Beer- A Language We Can All Understand

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We have all been there, you walk into a new restaurant and take a look at their menu. Sometimes the menu is simplistic and easy to follow. Other times the menu is huge and you question do they really need everything on here. You become frustrated because the descriptions are long and you are increasingly becoming hungry and it is going to take you twenty minutes just to read the novel in front of you. You were excited to try something new, but alas your frustration turned into a hanger moment and you just picked the first recognizable thing on the menu. Does this sound familiar to you? Well, it certainly does to me. I am not going to lie to you. I am a talker. I am sure from reading some of my past articles you may have picked up on how detailed I can be. However, there are such things as too many details. If you ever saw the show “Kitchen Nightmares” Chef Gordon Ramsey often would take a look at the menu and completely rewrite it and simplify the descriptions. There is a reason for this. Introductions are important. You can have the coolest looking spot in town. Not only is it the cool place to be, it could have the best of the best in food and beverage; but… your menu is too confusing and now this really awesome place has turned away great people like you and me because we feel out of place or are frustrated by the options. This is where make or break would come into play. You walk in everything looks amazing. You are happy. Now the menu is frustrating and you are annoyed. Now the worst thing could happen, what you ordered does not meet your standard. Your two final impressions are of frustration and disappointment. It will be a while before you return if you do at all. This is just your foodie side. The thing about beer menus is that they are a foreign language if you are not fluent in beer. {{more}}

I remember entering the craft beer world. I was so lost. I had the notion that it is beer, everyone knows beer so how hard can it be? I remember the first craft brewery I ever went to. It was the opening day at Beer Naked Brewery. Everything was shiny and new. The atmosphere was amazing. I loved everything I saw. Then came the menu…. Dun, Dun, Dun… Oh, the menu… Let me just say the menu in this location is actually easy to navigate with a mix of their brews and a few local guest options as well. I however was very naive and had no idea at the time how much went into craft beer. Jason the owner and brewer saw me sitting at the bar looking like a lost puppy. He was able to help me find a beer I enjoyed. He was the one who gave me the introduction to craft beer I needed. But even after that when I started to explore more breweries I quickly learned the menu was going to be my struggle. I didn’t understand the lingo. Most brewers didn’t have the time to stop and talk with me about the menu and help guide me. Some staff would be bouncing from person to person unable to assist.

I started to feel defeat. I was beginning to think that beer is a foreign land. You either understand it or you don’t. As someone who studied many languages and cultures in her lifetime, I was determined to crack the code. This is when I had the realization I was going about this all wrong. Beer is not just a beverage. It is a culture. It has a language. And depending on where you are the beverage will vary even if it is similar. Great examples, take a look at hand pies also known as empanadas, pasties, and piroshki. All are savory hand pies with their own personal cultural twist and language. Beer is no different. Beer is a worldwide beverage with many cultural twists and turns. This was the first time beer was speaking a language I could understand.

From the atmosphere of the brewery to the art on your cans of beer to the very last drop in a keg. Beer is telling you a story. Beer is providing you with a cultural experience and history. Once I understood that it was time to speak the language.

I continued visiting various breweries in my community. I would bring a notebook with me. Sounds corny I know. But it is true. I would order a random beer. I decided instead of focusing on the words I didn’t understand in the description I would focus more on the ones I did. I can understand Chocolate, Raspberry, Bitter, and Sour. This helped me select various beers from various categories. There’s that word again. Remember from my article “Ale for One and Ale for All” There are seven categories of beer. Many styles can overlap into other categories depending on how it is brewed. Well, this is how I discovered this. I would select a beer that sounded yummy or sound like one I had in the past and it would look and feel completely different. I would write this in my notebook. I would also write down the description so that I could compare notes later. Another odd thing I started doing during my study, as I took notice to the people within the brewery. I can tell who knows their beer well vs a newbie like me. But I would take notes on some of the lingo the staff was using and the patrons. I sound like a stalker I know. But more like an anthropologist conducting a study.

This all assisted me in the creation of Country Brew Tours, I wanted to be able to conduct a brew tour for the beer lover and the nonbeer drinker alike. In order to do so, I needed to understand the culture to its fullest. I already had the advantage of being a newbie myself. And just as I write, my goal is to immerse you into the culture at its fullest. So maybe I could have Googled most of this, and yes I did a lot of research at home. But my notes helped guide me on what I should be researching and the steps I should take.

There are a lot of beer terms to decode. There are also many beer terms that have kept their origins from Europe. A seasoned beer drinking is going to be familiar with the terms, but they might not know the full meaning or origin behind it. A connoisseur brewer will. But a newbie is going to wonder who, what, when, where, and WHY???

In my last couple of articles, I have provided you with a briefing on beer terminology. I have provided you with some history of craft beer in America. I have also shared how to pair and sip your craft beer. I have not told you how to select a beer. Knowing the categories is great, but now it is time to help you navigate the beer menu. Beer gardens are open and with that, you now have the time to try various styles of beer. So, let’s crack the beer code. I will start with the easier one to decrypt and work my way up.

