Four craft beer acronyms you need to know

If you are reading this in Wellington you’ll no doubt have at least a passing familiarity with the language of central government. Even if you don’t you’ll at least have overheard you fellow commuters stringing together entire sentences of very nearly only acronyms. “Did you hear that the DCEs at MfE and DIA are sending the RISs for the LGA and RMA to DPMC?”*

Until recently that was me! Now I’m adventuring in the beer world I was not at all surprised to discover that craft beer has its very own set of three lettered abbreviations. You’ve probably heard a few of those too and might be wondering “what do all those acronyms stand for?” Here are four that you need to know. 

What’s the deal with IPAs?

craft beer bottles

IPA stands for Indian Pale Ale and refers to one of the most common beer styles. You’ll probably have seen IPAs on beer menus as just about any self-respecting brewery will have an IPA in their portfolio. 

IPAs have what beer nerds refer to as a “hoppy finish”. To the uninitiated this means you’ll notice quite a bitter taste which comes from, you guessed it, hops. Hops were after all the reason why IPAs came to exist. I discovered many versions of the IPA origin-story but the one that came up most frequently and, to be really honest, appealed to my romantic notions of the adventure of centuries past word travel. It goes like this…

When English brewers tried shipping their pale ales to troops stationed in India the beers did not survive the long, hot, and refrigeration-free trip. What the brewers needed was a preservative. So brewers added more hops. The beers not only lasted the journey, but tasted amazing as well.

Ok, then what about an APA?

American Pale Ale APA craft beer tap badge

APA also refers to a beer style, and if you’ve already spotted the pattern, its another pale ale. This time an American Pale Ale. The history of this beer is much more recent. Scene – the fledgling craft beer industry in the US, mid-1980s. Craft beer pioneers started creating traditional pale ales but using American-grown hops with their distinctive citrusy, and pine flavours. Other early leaders started dry hopping their pale ales. This basically means adding in extra hops after fermentation. And thus, the American Pale Ale, or APA as it affectionately became known, was born.

Side note – as both these styles have similar origins there tends to be quite a lot of overlap between IPAs and APAs. I’ve witnessed quite vehement discussions about whether a particular brew which holds out to be an IPA, is in fact an imposter and should be an APA. Intriguingly these discussions can get quite heated! 

Its also one of the most common questions I get from visitors to the cellar door – what is the difference between the APA and the IPA. With apologies to brewers and the more beer-articulate I also have a rather imperfect and somewhat simplistic stock answer. IPAs tend to be more hoppy (bitter) and APAs tend to be more fruity. IPAs also tend to be higher in alcohol. There, I told you it was imperfect and simplistic, but, in my opinion, it is also a good (enough) general guide.

Ah, and a nice lead in to our next definition…

What does ABV stand for?

ABV. Or alcohol by volume. It refers to the amount of alcohol (ethanol if you want to be precise) in a beer, or any alcoholic beverage. It is expressed as a percentage. You’ll definitely have seen ABVs on labels and tap badges as its an important component of both the taste, and, well, booziness of a beer. Its pretty simple really – the higher the percentage the more alcohol it contains. Beers tend to fall somewhere in between 3% and 13%. With most beers concentrated around 4-7%.

What the heck is an IBU? And does it matter anyway?

IBU. International Bittering Units. Not international beer units as one particularly insistent, self-proclaimed beer expert tried to mansplain to me once. He was in fact, so insistent, that I did have to go and double check. And that is how I know for sure that while B is for beer, belligerent and bloody-minded (oops I digress), in this instance B is for bittering.

craft beer bottles on bottling line

So, as you can deduce IBUs are a measure of the bitterness of a beer. The range starts at 0 and heads on upwards to mouth-puckering 100 plus. There are plenty of charts around if you want to geek out. [link]Some styles, such as Lambics are down the bottom with relatively low IBUs, with your super-hoppy double imperial IPAs heading off the charts. Your mainstream commercial lager is around 10 IBUs. Guiness is around 60.

Most sources I read were at pains to point out that IBUs are only a guide to how actually bitter a beer tastes. I discovered that this is because IBUs are a technical measure of the amount of isohumulone or iso-alpha acids in a given beer. Don’t worry this is not going to morph into a chemistry lesson – the last time I sat in a science class I was 15 years old! Bear with me for one more minute. Isohumulone is the stuff (see told you I’m not scientific!) that is in hops that make them and, subsequently, your beer bitter. But that is not the only factor that determines how bitter a beer actually tastes. According to the experts malt also plays a big part, and can basically mask bitterness. So a malty beer that has a high IBU might taste less bitter than a lower IBU, but less malty style.

Fun fact 1: Humans do not innately have an affinity for bitter tasting foods. Most sources seem to think this is because of some genetic, built-in defence against accident poisoning – lots of things that are poisonous taste bitter. But the good news is that we can train ourselves to increase the amount of bitterness we like. 

 Fun fact 2: Humans can’t discern IBUs above around 110. In other words something with an IBU of 110 will taste the same bitterness-wise as something with an IBU of 100. It’s all mouth-puckering when you get to that level!


*For those of you who’ve been just desperate to know here’s that imaginary sentence decoded. “The Deputy Chief Executives at the Ministry for the Environment and the Department of Internal Affairs are sending the Regulatory Impact Statements for the Local Government Act and the Resource Management Act to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.”