Basic Beer Terminology

To truly understand and appreciate craft beer, and to communicate about it with friends and enthusiasts, it helps to know the terminology used in the beer world. Expanding your craft beer vocabulary can help you better understand the differences between different styles and appreciate your beer more. For beer newbies and longtime enthusiasts, this beer glossary covers all the beer jargon, beer terms, and beer descriptors you need to know to enjoy drinking craft beer.

The Basic Ingredients of Craft Beer

There are four basic ingredients used to make beer: malt, hops, yeast and water. Depending on the style of the beer, other ingredients such as grains or even fruits and spices may be added. These are the basics.

Malt: The base grain for all beer, malt is almost always made from barley. (However, wheat is used in addition to barley for particular styles of beer such hefeweizen or wheat beer.) Malt is created by soaking barley in water and allowing it to germinate before drying and kilning it. This process enables the production of enzymes, which, during the brewing process, will convert starch into fermentable sugar. The kilning process can also result in malt with characteristics that impart different flavors and colors in the final product.

Adjuncts: Other un-malted grains or sugars that are added to a beer to create different flavors or colors. Some examples are oats, rye, wheat, rice and corn. Honey and other sugars also fall into this category.

Hops: A green climbing vine that produces a flower in the shape of a green cone. After being harvested, the cones are dried and then used to make beer, lending bitterness and aroma. The aroma differs by variety. Popular varieties of hops in craft beer include: Cascade, Centennial, Amarillo, Chinook, Saaz, Northern Brewer, Willamette, Mt. Hood, Goldings, Tettnang, Fuggles, Northern Brewer and Hallertau.

Ale yeast: A top-fermenting yeast used to make ales. Ale yeast ferments at warmer temperatures (close to room temperature). The many varieties of ale yeast used for different flavors and aromas make it popular among craft brewers.

Lager yeastA bottom-fermenting yeast used to make lager-style beer. Lager yeast ferments best at lower temperatures, such as cellar temperatures that range from 40º to 50º F.

Brettanomyces (aka “Brett”) and wild yeast: A special yeast used to make sour or wild beer. Usually, brewers and winemakers try to prevent this yeast from getting into the beer. However, barrel-aged and sour ales almost always have Brett or another “wild” yeast strain in order to produce the acidity and funky aromas.

Craft Beer by the Numbers

If you look at the side of a bottle of beer from Southern Tier Brewing Company or Rogue Ales, you’ll notice that they list the ingredients as well as some numbers about the beer, some of which might seem cryptic. Here’s what they mean.

ABV: Alcohol by volume. This is a measurement of the amount of alcohol in the beer.

Gravity: The amount of sugar in the beer (or wine for that matter). Original gravity is that measurement before the beer has been fermented. Final gravity is the measurement after fermentation. Alcohol content of the beer can be calculated using the original and final gravities.

º Plato: A measurement of original gravity. This term is used in both the wine and beer worlds.

IBU: International bittering units. Although sensitivity to bitterness will vary from person to person, this is an objective measure of the bitterness of a beer. This number is based on the amount of a natural resin (known as “alpha acids”) in the hops, how much hops are used, and when the hops are added to the beer.

Making Craft Beer

Some breweries will use beer-making terminology to describe certain aspects of their beer. They might even use that terminology in the name of the beer itself. For instance, just after the hop harvest you might see a beer named “Wet-Hopped Ale.” Here’s what those terms mean.

Mash: A product of the brewing process, mash is what occurs when the malt and adjunct grains are steeped in water at a specific temperature, usually around 150º F or more. Steeping the grains activates the enzymes in the malt, which in turn converts the starch in the grains to sugars, a majority of which will be fermented by the yeast.

Wort: The sugary solution that is collected from the mash and then boiled. Beer is called “wort” until it has been fermented, at which point it becomes beer.

Boil: A step in the brewing process when the wort is boiled and hops are added to the brew. Boiling removes certain compounds from the wort, stops the enzymes that were activated during the mash, and sterilizes the wort. The boil typically lasts 60 minutes but can be longer depending on the brewer. For instance, Dogfish Head 90 minute IPA is boiled for 90 minutes.

