So you've been trying more beer lately—not just the brands that you see on commercials that tout things like "crisp and cold from a mountain stream!" or "beer for tonight's party, man!" but beers that say things like "double Imperial hopped in a barrel" on their labels. And sure, they taste great, but what the heck do all those words mean?
For a crash course in beer-speak, here are the 10 words you need to know when picking out your next craft beer.
Malts are the sprouted, toasted grains that are the backbone of every beer, and they're responsible for the color of your beer as well as the caramelly, roasted sweetness in its flavor profile. Barley is the most common grain used for malting because it sprouts easily and has a ton of starch.
Adjuncts refer to the supplemental grains and ingredients like oats, rice and corn or honey and sorghum that often appear in specialty beers. Gluten-free beers are prime examples of using non-barley malts and unusual sugars to flavor and color beers.
Hops are technically flower buds, and they're responsible for beer's bitterness and for its intriguing aromas and flavors like florals, citrus, and pine. The fine minds at Brooklyn Brew Shop liken the use of hops in brewing to herbs in cooking, and it's an apt metaphor. Also, "Noble" hops aren't necessarily better than any other hops: the name refers to four European-grown varieties known for their aromatic properties.
Yeast is the stuff that makes beer beer. It eats the sugar that's been extracted from malt and turns it into lovely, carbonated alcohol. Most brewers don't use the same dry yeast you'd pull off the supermarket shelf and throw into your bread recipe — they use special strains of yeast that lend themselves to specific beer styles. (Look at all the yeasts home brewers can choose from at White Labs!) Brettanomyces, or "Brett," is a wild yeast traditionally used in Belgian ales that gives a super funky, earthy flavor to any beer.
Imperial is code for "ooh yeah, this beer's a strong one!" The term comes from a 18th-century Russian Imperial stout brewed for Catherine the Great, but has been generalized by the American craft beer community to denote any beer style with high alcohol content and intense flavor to match. If you see the term double (most often used for IPAs), it means the same thing.
6. Session Beers
On the opposite end of the spectrum, session beers are so-called because their alcohol content is low enough that you can drink a few in a sitting and won't get completely blotto. At 5% ABV or lower, they're perfect for your tailgates, cookouts, or day-drinking sessions — get it?
Dry-hopped beers have hops added after fermentation has finished — it's a technique that intensifies hoppy aroma (but not a beer's bitterness). Wet-hopped beers are less common, because the technique requires fresh hops instead of the typical dried version. Brewers can actually use fresh hops at any point in the brewing process (not just at the end) to add distinctive grassy bitterness to their beer.
Unfiltered beers like Belgian witbiers and German hefeweizens skip the step of removing yeast, proteins, and other sediment from the finished product. They're creamy, cloudy, and hazy in appearance. Many craft brewers intentionally leave all their beers unfiltered, believing that they retain more flavor and body.
Bottle-conditioned beers also end up cloudy as a result of yeast. This is the old-school way of carbonating beer: add more sugar and/or fresh yeast to the beer once it's in the bottle, then closing it up so the yeast will work its magic and fizz the beer up naturally. Beers carbonated this way generally have a more delicate bubbliness than those who get their bubbles from the modern method of dissolving carbon dioxide gas into the beer.
10. Cask Conditioning
Cask conditioning is similar to bottle conditioning and has been going on for centuries in Britain. With cask conditioning, the beer and yeast are stored in a barrel-shaped cask, where the yeast continues to condition and (lightly) carbonate the beer. Beers can be served directly from the cask, and you'll often see cask ale on draft in better beer bars, with bartenders serving from a special hand-pumped beer engine. This method allows the unpasteurized, low-carbonation cask beer to be stored safely and served at the proper temperature—around 52˚F.
What words do you often hear thrown around when talking about beer?