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Beer

The New Vocabulary of Beer

December 01, 2022

Story: Courtney Iseman

art: Jarett Sitter

Beer

The New Vocabulary of Beer

December 01, 2022

Story: Courtney Iseman

art: Jarett Sitter

“Crispy boi,” “mlíko pour,” “gusher.” The rapid evolution of craft beer over the past two decades has necessitated an entirely new language to describe it. Here, a non-exhaustive guide to the modern lexicon.

The days of simply deciding between an IPA and a lager are gone. Now, it’s deciding between a high-density, hop-charged IPA with Thiolized yeast and a side-pull Czech-style pilsner in a mlíko pour. “We’re evolving the ingredients we use, we’re evolving how we market beer, we’re evolving the kinds of people being welcomed into the industry, we’re evolving styles,” says beer writer Ruvani de Silva. “Obviously, the language has to evolve alongside that.”

Mark Dredge, writer, author and creator of Beer Flavour Wheels (a lexicon of beer descriptors), explains that much of what we know as beer vocabulary came from the wine world. As homebrewing culture blossomed and birthed craft beer in the late 1970s and 1980s, drinkers were suddenly faced with options beyond watery light lagers from large brewers. Language was needed to describe the differences among styles, and, drilling down further, between iterations on those styles from emerging breweries. The American Homebrewers Association formed in 1978 and started homebrew competitions, necessitating terminology to define styles under which participants could enter. Beer writing sprouted, led primarily by Michael Jackson, whose 1984 World Guide to Beer introduced drinkers to the idea of style classification. In 1985, the Beer Judge Certification Program was founded, providing a comprehensive breakdown of styles and their characteristics; the program is updated periodically with new styles. These definitions are the foundation of the Cicerone program (think sommeliers for beer), which began in 2007.

When a need arose for vocabulary to talk about what one sees, smells, tastes and feels in a beer, the practical place to look was wine. But although the general terminology translated—this smells fruity, this tastes funky, this feels dry—wine’s more esoteric jargon didn’t fit. “Beer is not wine; it comes with completely different connotations and backgrounds, and, for a long time, different drinkers,” Dredge says. “Beer’s always had a more egalitarian nature.” If a beer is acidic, it’s referred to as “acidic,” not “high-toned,” for example, and we don’t tend to assign beer personality traits like “austere.

One notable similarity between wine and beer language, though, is Eurocentrism. Modern styles of craft beer have roots in European brewing traditions going back decades, even centuries. Think English porters and pale ales, German hefeweizens and dunkels, Belgian saisons and tripels. From the start, the beer industry adopted relevant verbiage to explain these styles to drinkers, from nutty, biscuity porters to citrusy, peppery tripels. Now, terms are proliferating to speak about constantly evolving styles, and speak to a bigger, more diverse audience. Agave sweetness is now discussed alongside honey sweetness, to recognize that the former adjunct is more common for Latin American brewers. Formerly sufficient terms like “hoppy” no longer capture how many shades of “hoppy” actually exist now.

“Think about IPA as a category,” says Dr. J Nikol Jackson-Beckham, a DEI consultant, educator and former communication studies professor. “America 10, 20 years ago just had what we call a West Coast IPA, bracingly bitter, elevated alcohol content, usually with some piney, resinous hops,” she says. Back then, she notes, you could just call a beer “hoppy” and people understood. “Now, we have New England and hazy IPAs, and we also have Belgian IPAs, cold IPAs, session IPAs,” says Jackson-Beckham, pointing out that brewers have moved away from a traditionally bitter profile that some might describe as “piney” or “resinous.” She adds: “The dominant hop profile for IPAs right now is extremely fruity. ... So, if you said ‘hoppy’ today, it kind of means the opposite of what it did 10 years ago.”

This need for more words to describe how categories have expanded and evolved is joined by the development of slang (“gushers,” “freshies”) and subcultures (“hazebros,” “tickers”) that have likewise expanded the dictionary. So, what does it mean to be fluent in beer today? 

This glossary makes no claims of being the end-all, be-all beer lexicon. You’d need an entire dictionary to even begin addressing all the language used to discuss beer, from tasting it to judging it to learning about it to rating it professionally to rating it on social media. Instead, what this aims to offer is a list of the words you are most likely to encounter should you find yourself seated next to a bona fide beer geek at your local bar. Which of the terms you choose to incorporate into your own vocabulary, well, that’s up to you.

Flavor, Aroma and Appearance

Aged: This covers a range of flavors and aromas perceived in an older beer. It usually has a positive connotation, pertaining to the way stouts and higher-ABV dark beers can develop sherry-like, vinous flavors, and wild or mixed-fermentation ales can develop more funk and tartness. It can also speak to the range of aromas produced via barrel-aging, like vanilla and caramel.

Crisp, crispy: Contrasting “juicy” and “hazy,” “crisp” or “crispy” commonly refers to lagers (“crispy” can also be a noun for lagers) and how dry and clean they are. Related is “well-attenuated,” a more technical term. Attenuation is the conversion of sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide during fermentation; “well-attenuated” means fermentation has left very little sugar behind.