Bittering hops: Hops that are added to the beginning of the boil, resulting in more bitterness and less aroma in the final product.

Aroma hops: Hops that are added at the end of the boil, producing less bitterness and more aroma in the final product.

Dry-hopped: Refers to the addition of hops after the boil, during transfer to the fermenter, in the fermenter itself, or even after fermentation. This technique adds a lot of hop aroma without adding much more bitterness to the beer.

Wet-hopped (aka “fresh-hopped”): Normally hops are dried before being used to make beer. Wet-hopped beer uses hops that have been freshly harvested and not dried, producing unique flavors and aromas. These beers are produced after the hop harvest in August and September and area usually ready by late September or early October. Drink your wet-hopped beer as fresh as possible.

Fermentation: After the boil, the wort is cooled and transferred to a sterile fermenter, where yeast is added. Yeast eats the fermentable sugars and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide, thus fermenting the beer. Different varieties of yeast can result in different flavors in the beer. A beer made with a Belgian strain of yeast is much different than one made with a Californian strain of yeast.

Conditioning: The process of maturing and carbonating the beer. It is the last step before the beer is ready to drink. Carbonation can be added through natural conditioning in the bottle, cask or conditioning tank. Beer can also be force-carbonated.

Drinking Craft Beer

Beer geeks use a lot of ways to describe the beer they drink. The following are some common beer descriptors that you might hear a beer geek use.

Hoppy: A beer that strongly exhibits the flavor and aroma of hops. Since hops can have many different flavors and aromas, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what somebody means by “hoppy.” Typically, the beer is bitter and smells like citrus, pine resin or flowers. Other popular hop aromas include herbal or earthy.

Malty: A beer that strongly exhibits the qualities of the malt. The flavors and aromas of a malty beer may be described as grainy, barley-like, syrupy, roasty, fresh sweet toasty bread, and cooked sugar. Maltiness is not a measure of the sweetness of a beer because many malty pilsners are not sweet. A beer can be both hoppy and malty.

Head retention: The foam that rests on top of the beer after it has been served. Retention is how long the head lasts in your glass. The head will exhibit aroma attributes of the beer that are not found after the head has died down. For this reason, as well as aesthetic and stylistic reasons, a beer with a good long-lasting head is desirable. Although a vast majority of beer styles call for good head retention, it is not the case for all beer styles.

Mouthfeel: How the beer feels in your mouth. It can range from thin and watery to thick and silky. Most beers are somewhere in between.

Imperial: Beers that are described as “imperial” or “double” are larger versions of the style listed on the beer–not in volume, but in certain characteristics. For example, imperial beers usually have more malt, more alcohol, more sweetness, more bitterness and/or more hops.

Session: The basic idea of a session beer is that you can drink multiples of these beers over the course of an evening without falling off your stool. Some people are adamant that a session beer must have no more than 4% alcohol by volume, but the term is somewhat relative. A session beer could almost be considered the opposite of an imperial.

Beer Vessels

Beer is served from a variety of vessels. The bottle is the most common but even certain types of bottles have their own names.

Bomber: A 22-ounce bottle of beer.

Cask (aka firkin): A barrel-shaped vessel for both conditioning and serving ale. The beer is placed in this vessel, stored at cellar temperatures (48-56ºF), natural carbonation conditions the beer, and then the beer is served at cellar or room temperature (cellar temps are preferred). Casks are either connected to a special tap called a beer engine, or are served directly from a spigot in the cask.

Keg: A large vessel for serving beer on draft. Kegs come in many shapes and sizes. The typical keg is ½ barrel or 15.5 gallons. A pony keg is ¼ barrel or 7.75 gallons. A corny keg is 5 gallons. One gallon of beer yields ten and a half 12 oz. servings.

