9 basic craft beer terms you should know

New to Michigan’s craft beer scene? Welcome! It can be a little intimidating at first to look at a list of over 50 taps at your local waterhole and not know what kind of beer to order, or what even half of the descriptions mean. Understanding a few basic terms can go a long way in making your craft beer experience even more enjoyable. We are here to help you.

First off, if you’re at a Michigan brewery and have a question about a beer, ask it. The staff at the brewery are generally well trained in the beers they serve and will be happy to guide you. They want you to find a beer that you like. That guy you just sat down with at the bar? He’s probably also a great beer lover and would almost always like to talk about it. The girl you just met with the “Drink Local” t-shirt? She’s your new best friend and beer educator. The beer community is truly a welcoming bunch, so don’t be shy.

These terms are the basis of the basics, and that makes them all the more important to know. These are the building blocks of what makes that liquid in your drink, and some of the most common terms you might find on a beer menu. So read on and get ready to drink better.

Whether it’s a lager or an ale, Michigan is famous for its craft beer options.

Amy Sherman / For MI Brew Trail


This might sound very basic, because you might think that all beer is considered beer, but it isn’t. Beer is divided into two categories, beer and lager. These are not styles, like a porter or a pale ale. The difference between an ale and a lager is determined by the type of yeast used to brew the beer, as well as the temperature and time it takes for the beer to ferment. A beer is made with top-fermented yeast that does its best job in warmer temperatures, between 60 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit. An ale is generally a richer, more fragrant beer. You might notice hints of yeast used in these beers. Most of the craft beers you’ll drink in Michigan are beer. They’re faster to brew and don’t require special cold storage, which means that for most breweries they’re not only more convenient, but also more economical. They are also delicious and incredibly varied in flavor. Everything from IPAs to stouts are usually beers.

Blond beer

Lager beers are kind of a holy grail for brewers in a sense. Brewed with bottom fermentation yeast, they take time and skill to succeed. Not only do you need special refrigeration to bring your beer to the right temperature for fermentation (between 48 and 58 degrees), a lager takes longer to reach perfection. Time equals money in the brewing world, so while light lagers are the kings of the macro beer world, they’re harder to find in smaller breweries, but definitely worth the effort. sought. The beauty of a well-crafted real lager is in the crisp, clean results. With nothing to hide, a lager can show off a brewer’s true talents.


This is the one you really want to watch out for, so you won’t be surprised with a few drinks. ABV stands for alcohol by volume, which will tell you how watered your beer is. If you’re unfamiliar with ABV, a typical mass market beer like a Bud or Miller Lite is around 5% ABV. Craft beers can vary anywhere from a good light beer that can be easy to drink at 3.5%, to great barrel aged beauties that can go up to 12%. The higher the ABV, the faster you will feel good, good, good.

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Session beer

Also in reference to ABV, session beers are the low-alcohol versions of your favorite styles. These could appear at around 4% ABV, for extremely crushable beers. Sometimes affectionately referred to as “lawn mower beers,” these are the ones you can drink all day, while keeping. Growing in popularity, you’ve probably heard of the best session beers like Founder’s All Day IPA and Bell’s Light Hearted. Also discover New Holland Brewing’s new Little Piglet.

High gravity beer

Unlike a session beer, high density beers come with a bit of oomph and should be consumed with caution and control. It is the big dogs, the beers which arrive at very high ABV, like more than 8% approximately. Where does the term “high severity” come from? This reflects part of the brewing process, when the wort (which is the original little mixture of malt and water that cooks to start the beer-making process) gets its measured gravity. Gravity reflects the amount of alcohol that the resulting beer will have, and it is stated in degrees of Plato. A high density beer would have a wort that measures over 14 degrees Plato. It’s a lot of technique, of mumbling mumblings. What you really need to know is that if a beer is labeled high density (and those styles can include Belgian triples, barley wines, or German-style bocks) it will be an alcoholic beast. Sip slowly and savor the rich, deep flavor that these beers typically have.


This one looks simple at first, but gets a bit trickier as you explore different styles. IBU stands for International Bitterness Units and is a chemical way of measuring how bitter a beer can be. Hops, one of the four basic ingredients of beer, determine IBUs and the resulting delicious bitterness. IBUs can operate from a standard macro beer like a Bud Light which goes from a very low level of 6 IBUs to literally infinity. Since everyone’s taste buds are different, IBUs should only be used as a basic guideline. There are many other factors that come into play with the perceived bitterness. A double IPA may be listed as registering 90 IBU, but may taste less bitter than a 55 IBU lager. A good beer is all about balance, and this double IPA makes up for all those hoppy notes with the addition of softer malt. Brewers use IBUs as a technical way to measure where a beer lands on the scale, your personal taste buds will determine how you perceive IBUs.

Malted barley is the main ingredient used in the beer brewing process, after water of course.  Barley is malted and then roasted at different temperatures for different times to create a variety of flavors and characteristics.

Malted barley is the main ingredient used in the beer brewing process, after water of course. Barley is malted and then roasted at different temperatures for different times to create a variety of flavors and characteristics.

LICreate / Getty Images


It is the lifeblood of all beer, literally the basic ingredient right after water. Malt can refer to any roasted grain, from barley to wheat, oats or rye. The malt is dried, then sprinkled with water to induce germination, then roasted. The malt can be roasted to a light golden color for use in lagers, or to a chocolate brown color for use in beers like stouts and porters. When boiled in water, malt creates the sugars and enzymes needed to make beer. Most beers are made from barley, but you will find specific examples of other grains used. Have you ever heard of Bell’s Oberon? This beer is brewed with wheat. The upcoming opening of Nyx Brewery in Grand Rapids will be Michigan’s first gluten-free brewery. They will use grains like amaranth and quinoa to brew their beers.

Hops are an essential part of beer and the fermentation process.

Hops are an essential part of beer and the fermentation process.

Amy Sherman / For MI Brew Trail


Another essential part of a beer, hops combine with water, malt, and yeast to create the fermented liquid we all love. The beautiful green cones of the Humulus lupulus plant create that perfect balance of bitterness to compensate for the base sweetness set by the malt. Hops not only create flavor, they are also the main source of aroma in a beer, an important role to play. The great thing about hops is that there are a thousand different varieties, and each offers completely unique flavor and aroma profiles. You might see things on a beer menu referring to Citra (grapefruit and citrus notes) hops, Chinook (pine), Saaz (classic spice), or my favorite hops, Amarillo (flowery, lemony). Some beers may use only one type of hop, while most receive the addition of more than one variety. Hops can be added at multiple stages of the brewing process, with different results at each stage. If you want to start a conversation at your local brewery, just make hops and you’ll instantly be right in the middle of the action.


Yeast is a cunning wildcard in the brewing process, eating up the sugars in malt and spitting out alcohol and carbon dioxide. Without it, you’d be drinking sad soup. With it you get a sparkling and tasty alcoholic drink. There are two styles of yeast, beer and lager. And just like hops, there are all kinds of different yeasts to use in brewing, and each one gives beer its own unique flavor. If you really want to get into yeast, I recommend grabbing some Belgian-style beers to try, like some of the offerings from Brasserie Vivant. These distinct flavors, like cloves, bananas, and spices, are derived from their use of yeast. We even have a local Michigan yeast culture that is available to Houghton-based craft crop brewers. Owner (and microbiologist) Emily Geiger collects the wild yeast around the UP, then purifies the strain for use in brewing. Stormcloud Brewing, New Holland and Rockford Brewing are just a few that have used their local yeasts in beers.

So there you have it, just some basic information to get you started on your craft beer journey. Good tasting !

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