Dank: Also mainly used when discussing IPAs and some pale ales, “dank” is typically taken to mean there’s a cannabis quality to the hop flavor, but to some people, this is also a vague term that can include other interpretations, like a musty basement smell.

Funky: A more colloquial catch-all for the expressions of tartness and acidity in mixed-fermentation and spontaneous-fermentation beers. More specific terms include aromas of “horse blanket,” “barnyard,” “goat” and “hay.”

Hazy: From a touch of cloudiness to an opaque thickness, this refers to a characteristic lack of clarity in a New England–style IPA, thanks to the yeasts and grains used. It can also be a noun, and almost never refers to more traditionally hazy styles, like hefeweizens.

Hoppy: Almost always used in reference to an India pale ale or pale ale, “hoppy” refers to the flavor profile coming from the hops in a beer, which usually is shorthand for bitter (think citrus pith, pine, resin) given the term’s rise alongside the West Coast–style IPA. Now, however, with so many different IPA styles—notably the sweet and fruity New England–style IPA—“hoppy” feels a bit ambiguous.

IBUs vs. perceived bitterness: “IBUs” stands for international bittering units, a measurement of the parts per million of hops’ isohumulone in a beer. When West Coast–style IPAs were all the rage, breweries boasted soaring IBU counts. Now that sweeter IPAs are favored, there’s a better understanding of “perceived bitterness,” which is how bitter a beer actually tastes—i.e., its balance of hop bitterness and malt sweetness.

Juicy: A prime example of terms entering the lexicon by way of social media, “juicy” became the most common catchall term to describe sweeter, fruitier New England–style IPAs.

Milkshake, smoothie, slushie: With even more body than a hazy IPA, a “milkshake,” “smoothie,” or “slushie” beer, usually an IPA or a sour, takes on this mouthfeel thanks to adjuncts like fruit purées and different sugar sources, especially lactose (or milk sugar). Because lactose can’t be fermented by yeast, it gives the finished beer both sweetness and body.

Roasty: A defining characteristic in traditional stouts, porters and in some dark lagers, “roasty” captures that espresso or black coffee flavor and astringency.

Smoky: It might be hard to imagine a beer being “smoky” until you’ve entered the world of rauchbiers, which are definitely having a moment. These beers, which are made with smoked malts, can channel flavors and aromas of campfire or bacon.

Off-Flavors or Flaws

Butterscotch, movie theater popcorn butter: A flavor produced by diacetyl, which has a similar origin story as acetaldehyde (see “Green apple Jolly Rancher,” below), and can also be the sign of bacterial infection. However, at lower levels, a subtle butteriness is not a fault in some styles, like English ales.

Cheesy: Never positive, this is caused by isovaleric acid and is the result of a bacterial infection or the use of old hops.

Cooked cabbage, creamed corn: This unpleasant aroma comes courtesy of dimethyl sulfide, or DMS, a compound that can result from brewing with light malts. It can often be avoided with proper boiling and cooling methods, and is acceptable in very low levels in light lagers. 

Green apple Jolly Rancher: This is acetaldehyde at work. Acetaldehyde is a byproduct of fermentation, and its presence means the yeast wasn’t given enough time to reabsorb it.

Rotten eggs: A sulfurous, burnt match aroma that is caused by the presence of another yeast byproduct, hydrogen sulfide. It’s never welcome except at a very low degree in an English pale ale; however, a hint of sulfur when you twist open a beer bottle is not uncommon, and generally resolves with exposure to air.

Wet cardboard: A flavor that typically emerges when a beer has been exposed to excess oxygen, typically the result of spending too long in the bottle, and has staled. 

Packaging

Bomber: A 22-ounce bottle, aka “large-format.”

Cottle: Coined by Julia Herz, executive director of the American Homebrewers Association, this refers to those aluminum 12-ounce bottles you see from macro brewers.

Crowler: A 32-ounce aluminum vessel for to-go pours.

Growler: A 32- or 64-ounce glass vessel for to-go pours.

Long-neck: Your standard 12-ounce glass bottle.

Nip: Aka “shorty,” these 8-ounce cans are also a growing trend on the other end of the spectrum.

Pony: A 7-ounce glass bottle, usually from macro brewers.

Stovepipe: The next big can, literally: These are 19.2 ounces.

Stubby: Aka “steinie,” this 12-ounce glass bottle is a bit shorter and squatter than long-necks.

Tallboy: A 16-ounce can, now standard in craft beer.

Serving Vessels and Styles

Cask: A traditional English method, this is when beer is packaged in a wood vessel with some sugar for the beer’s yeast to ferment, creating natural carbonation. The beer is then served directly from the cask at the pub.

Mlíko pour: An older Czech tradition that’s become hot with hype lager breweries in the U.S. (see: Notch Brewing in Massachusetts; Human Robot’s “milk tubes” in Philadelphia), this pour uses the side-pull faucet to fill a mug or stange almost entirely with foam.