CanLarge breweries have been using cans for years but craft beer in a can is a recent development. Cans never impart a metallic flavor because all cans are lined with plastic so that the beer never touches metal until you pour it out. Cans are great for beer because the beer is never exposed to light, and cans are more airtight than bottles, preventing oxidation.

GrowlerA big glass jug used to hold beer. Most brewpubs will allow you to buy and refill a growler.


It’s important to know your beer terminology. Here we’ll provide you with a growing list of common beer and brewing terms.
Term Description
Acetaldehyde Green apple aroma, a byproduct of fermentation.
Additive Enzymes, preservatives and antioxidants which are added to simplify the brewing process or prolong shelf life.
Adjunct Fermentable material used as a substitute for traditional grains, to make beer lighter-bodied or cheaper.
Aerobic An organism, such as top fermenting ale yeast, that needs oxygen to metabolize.
Alcohol Ethyl alcohol or ethanol. An intoxicating by-product of fermentation, which is caused by yeast acting on sugars in the malt. Alcohol content is expressed as a percentage of volume or weight.
Alcohol by weight Amount of alcohol in beer measured in terms of the percentage weight of alcohol per volume of beer, i.e., 3.2% alcohol by weights equals 3.2 grams of alcohol per 100 centiliters of beer. (It is approximately 20% less than alcohol by volume.)
Alcohol by volume Amount of alcohol in beer in terms of percentage volume of alcohol per volume of beer.
Alcoholic Warming taste of ethanol and higher alcohol’s.
Ale Beers distinguished by use of top fermenting yeast strains, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The top fermenting yeast perform at warmer temperatures than do yeast’s used to brew lager beer, and their byproducts are more evident in taste and aroma. Fruitiness and esters are often part of an ale’s character.
All-malt A relatively new term in America. “All malt” refers to a beer made exclusively with barley malt and without adjuncts.
Amber Any top or bottom fermented beer having an amber color, that is, between pale and dark.
Anaerobic An organism, such as a bottom-fermenting lager yeast, that is able to metabolize without oxygen present.
Aroma Hops Varieties of hop chosen to impart bouquet. (See Hops)
Astringent A drying, puckering taste; tannic; can be derived from boiling the grains, long mashes, over sparging or sparging with hard water.
Attenuation Extent to which yeast consumes fermentable sugars (converting them into alcohol and carbon dioxide).
Bacterial A general term covering off-flavors such as moldy, musty, woody, lactic acid, vinegar, or microbiological spoilage.
Balling Degrees Scale indicating density of sugars in wort. Devised by C J N Balling.
Barley A cereal grain that is malted for use in the grist that becomes the mash in the brewing of beer.
Barrel A unit of measurement used by brewers in some countries. In Britain, a barrel holds 36 imperial gallons (1 imperial gallon = 4.5 liters), or 1.63 hectoliters. In the United States, a barrel holds 31.5 US gallons (1 US gallon = 3.8 liters), or 1.17 hectoliters.
Beer Name given alcohol-containing beverages produced by fermenting grain, specifically malt, and flavored with hops.
Bitter Bitterness of hops or malt husks; sensation on back of tongue.
Bitterness The perception of a bitter flavor, in beer from iso-alpha-acid in solution (derived from hops). It is measured in International Bitterness Units (IBU).
Black malt Partially malted barley roasted at high temperatures. Black malt gives a dark color and roasted flavor to beer.
Body Thickness and mouth-filling property of a beer described as “full or thin bodied”.
Bottle-conditioning Secondary fermentation and maturation in the bottle, creating complex aromas and flavors.
Bottom-fermenting yeast One of the two types of yeast used in brewing. Bottom-fermenting yeast works well at low temperatures and ferments more sugars leaving a crisp, clean taste and then settles to the bottom of the tank. Also referred to as “lager yeast”.
Brewhouse The collective equipment used to make beer.
Brew Kettle The vessel in which wort from the mash is boiled with hops. Also called a copper.