I have spoken a bit on ABV, alcohol by volume, in past articles. You may come across other acronyms like IBU and SRM. IBU, means International Bitterness Units. WHAT? So in short, IBU is measuring the hop bitterness. They measure bitters from 0-100. If you read “Ale for One and Ale for All” you might recall I spoke about HOPS. There are hops for bitters and then there are aroma hops. This is how you can have a malty beer with hops for example. To break this down in a short version. IPA (Indian Pale Ale) can have IBU in the 70s. Some of your big rich, malty beers can have IBU in the 50s. If you are not a fan of that bitter flavor in your beer. Pay attention to the IBU.

SRM, or Standard Reference Method, refers to the color your beer is in your glass. This acronym is not on every menu, but it does show up. Basically in short the higher the number the darker the beer. Keep in mind the darker the beer doesn’t necessarily depict the flavor. Please do not be afraid of your dark brews. They are tasty. Anyways. I promise I will break down these terms a bit more for you at a later time. For now, I want to get more into the root cause of beer menu chaos.

There are classic beer terms that brewers enjoy using. These terms are difficult to decipher at times. These terms cause a newbie to ponder. Brewers like to use classic terms to hold onto the history of the brew. Although some might be doing so for giggles. I am not clear on this. What I am clear on, is that just as brewing is an art, naming their work is also an artform all be it often for a newbie it can be confusing.

You may have seen on a menu or two Humulus Lupulus. Hum, Lup what? Humulus Lupulus is a plant. This fragrant, flavorful, and often bitter plant is more commonly known as hops. Breweries have been known for using words like Humulus, Lupuls, and Lupulin when describing and naming their brew. Most have stuck with IPA at this point. But if you see words like these, remember the hop plant. If you are not into bitters you are going to want to take a look at the IBU on brews like this.

Most commonly you are going to have brewers sticking to the German roots when naming their brews. This is great if you speak German or better yet speak beer. For example hefeweizen, you see this term at many breweries. But did you know that this is not just the name of a style of beer? It actually can give you an insight into the type of beer you are drinking. In German Hefe means “yeast” and Weizen translates to mean “wheat”.

Knowing these terms should assist you in understanding other types of beers when you see a beer list containing these as the root word. Other German terms that you may come across are dopple meaning double. Rauch meaning smoked and Dunkel meaning dark. For a good example, you have probably seen “Dunkelweizen” on a beer menu or two. Now that you understand Dunkel means dark and Weizen means wheat; when you see Dunkelweizen you should understand that this is going to be a dark wheat beer.

Frogg Brewery is a local brewery that combines the heritage of the brew and its brand when naming their brews. They do a fantastic job of decoding their brews in their descriptions. Making it a lot easier for a newbie to navigate the brew. Their Leap Dunkelweizen when it was on the menu was described in the description as a dark wheat beer. They also included the ABV as 8.5% and the IBU as 15 indicating this was going to be more on the malty side than the bitter side. This is all without understanding the name itself explained exactly what this brew was going to. As a great example. Some brewers name the brew and then speak on the notes within the brew assuming that those consuming the beverage are fluent in beer. My hope is after this article you will be able to understand the language of beer better.

Beer speaks many languages creating its very own language. Take a look at the English language. American English is very different from Britten English as an example. Even within the USA Southern English sounds completely different from the northern parts of the country. This is because language is developed by our culture. The United States has roots from Spain, France, and England, and much more. Naturally, our language would be made of a melting pot. Even other countries have this. Russia as an example has a Slovic alphabet. To someone not familiar with the language it might be shocking to know that although the background for Russian is not Latin as English is, yet, Russian has many vocabulary words with French influence. A fantastic example for you. Hotel, you know this word. The word hotel is derived from the French (Hôtel). Care to give a guess on the French meaning of the word. Yep, it’s the same meaning. Well in Russian отель or with an English alphabet translation “otel” sounds an awful lot like Hotel. “Otel” means hotel and also shares that French influence. I am only taking a moment to explain language and origins to you because in order to be fluent in beer you need to have an understanding that a worldwide beverage is going to have influences from all over the place.

Belgium style beer has a lot of French behind it. Belgium style beer is just as popular as German beer. Belgium is a tiny country in Europe that borders both France and Germany. It is natural that their beer would take influence from both countries. Saison beer also known as Farmhouse Ale is a dry fruity beer. This style of beer originated in the French-speaking region of Belgium. In French Saison means season. This style got its name because originally this style of beer was brewed just once a year. But I can get into this more at a later time. For now, I hope that this helps you the next time you are in the brewery ordering your beers.

As the beer gardens and patios come to life; we hope that you enjoy the open outdoor spaces. Remember to be safe and respectful of your neighbors. I hope that this gives you more insight on the wonderful world of craft beer and its culture.

Till next time friends.


Sarah E. Blair

Like what Sarah writes about? Check out her company, Country Brew Tours!

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