Craft beer might not be the most arcane passion to pursue — go ask a hardcore audiophile for advice on a new home-stereo setup — but it can still intimidate the newcomer. It shouldn’t. Here are some basic terms to help navigate the seas of IPAs, sours, imperial stouts and more for the first time.
Don’t worry. There won’t be a quiz at the end, except for “Did you like the beer you tried?” By Ian Froeb
ABV: The alcohol by volume of your beverage. This can range from barely buzz-inducing “session” beers (these days, anything below 5 percent) to staggering we-can-brew-it-so-we-should-brew-it creations that push past 20 percent. Most craft beers fall in the 5 to 10 percent range.
Ale: A vast category of different beer styles unified by the fact that they are brewed with top-fermenting yeast. You don’t really need to know this.
Cider: Cider isn’t beer, though it’s often grouped with beer on drink menus and in grocery stores. Some schmoe sidles up to you at the craft-beer bar and starts jabbering about cider? Kindly point him somewhere else.
Glassware: Beer geeks embrace a wide range of different glassware, from narrow cylinders for German kolsch to brandy snifters for high-ABV barrel-aged imperial stouts. A good beer bar will take care of this for you, and you can find sets of different beer glasses for a relatively affordable price. Your main concern: Never accept a beer in a frosted glass (the cold dulls the flavor).
Hops: One of the key ingredients of beer, this aromatic, flavorful flower has come to define the American craft-beer explosion. The best hop varietals, under the hands of the best brewers, impart complex resiny or citrusy flavors and snappy bitterness.
IBU: Or international bitterness units, a measurement frequently printed on beer labels to give some indication of how bitter the beer is. This is best viewed as a useful guideline and isn’t something to worry much about.
Imperial: A loosely defined term that generally signifies a very strong beer.
IPA: Short for India Pale Ale, a classic British beer supercharged by American brewers and the style most representative of the country’s craft-beer renaissance. The best examples — say, Union Jack IPA from Firestone Walker — are exceptionally hoppy but not punishingly so, thanks to a balanced recipe. The worst examples are bruisingly bitter concoctions fit only for masochists.
Lager: A category of beers brewed with bottom-fermenting yeasts (as opposed to ales). Budweiser and many other so-called macrobrews are lagers. The style lends itself to crisp, refreshing beers perfect for the ballpark or apres-yardwork. Craft brewers haven’t neglected lagers. Among the standout examples is Zwickel from St. Louis’ own Urban Chestnut Brewing Co.
Malt: Grain is a key ingredient of beer (with water, hops and yeast), and malted barley is the traditional and the most common grain used. Though not as sexy as hops, the malt bill often makes the difference between a balanced, complex beer and a one-note hop bomb or similar travesty.
Microbrew: A term that refers to a small brewery, based on how many barrels it produces per year. Once synonymous with craft beer, it has since fallen out of favor. Useful for annoying the beer geeks in your life.
Sours: Sourness isn’t a style but a characteristic, but there’s been so much talk about “sours” in the craft-beer world in recent years that a novice could be forgiven for making the mistake. At any rate, sour beers are a world unto themselves, from tart Belgian fruit lambics to salted German goses to American concoctions where how-sour-can-we-make-it? has replaced how-hoppy-can-we-make-it? as a brewing philosophy. Proceed with caution.
Whalez: Also known as rarez. These are beers of such limited release and high demand that acquiring them often requires advance planning, hours-long waits and, sometimes, extralegal purchasing and/or transportation. Sure, these beers can be amazing, but you’re more likely to encounter one by hanging out with fellow beer aficionados and drinking and talking and, you know, enjoying what beer is really about.