Food & Drink

All the Beer Questions You Were Afraid to Ask, Answered

Andrew Zimmer/Thrillist

As beer culture becomes more prevalent and beer bars pop up like hop-scented weeds, it can be easy for drinkers to get overwhelmed with all the terminology, styles, and other facets of the scene. And as you continue your beer education, asking seemingly simple questions about what the hell is actually happening can be daunting, especially when you’re seated next to a beer snob complaining that his tulip’s curvature isn’t to the exact contours specified in the beer bible.

Folks say that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but that doesn’t mean you don’t feel stupid asking about what most think is common knowledge. That’s why we asked our pal Zach Mack -- certified beer geek, writer, yachtsman, and owner of New York’s Alphabet City Beer Co. -- the questions you might be too embarrassed to ask in person.

Does glassware really matter?

Yes and no. There’s still some debate over how much the vessel you’re using can improve the beer you’re drinking. Different shapes of glassware will affect everything from how the beer hits your tongue to how aromas are presented. This may sound needlessly fussy, but just try drinking a Belgian dubbel in a tumbler alongside one poured into a tulip and I’m sure you’ll notice at least a little bit of difference. High-alcohol beers should always be served in smaller glasses, though, so don’t get mad at your bartender for selling you 8oz of a 12% barleywine in a snifter instead of a nonic pint glass.

Does this mean you should go out and buy every style of beer glass out there? Probably not. Almost all households, restaurants, or bars have wine glasses lying around, and they make easy substitutions for beer. Those shakers are definitely bad, though, and they’re even occasionally ripping you off.
 

What’s the deal with gravity, anyway? There is no Sandra Bullock in my glass.

I’m going to pause for a second there to think about how great of a movie that would be...

If you’ve ever heard someone describe a beer as “high gravity” or “low gravity,” they’re most likely referring to its alcohol content. Before fermentation begins, brewers measure something called “original gravity,” which is the measure of solids in the wort (aka unfermented beer). It gets very technical and the terms and units of measurement vary from country to country, but this number is an indicator of what the eventual ABV of the finished product will be. So no, it has nothing to do with how much a beer weighs, nor how much it will heighten or lessen your sense of gravity.

What's the real difference between a stout and a porter?

Here’s the funny thing: there are brewers who can’t even agree on the answer to this. Stouts came up alongside porters in 18th-century England, where they were known as “stout porters” (or a stronger version of a porter). Eventually, the “porter” was dropped from the name and stouts came into being in their own right (as with many things in British history, the truth behind a lot of the story has been lost in the mists of time).

These days, most would argue that the true difference is in the recipe: porters use standard malted barley, whereas stouts use mostly unmalted roasted barley, which gives them their characteristic dark coffee flavors. This still doesn’t settle the debate in some circles, so do your best to not go crazy trying to figure it out and just enjoy one of each.
 

What's the difference between an IPA and a pale ale?

You can think about this categorically. Pale ales form a kind of umbrella group that includes a lot of subset styles, including Belgian pale ales, English pale ales, American pale ales... (you get the point). Since IPA stands for India pale ale, it should tip you off that they are also a part of this group.

The largest defining characteristics of IPAs are their hoppiness and higher alcohol levels (especially alongside many of the other pale ales). Most of what is marketed and sold in the US as “pale ale” usually stands as a somewhat hoppy beer with a bitter finish, especially if they’re using American hops in the recipe (the style American pale ale was created for this reason). In the end, you should expect pale ales to be slightly lower in alcohol by volume and much less hop-forward than IPAs.

IBU looks like a random number to me. Should I be paying close attention there?

Hop-heads will already know this, but IBU stands for International Bitterness Units, and as anyone can now probably figure out, they measure the bitterness of beers. The scale runs from one to a theoretical 100, although there are some who claim to have made hop-bomb beers well above that number. You can easily expect an IPA to have higher IBUs (usually 60 to 70) than hefeweizens (which could be in the single digits), with double IPAs tipping the scales toward the top.

Once you understand what styles taste like, these numbers shouldn’t matter to your casual drinker. After all, they don’t tell the full story: some beers with high IBUs (such as imperial stouts) still have a smooth finish. IBUs today are most important to brewers developing recipes and breweries trying to sell beer to people obsessed with hops. It’s safe to say that if a guy walks up to a bartender and assumes they should know the IBUs of every beer on draft in their bar, he’ll get looked at like he's a snob.