Nitro: A beer that has had nitrogen added to it, generally as the gas that pushes it through the draft line, in order to achieve a creamier mouthfeel. It’s most commonly associated with Guinness. 

Shaker pint: Your standard 16-ounce glass, which most beer geeks will point out does little to support beer’s more delicate aromas.

Side-pull tap: Also known by the Czech brand that makes them, LUKR taps are designed with side handles and intricate mesh screens inside their faucets, allowing beers to be poured with a creamy foam bursting with aromas. Related: A “slow pour” uses this side-pull tap to layer beer and foam for the most aromatic drinking experience.

Snifter: Like a smaller tulip, the snifter concentrates aromas even further and is a more appropriate size for higher-ABV beers. 

Stange: A tall, narrow glass most commonly used for kölsch.

Teku glass: Like a wine goblet with sleeker lines and sharper angles, the Teku was a hot trend for hazy IPAs and is still a relatively popular choice.

Tulip glass: Tulips, goblets and chalices support beer’s aroma-filled head and offer a place to hold the glass so your hand doesn’t warm the beer too quickly.

Willi Becher: Having taken over as one of craft beer’s favorite silhouettes, this glass is an understated pint that tapers in at the top for better head and aroma retention.

Beer Vocabulary
Techniques

Bottle-conditioned: When a brewer allows some remaining active yeast to continue fermenting once the beer has been bottled, creating natural carbonation with a finer, more delicate texture and better foam retention.

Dry-hopped: When a brewer adds hops during, or after, fermentation to extract volatile aroma compounds rather than bitterness. Expect to see on cans “DDH,” “TDH” or even “QDH,” for double-, triple-, or quadruple-dry-hopped, respectively. 

Foeder-aged or foedered: Essentially the same as barrel-aging, but in a wooden vessel at least three times the size of your typical oak barrel.

Fresh-hopped or wet-hopped: A beer made with fresh, whole-cone hops, right as they’re harvested. This is typical of beers released in September and October like Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Fresh Hop IPA and Contents Under Fresher IPA from Lagunitas.

HDHC: “High density hop charge,” a term coined by Brooklyn’s Other Half Brewing to describe a method of maximizing hop character with various hop products like INCOGNITO and Cryo Hops.

Kettle sour: Whereas many traditional sour ales are made with spontaneous or mixed fermentation, kettle-souring is a more controlled process in which the brewer adds the bacteria Lactobacillus to the unfermented wort while it’s in the kettle in order to manipulate the beer’s tartness and acidity.

Mixed fermentation: Common for sours and traditional Belgian styles, this refers to fermentation by way of a combination of brewer’s yeast and wild yeast, like Brettanomyces. When it’s all wild yeasts doing the fermenting, that’s known as “wild fermentation” or “spontaneous fermentation.” 

Thiolized yeast: A yeast strain with a boosted ability to biotransform compounds in malt and hops for bigger aromas, primarily of tropical fruit. Related: “Phantasm,” a powder made from sauvignon blanc grapes, rich in thiol precursors to enhance this process. Breweries like New Image in Colorado and Radiant Beer Co. in California use these products mainly in IPAs.

Culture

Boss pour: An idiotic practice of pouring beer right to the rim of the glass, leaving no room for beer’s aroma-packed head. 

Collab: Two or more breweries joining together to brew a beer, which is still an effective way to maximize that beer’s potential audience.

Crispy boi: A term that can be used to describe the lager counterpart to “hazeboi,” but more often refers to the crisp lager itself. 

Drain pour: A beer so bad you taste it and dump it.

Falling off: When a beer starts to pass its freshness prime. 

Gusher: A sugar-packed sour or IPA that explodes in its can, and is generally regarded as... dangerous.

Haul: Your “haul” is the beers you scored, often after being on a line at a brewery but also from a bottle shop or trade.

Hazebro, hazeboi: An IPA obsessive. “Hazeboi” has a silliness that allows it to escape being overtly gendered or contemptible, while “hazebro” offers an eye roll to the fratty dudes who will stop at nothing to brag about scoring hyped releases.

#ISO: “In search of,” a common Instagram hashtag deployed by people looking for rare beers.

Kill shot: An unnecessarily violent term used to describe a photo of all the bottles and cans left from your bottle-share or hang.

Line life: The craft beer subculture consisting of people willing to wait in line for hours to score limited releases—usually hazy IPAs, fruited sours or pastry stouts from hyped breweries.

Mule: A person who stands in the line to get a limited release and then sends it to people who didn’t have access. Related: A “proxy” stands in line for someone else, like a Wall Street bro hiring a TaskRabbit to procure Other Half.

Neckbeard: A derisive term for a nerdy beer snob (think mansplaining IPA connoisseurs).

Porch bomb: A package of beers sent to you a beer bud.

Sessionable: A lighter, lower-ABV beer you can consume multiples of in a single drinking “session.” See also: “Crushable.”

Ticker: Someone more interested in the endless pursuit of new, hyped beers over simply drinking what they like. 

Whales: A term for rare beers.

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Tagged: beer, culture