Brewpub Pub that makes its own beer and sells at least 50% of it on premises. Also known in Britain as a home-brew house and in Germany as a house brewery.
Bright Beer Tank See conditioning tank.
Bung The stopper in the hole in a keg or cask through which the keg or cask is filled and emptied. The hole may also be referred to as a bung or bunghole. Real beer must use a wooden bung.
Butterscotch See diacetyl.
Cabbagelike Aroma and taste of cooked vegetables; often a result of wort spoilage bacteria killed by alcohol in fermentation.
CAMRA The CAMpaign for Real Ale. An organization in England that was founded in 1971 to preserve the production of cask-conditioned beers and ales.
Carbonation Sparkle caused by carbon dioxide, either created during fermentation or injected later.
Caramel A cooked sugar that is used to add color and alcohol content to beer. It is often used in place of more expensive malted barley.
Caramel malt A sweet, coppery-colored malt. Caramel or crystal malt imparts both color and flavor to beer. Caramel malt has a high concentration of unfermentable sugars that sweeten the beer and, contribute to head retention.
Cask A closed, barrel-shaped container for beer. They come in various sizes and are now usually made of metal. The bung in a cask of “Real” beer or ale must be made of wood to allow the pressure to be relived, as the fermentation of the beer, in the cask, continues.
Cask-conditioning Secondary fermentation and maturation in the cask at the point of sale. Creates light carbonation.
Chlorophenolic A plasticlike aroma; caused by chemical combination of chlorine and organic compounds.
Chill haze Cloudiness caused by precipitation of protein-tannin compound at low temperatures, does not affect flavor.
Chill proof Beer treated to allow it to withstand cold temperatures without clouding.
Clovelike Spicy character reminiscent of cloves; characteristic of some wheat beers, or if excessive, may derive from wild yeast.
Conditioning Period of maturation intended to impart “condition” (natural carbonation). Warm conditioning further develops the complex of flavors. Cold conditioning imparts a clean, round taste.
Conditioning Tank A vessel in which beer is placed after primary fermentation where the beer matures, clarifies and, is naturally carbonated through secondary fermentation. Also called bright beer tank, serving tank and, secondary tank.
Contract Beer Beer made by one brewery and then marketed by a company calling itself a brewery. The latter uses the brewing facilities of the former.
Copper See brew kettle.
Decoction Exhaustive system of mashing in which portions of the wort are removed, heated, then returned to the original vessel.
Dextrin The unfermentable carbohydrate produced by the enzymes in barley. It gives the beer flavor, body, and mouthfeel. Lower temperatures produce more dextrin and less sugar. While higher temperatures produce more sugars and less dextrin.
Diacetyl A volatile compound in beer that contributes to a butterscotch flavor, measured in parts per million.
DMS Taste and aroma of sweet corn; results from malt, as a result of the short or weak boil of the wort, slow wort chilling, or bacterial infection. — Dimethyl sulfide, a sulfur compound.
Dosage The addition of yeast and/or sugar to the cask or bottle to aid secondary fermentation.
Draft (Draught) The process of dispensing beer from a bright tank, cask or, keg, by hand pump, pressure from an air pump or, injected carbon dioxide inserted into the beer container prior to sealing.
Dry-hopping The addition of dry hops to fermenting or aging beer to increase its hop character or aroma.
EBC European Brewing Convention. An EBC scale is used to indicate colors in malts and beers.
Enzymes Catalysts that are found naturally in the grain. When heated in mash, they convert the starches of the malted barley into maltose, a sugar used in solution and fermented to make beer.
Ester Volatile flavor compound naturally created in fermentation. Often fruity, flowery or spicy.
Estery Aroma or flavor reminiscent of flowers or fruits.
Fahrenheit (degrees) F = ((Cx9)/( 5) + 32.
Fermentation Conversion of sugars into ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide, through the action of yeast.
Final specific gravity Specific gravity of a beer when fermentation is complete (that is, all fermentable sugars have been fermented).
