Beer Terms, Defined

What does it mean?

  • September 22nd, 2016
  • By Stephen Rich

Beer has been both praised and criticized for its perceived simplicity. It’s a casual drink for anyone, often second to wine on the dinner table. Beer is much more complex and respected today, as it is represented in every segment of the market by a record number of breweries and brands in North America.

As the market evolves, brewers are expanding the number of flavours they offer and are increasingly experimental with different styles and ingredients.

Marketers have also become more sophisticated in the way they showcase their brands and the companies that brew them. One of the most noticeable changes in the marketplace for beer is the amount of information available about them.. We all understand what ABV means when it’s listed on the can or bottle, but what about those other abbreviations like IBU or SRM? Let’s dig into a few of the most notable and useful terms found on beer today.

Alcohol by Volume

ABV: Alcohol by Volume. This is a standardized measurement of the amount of alcohol (ethanol) contained in a specific package of beer (can, keg, bottle or otherwise) referenced as a percentage of the total volume of liquid in that package. For example, a 473 ml can of Absent Landlord is 5.3% ABV, and therefore contains 25.1ml of alcohol.

The amount of fermentable sugars (typically derived from malt) included in a beer recipe play a large role in alcohol content, as alcohol is a byproduct of fermentation.

North America’s typical standard for beer is currently around 5% ABV, however, globally and historically, beer can range from 2% to over 20% ABV. The world’s strongest beer is currently 67.5% ABV (Brewmeister Snake Venom). Although this sounds outrageous for what we have come to recognize as beer, as long as it is brewed with malted barley, hops, water, and yeast, it is in fact beer.

International Bitterness Units

IBU or BU: International Bitterness Units, or Bitter Units. This is a quantitative value that creates standardization for describing and measuring bitterness in beer — it is denoted simply as a number of IBUs, but is a real reference to the parts per million of isohumulone measured in a specific beer. For example, Absent Landlord is 18 IBUs, meaning 18 PPM of isohumulone. During the brewing process, hops are added to the wort during boiling. Here, humulones (alpha acids) from hops undergo a reaction called isomerization. This creates isohumulones, which are responsible for the perceived bitterness in beer.

Everyone has a different ability to perceive bitterness. In general, the IBU scale ranges from zero to 100. Most people will not be able to perceive additional bitterness beyond 100 calculated IBUs, however, some may be able to perceive 120 IBUs. Similarly, other beer drinkers may only be able to perceive up to 80 or 90 IBUs.

Standard Reference Method

SRM: Standard Reference Method. This is how we categorically measure the colour of beer. It is essentially how much light is absorbed by 1 cm of a given beer. The more light that is absorbed, the higher the SRM, and therefore the darker the beer. The SRM scale and how it can be used to directly reference colour seems to fluctuate from person to person. Generally, beer that range from 0 to 2 on the SRM scale are straw coloured and pale, those around 6 are deep gold, beer in the 20s are brown shades, and beer that hits 40 are dark, almost black in colour. However, so many more elements come into play when perceiving the appearance of beer.

Its clarity, density, condition, and serving type all affect perceived colour. SRM is nonetheless a great tool for brewers and beer lovers to use as a point of reference.


Gravity: When used in reference to alcoholic beverages, gravity is the relative density of a liquid compared to water. Very simply, it is the amount of sugar dissolved in wort or beer. Brewers will use two measurements to reference gravity: specific gravity and degrees Plato. The gravity of their beer both before and after fermentation is important for the brewer, as they will indicate the strength of the beer by alcohol content as well as the beer’s flavour intensity.

Water is measured at 1.000 SG and 0.0 degrees Plato respectively. An average strength beer around 5% may begin with an original gravity of around 1.050 SG or 12.5 degrees Plato. This is the sugar content before fermentation. Stronger beers closer to 10% could have an original gravity of 1.092 SG or 22 degrees Plato. During fermentation, most of the sugars are consumed, and the resulting measurement is referred to as final gravity — ranging generally from 1.006sg to 1.012sg (1.5P to 3P) for drier beers, and up to 1.020sg to 1.032sg (5P to 8P) for sweeter beers.