You probably know the difference between pale ale and wheat beer—but so do your buddies. And being a beer lover doesn’t limit you to describing color and taste; there’s a whole world behind beer creation and consumption. We turned to Michael Karnowski, author of Homebrew Beyond the Basics, and Joshua M. Bernstein, author of The Complete Beer Course, to enlighten us.
Originally used to describe high-grade marijuana, “dank” is also acceptable to define hops that smell similar to good quality pot. Dank aromas can include pine resin, jet fuel, garlic and onion.
Volatiles are substances that evaporate into the air, explains Karnowski. They’re most often used to describe aromas that dissipate as the beer is aged or (and this is important now) as it sits in the pint glass in front of you. For example, a beer may have a tropical fruit aroma at the start and then volatize off into a citrus scent.
Hops are the female flowers of the hop plant, which contribute bitter and aromatic components to beer. A hophead is one who appreciates the taste and aroma of different hops. “Do I detect a hint of cat urine? Ah, yes—I can tell Simcoe hops were used in the creation of this particular brew.”
Brewers aren’t all manly bearded geniuses. Sometimes the brewing process is rushed, which keeps yeast from naturally reabsorbing after fermentation. In such cases, the organic compound diacetyl can impart a “buttered popcorn” flavor and slick, oily mouthfeel, which is generally considered to be a fault (unless found in certain British ales, where it is expected). Man, it’s good to see words like ‘diacetyl’ put to good use outside the confines of the high school chem lab.
There are loads of good descriptors for hop aroma: citrusy, piney, tropical, dank… wait, dank? Isn’t that the word your red-eyed dealer told you is the reason your last eighth cost so much? Yep. Originally used to describe high-grade marijuana, it’s also acceptable to define hops that smell similar to good quality pot. Dank aromas can include pine resin, jet fuel, garlic and onion.
The most common off-flavor in commercial beer is caused by, you guessed it, oxygen. This degrades the flavor and aroma compounds over time, leading to oxidation descriptors like “paper”, “cardboard”, “sherry”, “mud” or “caramel.” Brewers go to great lengths to minimize oxygen pickup after the start of fermentation, but beer will oxidize and its hop aroma will go stale in as little as a few weeks. So just like you eat all the ice cream when the power goes out, you should also finish that six-pack as your beer’s oxidation date approaches.
This is the hot soup of grain-flavored sugar water created by boiling crushed grains, notes Bernstein. It may resemble oatmeal, but it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet for yeast, and the eventual result is beer. In the words of the great Jesse Pinkman, “Yeah, science, bitch!”
IBUs refer to International Bittering Units, which are measured using a spectrophotometer and solvent extraction (duh). A low IBU (Budweiser, for example hovers around 11 IBUs) means the beer isn’t hoppy. But when the IBUs top triple digits, as in many an India Pale Ale, get ready for your lips to pucker in protest.
To be clear, beer does not “skunk” just because it hits room temperature. After all, it isn’t going from brewery to distro center to retail store to fridge all perfectly chilled. “Skunking” happens when UV light strikes bottles and isohumulones (chemicals which are released when boiled hops break down) create chemical compounds identical to those found in skunk spray. The moral of the story? Never buy beer that’s been sunning in a store’s window.
A barrel is the standard term of measurement for brewing. One barrel equals 31 gallons (or about 330 12 oz. cans). A half-barrel is the standard size of a college party keg. Ah, memories.