Fining An aid to clarification: a substance that attracts particles that would otherwise remain suspended in the brew.
Filter The removal of designated impurities by passing the wort through a medium, sometimes made of diatomaceous earth ( made up of the microscopic skeletal remains of marine animals). Yeast in suspension is often targeted for removal.
Fruity/Estery Flavor and aroma of bananas, strawberries, apples, or other fruit; from high temperature fermentation and certain yeast strains.
Grainy Tastes like cereal or raw grain.
Gravity See specific gravity.
Grist Brewers’ term for milled grains, or the combination of milled grains to be used in a particular brew. Derives from the verb to grind. Also sometimes applied to hops.
Hand Pump A device for dispensing draft beer using a pump operated by hand. The use of a hand pump allows the cask-conditioned beer to be served without the use of pressurized carbon dioxide.
Hang Lingering bitterness or harshness.
Hard Cider A fermented beverage made from apples.
Heat Exchanger A mechanical device used to rapidly reduce the temperature of the wort.
Hefe A German word meaning “yeast”. Used mostly in conjunction with wheat (weiss) beers to denote that the beer is bottled or kegged with the yeast in suspension (hefe-weiss). These beers are cloudy, frothy and, very refreshing.
Hogshead Cask holding 54 imperial gallons ( 243 liters ).
Hop back Sieve-like vessel used to strain out the petals of the hop flowers. Known as a hop jack in the United States.
Hops Herb added to boiling wort or fermenting beer to impart a bitter aroma and flavor.
Hoppy Aroma of hops, does not include hop bitterness.
Infusion Simplest form of mash, in which grains are soaked in water. May be at a single temperature, or with upward or (occasionally) downward changes.
IBU International Bitterness units. A system of indicating the hop bitterness in finished beer.
Keg One-half barrel, or 15.5 U. S. gallons. A half keg or, 7.75 U. S. gallons, is referred to as a pony-keg.
Kr�usening The addition of a small proportion of partly fermented wort to a brew during lagering. Stimulates secondary fermentation and imparts a crisp, spritzy character.
Lager Beers produced with bottom fermenting yeast strains, Saccharomyces uvarum (or carlsbergensis) at colder fermentation temperatures than ales. This cooler environment inhibits the natural production of esters and other byproducts, creating a crisper tasting product.
Lagering From the German word for storage. Refers to maturation for several weeks or months at cold temperatures (close to 0�C /32�F) to settle residual yeast, impart carbonation and make for clean round flavors.
Lauter To run the wort from the mash tun. From the German word to clarify. A lauter tun is a separate vessel to do this job. It uses a system of sharp rakes to achieve a very intensive extraction of malt sugars.
Lauter Tun See mash tun.
Length The amount of wort brewed each time the brew house is in operation.
Light-Struck Skunklike smell; from exposure to light.
Liquor The brewer’s word for water used in the brewing process, as included in the mash or, used to sparge the grains after mashing.
Malt (ing) The process by which barley is steeped in water, germinated ,then kilned to convert insoluble starch to soluble substances and sugar. The foundation ingredient of beer.
Malt Extract The condensed wort from a mash, consisting of maltose, dextrins and, other dissolved solids. Either as a syrup or powdered sugar, it is used by brewers, in solutions of water and extract, to reconstitute wort for fermentation.
Malt Liquor A legal term used in the U.S. to designate a fermented beverage of relatively high alcohol content (7%-8% by volume).
Mash (Verb) To release malt sugars by soaking the grains in water. (Noun) The resultant mixture.
Mash Tun A tank where grist is soaked in water and heated in order to convert the starch to sugar and extract the sugars and other solubles from the grist.
Maltose A water soluble, fermentable sugar contained in malt.
Mead Meads are produced by the fermentation of honey, water, yeast and optional ingredients such as fruit, herbs, and/or spices. According to final gravity, they are categorized as: dry (0.996 to 1009); medium (1010 to 1019); or sweet (1020 or higher). Wine, champagne, sherry, mead, ale or lager yeasts may be used.
