Understanding Beer: Lagers, Ales and Acronyms

Categories: Hops to It!

home_brewing.jpg
Photo by Tim Patterson
Science. Delicious, delicious science.

All right, my little budding beer nerds, it's time to learn the language of beer. Grab a pen; this stuff is important.

Today, we'll be going over the two base styles beer -- lagers and ales -- as well as the acronyms that describe them.

Let's start off with differentiating the only two true mother styles of beer: ales and lagers. Every other style of beer -- pilsners, stouts, IPAs, even barley wines -- can be traced back to these two styles, and it all boils down to yeast and temperature.

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Photo by Michael Styne
Hops: the bitter in beers

Ale yeasts are top-fermenters, which require warmer temperatures to ferment, while lager yeasts brew in colder temperatures. Lager yeast are, unsurprisingly, called bottom-fermenters. The type of yeast also affects how long the beer needs to ferment until it's finished. Ales are faster, needing about two to three weeks to become the beautiful beverage in your glass. Lagers, on the other hand, require about six weeks to get from brewery to bar.

Lagers tend to be lighter in taste with a crisp carbonation, a smooth mouth feel and are overall balanced in flavor and aroma. These are your Pilsners, Bocks, Doppelbocks, Oktoberfests, Dunkels, Helleses, Dortmunders and Rauchbiers. Everything else is an ale.

In contrast, ales can dabble more with hops, outside ingredients, and carbonation levels. They are typically described as taking on more "robust" flavors -- think hoppy IPAs, bold stouts, and malty ambers.

Now that we've categorized our ales and lagers, let's move on to acronyms and numbers. You will always hear about the ABV percentage (Alcohol By Volume) of a beer. I'm sure you know what ABV is, but in case you don't, it basically tells you how much alcohol is in the beer. The higher the number, the more alcohol in the beer. Easy.

The next number is slightly more advanced -- the IBU, or International Bitterness Units. While less commonly seen on bar boards or bottles, this measures the bitterness of your beer. This follows the same concept of the ABV scale: the higher the number, the more bitter the beer. IPAs will generally have the most IBUs, floating around 100. Lighter beers can register anywhere between zero and any arbitrary number, but when it comes to perceived bitterness, it is important to note that there is a more accurate ratio out there known as BU:GU.

The ratio compares Bitterness Units to Gravity Units, which calculate hop bitterness to malt sweetness in the beer. There is math involved so I won't dive too deep into this breakdown.

Simply put, the scale signifies how bitter something tastes, rather than how much (hop) bitterness is actually in the beer. Two beers may have identical IBU metrics, but taste incredibly different depending on how much sugar is left over after fermentation. An IPA and a stout may have the same IBUs, but because the stout has much more malt sugars, it tastes less bitter than the IPA.

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4 comments
Cleo Tobbi
Cleo Tobbi

Thanks for reading! I don't believe I said that hops were purely for bitterness but it is the primary ingredient in beer that tastes bitter. And while I agree with you that hops lend many flavors and aromas to beer, they are not, by any means, the sole ingredient to do so. Depending on when you introduce any ingredient into a batch of beer will determine whether it comes out in taste or aroma. Adding your hops, honey, coffee, fruit, etc. at the beginning of fermentation will bring those flavors out in taste. Adding your ingredients near the end of the brewing process will have them come out in aroma. Keep reading for more beer lessons!

Matt P
Matt P

To call hops the bitterness only is a huge oversight. Hops is by far what gives beer flavor and aroma. Without hops you have cereal-flavored water. Hops lend flavors that are earthy, piney, and floral as well, sometimes with no bitter properties.

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