The world of craft beer can be intimidating — and it's not just because of the oversized beards, flannel shirts and renovated warehouse decor.

For many people, it's the bevy of insider technical terms that have become part of the modern lexicon since the birth of the craft beer craze.

Here's a rundown of some of the most common, but often mystifying, words we hear in taprooms today:


Most people know that ABV tells you how much alcohol is in a beverage, but not everyone knows that IBU, a label becoming more visible on beer cans and brewery menus, is a measurement called International Bitterness Unit.

"That's really a measurement of alpha acids from hops that are isomerized during the boil, and that is a really flashy way of saying there are these compounds in beer that will make beer taste bitter," said Tim Johnson, head brewer at Badger Hill Brewery in Shakopee.

But the IBU measurement should only be taken as a rough guide, since other flavors and elements can affect the flavor, and bitterness, of the beer.

"Sometimes an IBU can be really high, but if there is haziness or citrus in it, it really mutes that so it's not as bitter," said Amy Armbrust, taproom manager at Schram Haus Brewery in Chaska.

Session vs Imperial

Words like session and imperial won't give you any information about flavor or bitterness, but will tell you how serious you need to be in minding your Ps and Qs.

Session beers are low in alcohol, typically under 5 percent. They're designed to be lighter, easier drinking brews that still manage to pack some flavor.

"Session is one of those terms that literally meant they were beers someone could drink more than one of in a session," Johnson said.

Imperial means the exact opposite. These drinks commonly push beer to its limits, at around 8 to 12 percent alcohol by volume.

"It's going to be more robust," Johnson said. "It's something you're going to want to sit and drink to enjoy."


Malts are the type of grain that goes into the beer, the most common of which is barley. Flavor-wise, the malts provide a sweet roundness that defines beer for many people.

That said, malt covers a wide spectrum of flavors. Lightly roasted malts will make a beer taste cleaner and more biscuity or bread-like. A more dark roasted set of malts will give the beer a more bitter, chocolate or coffee flavor.

"It's really about the process the malts go through to bring out these characteristics," Johnson said.


Hops are the other key ingredient that determines the flavor of a brew. While hops often bring floral and herbal notes to a beer, their hallmark characteristic is bitterness.

"Hops are meant to balance out the malt," Johnson said. "You've got malty sweetness and you don't want it to be too cloyingly sweet so you bring in the hops to add that bitter component and balance it out."

But no two hops taste the same. Hops come in a wide variety of strains, each with unique characteristics.

"Flavors are always going to be different because of the hop varieties," Armbrust said. "If you have a Cascade hop you're going to have some grapefruit coming through. Mosaic and Citra hops are super popular right now because they bring out so much flavor."

Most brews, particularly IPAs, are made with multiple hop varieties, but Armbrust said breweries are producing limited batches of single hop beers that produce distinct flavors.

"Then you can really pull it apart and identify the flavor of that variety," she said.


The modern craft beer scene is propelled by experimentation and many different trends have been born out of that adventurous spirit. Four current trends to look out for are brut IPAs, milkshake IPAs, sours and barrel-aged beer.

Brut IPAs are hop-heavy beers that use special yeasts to make a very dry beer that tastes similar to Champagne. Sours are tart and fruity beers that are great for people who are less likely to enjoy traditional beer flavors.

"Everybody wants sours right now," Armbrust said.

Milkshake IPAs are fruit-forward beers that include lactose, causing it to take on properties of a smoothie or milkshake. Barrel-aged beers are fermented in wood barrels that still hold the flavor of bourbon, wine or whichever spirit once inhaled the barrel. The characteristics of those alcohols are transferred to the beer.

"If it's aged in bourbon barrels it usually has a bit of a sweeter note because you taste the sugar," Armbrust said.


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