured just because you know that Germans, gasp, make beer, so don’t feel bad if you’ve tried a few and don’t like the tastes.
The original version of Cinderella was ... weird.
If pale lagers are what you can expect to see from most multinational breweries, pale ales are the standard for small craft breweries, especially if they have a dumb pun name like “Hop Notch.” They’re also pretty easy drinking, but they have stronger flavors and, most noticeably, they’re bitter thanks to their increased use of hops. If you’re intimidated by the world of craft beer, this is the place to start. And then, if they agree with your palate, you might be ready for …
India Pale Ales
India Pale Ales, or IPAs, can inspire the beer snob equivalent of sectarian violence. Some people, often ones with abnormally-shaped mustaches, consider them to be the One True Beer, while others would rather drink aftershave mixed with varnish. The divide is caused by their incredible bitterness, which can overpower an unprepared drinker. They’re an acquired taste, but don’t feel the need to acquire it just because that guy who can rattle off the names of more microbreweries than friends swears by them. They’re often a love or hate thing, like the cilantro of beer. They also tend to have a higher ABV because their bitterness cancels out the burn of alcohol -- 7% is average, and they can go into the double digits -- so take these suckers slow.
"WHO LET DAD START A TAB?!"
Oh, and if you’re wondering why India gets their own special kind of beer, the name comes from colonial days, when hops, which double as a preservative, were added to beer in massive quantities so they’d survive long voyages. To beer snobs, this is somehow colonialism’s most divisive legacy, but for you it can come in handy on multiple levels at pub trivia night.
If pale ales and lagers are like munching on snacks over the course of a summer evening, stouts are the equivalent of eating a steak dinner while watching a snowstorm slowly engulf your house. Their ABV can be anywhere from 4% to 13%, and they’re heavy beers, meaning the average person is going to feel full after a couple. They’re not bitter like other ales, but they do have strong, creamy flavors and, like dark lagers, can often have hints (or dropkicks) of chocolate, coffee and their ilk. Snobs and some breweries like to play them up as beers for manly men who can barely get them in their mouths through their Civil War beards, but don’t let the marketing sucker you into proving yourself. While they can be delicious, they’re very much a drink you have to be in the mood for. All this also applies to Porters (the beer, not the people who carry you’re luggage, they’re cool), which are technically different from Stouts, but only in ways that are suited for a more advanced beer education. But we do totally know.
Yeah, that was definitely a stout.
Wheat beers have a unique ingredient, and you only get three guesses as to what it is. They’re distinct in that they can be lagers or ales, but they’re usually the latter. They have a variety of their own subcategories, like Wits and Hefeweizens, but they all tend to be a cloudy orange-ish or whiteish, and they’re usually flavored with fruits like oranges and grapefruits, or spices like cloves. They’re the least bitter beers out there, so they’re a good alternative if you want additional flavor but don’t like pale ales. Many wheat beers use cartoon oranges in their branding to the point where we suspect it might be illegal to do otherwise, which can make them easy to spot.
There are many, many more beers out there. Some are self-explanatory -- you can probably guess what a sour ale tastes like -- while others, like Gruit, sound more like a rejected comic book character. But we’ve covered the types you’re most likely to encounter, which leaves us with a few simple terms you’ll hear used to describe the taste of beer.
Rainbows. They taste like rainbows and horses.
A session beer is any beer with a low alcohol content -- generally around 3% or less -- that’s meant to be consumed over … uh… what’s the word … a long period of time. Basically, if you want to enjoy the taste of beer all Saturday afternoon, but still want to be functional on Saturday night, look for a session beer. They have a polar opposite in …
Strong beers start at around 8% and can get as high as 17%, which is like drinking a box of Art Student’s Choice Wine. IPAs will often call themselves Double or Triple IPAs instead of strong, because they just have to be special. You should drink these over a longer period of time for an entirely different reason: they’ll knock you flat on your ass if you aren’t careful. Their strong flavors mask their alcohol content, so be careful; you might not realize they’re hitting you until you’re trying to teach your dog to play Mario Kart. But that strong flavor can also be what makes them appealing, so don’t be afraid to try them! Just remember that they’re more than capable of reminding you that you’re not 18 anymore. If you are 18, well, don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Also, don't drink beer if you're 18. Unless you live in a place where that's legal. Then totally drink beer at 18.
"Wait, I'm starting to doubt the validity of this person's ID."
Craft breweries are smaller, independent breweries whose beer is generally only distributed locally: America alone has thousands. They’re often experimental with their flavors, sometimes to great results and sometimes to results that will make you want to quit drinking ... not just beer, but all fluids. When someone keeps telling you that they love craft beers, what they’re really saying is that they don’t drink any mainstream beers. And while it’s great to support local businesses, that’s kind of like being the guy who goes out of his way to tell you that he only watches foreign films, using a projector instead of a TV.
Malting is the process that turns the grains used to make beer (usually barley) into malt. The short version is that the grains are soaked so they can germinate, then roasted (with heat, not with insinuations about the grains’ mothers), which leaves it at a point where it can ferment. The more heat the grains are exposed to, the darker the beer ends up being. When someone says that a beer tastes malty, they’re talking about the flavors that tend to be produced by darker beer that had a stronger malting process: toffee, caramel, nuts, bread. It has nothing to do with the island of Malta, but you could probably trick people into thinking that if you’re confident enough.
"You know, Mickey's was invented by Malt Disney."
When someone talks about how hoppy a beer is, they’re commenting on how bitter it is. The six people still reading this article will remember that there’s a correlation between hops and bitterness. You’ll hear hops discussed far more often than malt, and some microbreweries are locked in an arms race to produce beers so bitter that they could permanently pucker someone’s face, just so the snobs can claim they’ve had one and loved it.
International Bittering Units, or IBUs, are a scientific measurement of a beer’s bitterness, although the scale is a little subjective. 0 IBUs is like drinking water, 120 is like having a pound of kale coated in ginger shoved in your mouth. Most beers don’t top 60ish unless they’re really trying to. Some bars and breweries will print the IBUs of their beers, and some people love to talk about the high IBU beers they’ve had, like guys who think that having a shelf of ultra-hot hot sauces is a substitute for a personality. But the kind of beer will tell you far more about what you’re getting into than a number. Just consider it a warning sign if you don’t like bitter beers.
"Dear God, I can taste it in my EYES!"
Congratulations! You now know enough to hold your own in any beer-based conversation. Just remember: unless someone’s preferences are “chugging a 12 pack of Milwaukee’s Best at home alone on a Tuesday afternoon,” there are no wrong answers, only personal tastes. Understand that and, regardless of how much you know, you’ll be a more pleasant person to talk beer with than some elitist who will rattle off the scent profile of every European strain of hops while you’re just trying to unwind.
If you liked this article, check out "The Weirdest Products That Scammers Have Counterfeited" and "5 Ways Your Brain Is Hard-Wired To Scare The Crap Out Of You".