Is all that foam just there to rip me off?

No! As I’ve said before, it’s not only perfectly acceptable to serve beer with an inch to an inch and a half of head, it’s considered good service! Foam (or head) helps deliver beer’s aromas, and it can play a part in mouthfeel and flavor as you take in a little bit with each sip. If anything, lack of head can mean that the glass you’re being served is dirty or improperly washed.

If you’re still not convinced, just remember that most glassware intended for serving beer has an extra half ounce or ounce built in to accommodate head (which is especially true for hefeweizen and wheat beer glasses you’ve probably had at a German beer hall).
 

Why is some beer warm and some cold?

It comes down to aromatics and flavors. The colder a beer is served, the less its flavors and aromas are going to come out. This is why most macro-lagers are served super, super cold. Your English cask ales or Belgian dubbels, on the other hand, are served much warmer so that you’ll be able to taste every little flavor and smell every bit of aroma (this is part of the reason why the British make so much fun of Americans for drinking beer that’s so cold). There are entire charts devoted to perfect drinking temperatures for each style, but I’m a firm believer that warmer beer is an acquired taste and isn’t always something you can dive right into. Each beer can be different, but you can test it by taking bottles out of the fridge and letting them stand at room temperature for five to 10 minutes before drinking it.

Do the kinds of hops really matter?

Yup! And even when you don’t know which ones (or one) is in your glass, hops play a vital part in the finished product. Specific hops grow in different parts of the world, with each showcasing a different set of characteristics. Pick up a hoppy American IPA and you’ll smell pine needles and grapefruit zest; pick up a handful of English hops and they’ll smell earthy and floral; hops from Australia or New Zealand will smell like passionfruit and citrus. Just like a baker or chef crafting a recipe, brewers know which strain of hops will work best with the style they’re trying to make and can adjust what they’re using to get the desired end result.
 

If I don’t like my beer, is it rude to give it back?

Never! If you’ve had an honest-to-goodness conversation with your bartender and trusted their recommendation, you are under no obligation to choke down a beer you find nasty. Miscommunication happens, and everyone’s tastes are different.

Sending your beer back is especially OK if the beer tastes off in any way. This could be a sign of line infection, a brewing defect, or the result of poorly stored beer. Any good bartender will see the error and rectify the problem.

Does tripel mean it’s triple octane?

In a sense, yes, if by octane you mean malt. According to the Oxford Companion to Beer, “the term ‘tripel’ refers to the amount of malt with fermentable sugars and the original gravity.” One interesting theory is that barrels of tripel were marked "XXX" using the medieval system of using X’s to mark the strength of a beer back when this was something the monks were making with all their free time. (Obviously, this means dubbels would’ve been marked "XX" with their lower alcohol content.)

Sort of confusingly, dubbels are darker than tripels, with ABVs usually ranging from 6 to 7.5%. Tripels are much lighter in color but higher in alcohol, around 7.5 to 9.5% (and sneakily higher in alcohol, at that, as they have a nice dry finish).
 

If I don’t know what I want, how do I even figure it out?

This is the best part about beer: you get to go out and you get to try a ton of stuff! If you’re confused, ask your bartender or beer merchant. Get a feel for what you love and what you hate. It’s no different than food, wine, spirits, music, movies, preferred thermostat temperatures, or which side of the bed you sleep on. Everyone is different and likes different things, and you should never apologize for what makes you happy.

The most efficient way to branch out and try a lot of different beers is to find a bar with a reputation for good beer, go in, and chat up the bartender. They’ll have the ability to pour you samples, which is a much less daunting place to start than standing in front of a cooler full of bottles you’ve never seen before. Ask questions and be honest with yourself. Is this too bitter? Too fruity? Too boring? For all the beer knowledge out there, this is something that can never be learned in a book. Grab your friends, order a round, and enjoy beer the way it was meant it to be enjoyed.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.
   
Zach Mack is Thrillist's contributing beer writer, the owner of Alphabet City Beer Co. in NYC, a newly minted Certified Cicerone®, and nothing else. Follow him: @zmack.