Medicinal Chemical or phenolic character; can be the result of wild yeast, contact with plastic, or sanitizer residue.
Metallic Tastes tinny, bloodlike or coinlike; may come from bottle caps.
Microbrewery Small brewery generally producing less than 15,000 barrels per year. Sales primarily off premises.
Mouthfeel A sensation derived from the consistency or viscosity of a beer, described, for example as thin or full.
Musty Moldy, mildewy character; can be the result of cork or bacterial infection.
Original gravity A measurement of the density of fermentable sugars in a mixture of malt and water with which a brewer begins a given batch.
Oxidized Stale flavor of wet cardboard, paper, rotten pineapple, or sherry, as a result of oxygen as the beer ages or is exposed to high temperatures.
Pasteurization Heating of beer to 60-79(�C/140-174�F to stabilize it microbiologically. Flash-pasteurization is applied very briefly, for 15-60 seconds by heating the beer as it passes through the pipe. Alternately, the bottled beer can be passed on a conveyor belt through a heated tunnel. This more gradual process takes at least 20 minutes and sometimes much longer.
Phenolic Flavor and aroma of medicine, plastic, Band-Aids, smoke, or cloves; caused by wild yeast or bacteria, or sanitizer residue.
Pitch To add yeast to wort.
Plato, degrees Expresses the specific gravity as the weight of extract in a 100 gram solution at 64�F (17.5�C). Refinement of the Balling scale.
Priming The addition of sugar at the maturation stage to promote a secondary fermentation.
Pub An establishment that serves beer and sometimes other alcoholic beverages for consumption on premise. The term originated in England and is the shortened form of “public house”.
Publican The owner or manager of a pub.
Regional specialty brewery A brewery that produces more than 15,000 barrels of beer annually, with its largest selling product a specialty beer.
Reinheitsgebot “Purity Law” originating in Bavaria in 1516 and now applied to all German brewers making beer for consumption in their own country. It requires that only malted grains, hops, yeast and water may be used in the brewing.
Saccharomyces cerevisiae See Top-fermenting yeast.
Saccharomyces uvarum See Bottom-fermenting yeast.
Saccharomyces carlsbergensis See Bottom-fermenting yeast.
Salty Flavor like table salt; experienced on the side of the tongue.
Secondary fermentation Stage of fermentation occurring in a closed container from several weeks to several months.
Shelf life Describes the number of days a beer will retain it’s peak drinkability. The shelf life for commercially produced beers is usually a maximum of four months.
Solventlike Reminiscent of acetone or lacquer thinner; caused by high fermentation temperatures.
Sour/Acidic Vinegarlike or lemonlike; can be caused by bacterial infection.
Specific gravity A measure of the density of a liquid or solid compared to that of water ((1.000 at 39�F (4�C)).
Sparge To spray grist with hot water in order to remove soluble sugars (maltose). This takes place at the end of the mash.
Squares Brewers’ term for a square fermenting vessel.
Sweet Taste like sugar; experienced on the front of the tongue.
Sulfurlike Reminiscent of rotten eggs or burnt matches; a by-product of some yeast’s.
Tart Taste sensation cause by acidic flavors.
Terminal gravity Synonym for final specific gravity.
Top-fermenting yeast One of the two types of yeast used in brewing. Top-fermenting yeast works better at warmer temperatures and are able to tolerate higher alcohol concentrations than bottom-fermenting yeast. It is unable to ferment some sugars, and results in a fruitier, sweeter beer. Also known as “ale yeast”.
Tun Any large vessels used in brewing. In America, “tub” is often preferred.
Units of bitterness See IBU.
Vinous Reminiscent of wine.
Winy Sherrylike flavor; can be caused by warm fermentation or oxidation in very old beer.
Wort The solution of grain sugars strained from the mash tun. At this stage, regarded as “sweet wort”, later as brewed wort, fermenting wort and finally beer.
Wort Chiller See heat exchanger.
Yeast A micro-organism of the fungus family. Genus Saccharomyces.
Yeasty Yeastlike flavor; a result of yeast in suspension or beer sitting too long on sediment.

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