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Beer Descriptors

Because beer is widely available in a variety of different styles, describing it isn’t as easy as it used to be. Knowing a handful of colorful beer descriptors comes in handy when discussing beer with others. Here’s a sample list to get you started:

·         Aggressive: Boldly assertive aroma and/or taste

·         Balanced: Malt and hops in similar proportions; equal representation of malt sweetness and

             hop bitterness in the flavor — especially at the finish

·         Complex: Multidimensional; many flavors and sensations on the palate

·         Crisp: Highly carbonated; effervescent

·         Diacetyl: Buttery or butterscotchy aroma or flavor

·         Estery: Fruity aromas

·         Floral: Full of aromas reminiscent of flowers

·         Fruity: Flavors reminiscent of various fruits

·         Hoppy: Herbal, earthy, spicy, or citric aromas and flavors of hops

·         Malty: Grainy, caramel-like; can be sweet or dry

·         Roasty/toasty: Malt (roasted grain) flavors

·         Robust: Rich and full-bodied

The following are two other terms commonly used to describe a beer, but they don’t describe taste:

·         Mouthfeel is the tactile sensory experience of the whole inside of the mouth and throat

              warmth (alcohol) in the throat, dryness, carbonation, and so on — and includes a

              sense of body.

·         Body describes the sensation of fullness, or viscosity, of a beer on the palate, ranging from

               watery to creamy; beer is generally described as thin-, light-, medium-, or full-bodied.




There are over 100 varieties of beer, and every one of them falls within 1 of 2 camps Ales and Lagers. (which do not describe color, strength or flavor),  but by the type of yeast:



Ale yeast gathers and ferments at the top (hence, “top fermented”) of the vessel, at a high temperature so the yeast acts quickly. Some finish fermenting in less than 2 weeks. Ales are rich and complex, with more yeast-derived flavors than lagers.

Pale Ale – Whether American or English, the “pale” was clipped on long ago to distinguish it from the dark color of Porters. American and English styles differ, but generally they are gold or copper colored and dry with crisp hop flavor.

India Pale Ale (IPA) – Pale ale with intense hop flavor and aroma and slightly higher alcohol content.

Brown Ale – These distinctively northern English style ales have a strong, malty center and can be nutty, sweet and very lightly hopped. They are medium bodied and the name matches the color of the ale.

Stout (Guinness and Murphy’s are dry Irish stouts) – Thick, black opaque and rich. Stouts draw their flavor and color from roasted barley.  They often taste of malt and caramel, with little to no hop aroma or flavor.

Porter – Very similar to stout but made from, or largely from, unroasted barley. Sweet and dark brown in color with hints of chocolate and a sometimes-sharp bitterness.

Wheat Beer – Germans take their beer very seriously, so much that it is required by law to use top-fermenting yeast in wheat beer. It must be made from at least 50% wheat malt. Wheat proteins contribute to a hazy, or cloudy appearance and are commonly unfiltered, leaving yeast sediment in the bottle. They are light colored, full flavored and the unique yeast strains produce flavors like banana, clove and vanilla.

Hefeweisen – The most commercially successful type of wheat beer. In the US they are regularly served with a lemon wedge to cut the intense yeast flavor.



Lager yeast sinks to the bottom of the vessel and ferments at a colder temperature than ale yeast, slowing the process down. At a colder temperature, bottom-fermenting yeast produces fewer “esters” (flavor compounds, basically). This creates a mild, crisp and clean tasting beer. Lager is the German word meaning “to store”. Lagering softens flavors and texture.

American Lagers – this can be a sore subject for beer enthusiasts in the home of the brave. Before prohibition the US was respected in the world of brewed libations. Small breweries were all but extinct by the end of prohibition and the large ones kept their heads above water by selling cereal malts.  The 21st amendment repealed the 18th but brewers were slow to pick up production. World War II dealt another heavy blow to the industry – food shortages resulted in the increased use of adjuncts for malt.

Adjuncts are fermentable material used to make lighter beer, for cheaper, in substitute of grains. The 3 largest brewing companies (still largest today) took control of the nation’s reputation for beer, as well as the majority of domestic marketing and production.  Budweiser, Coors, Miller, Michelob, Pabst and the rest are popular because they are affordable, mild, refreshing and considered “smooth”. The elitists in beerdom are quick to dismiss these but every style has its own appeal and audience. Much of the criticism sprouts from corporate distrust and lack of variation between the biggest brands. Some other Pale Lagers, similar to American Lagers are Heineken, Corona and Foster’s. The flavor profiles of other recognizable, mainly German derived, lager types are more defined:

Amber/Red Lager (Yuengling, Killian’s, Brooklyn Lager) – More malt and darker than their lighter lager relatives, usually amber to copper colored. Flavor profiles vary considerably between breweries. Nine times out of ten when a beer label says no more than “Lager” it is an amber.

Pilsner (Beck’s, Labatt Blue, Warsteiner, Pilsner Urquell) – Conceived in Czechoslovakia, easily the world’s most popular beer style. Pilsners are pale, straw colored and crisp with medium body and more hops than traditional lager, but typically smooth and clean.

Bock (Sam Adams Winter Lager) – Of German origin, brewed in the fall to be enjoyed in the winter or spring. A stronger lager with heavy malt, medium to full bodied, lightly hopped and dark amber to brown in color.

Doppelbock – or “double” bock is stronger and darker than bock, sweeter with more malt and a little higher in alcohol content.

Oktoberfest – indicates the Vienna style of “Marzen” beer, the German word for “March”. These are brewed in the spring and store

d to serve in autumn. They have a toasted quality with a sweet tinge, robust malt flavors, and a deep amber hue.


Industry Lingo

Finally, and just to add more complexity, beery terms like “Microbrewery” and “Craft Beer” are cropping up more frequently as attention in America shifts back towards traditional brewing roots. They are oft thought of as synonymous, but distinguishing factors separate them. They emerged partly to create distance from “domestic” beer. Technically, domestic just means produced in the US.  In beer-speak “domestic”, through the omission of specifics like “craft beer”, refers to American lager from large breweries.

Craft brewing is an elusive caption and hard to pin an explicit description on. The classification promotes beer based on quality with criteria for production volume (6 million barrels per year or less).  The idea is that craft beer is distinctive and made with better ingredients. Details can be found here, but a craft brewer is “small, independent and traditional.” A craft beer does not have to come from a microbrewery. Anchor Steam, Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams are all too big to be microbreweries, yet fit in the mold of craft brewing.

A Microbrewery, recently re-defined by the Brewers Association, is a market segment of the craft beer industry and one that “produces less than 15,000 barrels of beer per year with 75% or more of its beer sold off-site”. It is about quantity, not quality. Dogfish Head, Clipper City and New Belgium are all microbreweries.

There you have it–a sketch of what beer was, and is. Next time you’re out, offer up some beer-soaked fun facts and spread the respect around. Its mark in history and cultural significance are matched only by the joy and satisfaction of drinking it.


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