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It's happened to the best of us. You fancy yourself to be pretty well-versed in all things ale and lager, but suddenly, you find yourself reading through the extensive menu at an ambitious new beer joint and you feel like someone dropped a foreign-language dictionary into your lap.
With thousands of breweries cranking out new beers at a breakneck pace, the reality is that unless you read the beer news blogs religiously and memorize the names of every new label, it can get tricky to know what to order when you're faced with a beer list at your local bar. That's why we're offering a few handy code-cracking tips to help you figure out which options will please your palate without memorizing thousands of different individual beers.
No flash cards will be necessary, I promise. By familiarizing yourself with a few simple cues including some long-time traditions, root words, and cultural commonalities, you'll have some easy keys to demystifying the beer menu and securing a satisfying beverage. Because really, we just want you to enjoy what you're drinking.
The Root of the Problem
There are some classic root words and technical terms that brewers often integrate into beer names. These are a little nudge, nudge, wink, wink to the drinkers who might be in on the joke. Here are few that you might come across when scanning the menu.
Humulus Lupulus is the species of climbing plant whose flowers are known for their fragrant, flavorful, and often bitter properties. Sound familiar? These guys are more commonly known as hops. Breweries have been known to insert the words Humulus, Lupulus, or Lupulin to denote an IPA or other hoppy offering. For example: see Otter Creek Quercus Vitis Humulus, Beer Here's Lupulus Ale, and Odell Brewing's St. Lupulin. While we're talking Latin, look out for Quercus, which is the Latin root for oak tree. Barrel-aged beers might incorporate this word in the name.
Because of Germany's rich brewing history, many names rooted in German words have been borrowed for beers or beer styles over the centuries. In German, Hefe means "yeast", and weizen translates to "wheat". This may seem like a no-brainer now that the hefeweizen has taken over tap towers at even the most pedestrian of pubs, but keeping those base words in mind will help determine other more unusual or esoteric styles as well, like weizenbock or kristalweizen; both wheat based beers.
And while you're brushing up on your German, doppel is German for double, rauch means smoked, and schwarz means black. So, a beer called Kapuziner Schwarz Weizen may seem confounding to the layman, but now you can confidently deduce that it is a black or dark wheat beer, or a "Dunkelweizen".
How about a French twist? Because of its proximity to France, there are large pockets of French-speaking populations in Belgium. Historically, the Belgian/French border is also known for those farmhouses after which "Farmhouse Ales" are named. If you see the name of a beer or brewery written in French, it's fair to venture a guess that the beer may be Belgian-influenced. The breweries and styles themselves often carry French language names. Saison, meaning "season" in French, is a classic example. Even American breweries producing Belgian-style ales carry on the tradition with offerings like The Lost Abbey's Framboise de Amorosa.
Generations of Name Imitation
In the beer industry, folks like to nod to their source of inspiration. Many of today's craft brewers fall in line with traditional naming practices put into place by centuries of their predecessors. Here are a few naming traditions that have been passed along for posterity.
Belgian Golden Strong Ales are just what they sound like: hazy, golden, and very strong. Because of their light color, effervescence, and overall ability to mask inherent alcoholic strength (the range is typically between 7 and 11% ABV), the BGS has long been linked to Lucifer himself. You might have seen the best known product from Brouwerij Duvel Moortgat—duvel means devil in the local dialect. References to the devil trickle down into American-brewed examples of the style, including Russian River's Damnation and AleSmith's Horny Devil.
What if you see 'Old' on the list? It probably doesn't refer to your local bar's impressive cellaring program. Historically, many barleywines were dubbed 'old' to signify that they were aged before being released to the public. In keeping with this convention, even the newest of barleywines may be designated as "old", or carry some verbiage denoting maturity, like AleSmith Old Numbskull, Anchor Brewing Old Foghorn, and Fuller's Old Winter Ale.
Kilts and bagpipes may not be (or may be...no one is judging) your thing, but the beers with which they're classically associated certainly can help you appreciate the Scottish culture as a whole. A Scotch Ale or "Wee Heavy" is a deliciously malty beer that receives a name from its birthplace. In yet another shout to the ghosts of brewers past, many producers reference some of the Scots' favorite things: kilts and bagpipes. Sometimes they even dress their bottles in plaid labels. It's adorable, really. If you see Moylan's Kiltlifter, Philadelphia Brewing's Kilty Pleasure, or Allentown Brew Works' Bagpiper's Ale, you can take an educated guess at their Scotch style.
One more thing: The -ator Factor. Paulaner Salvator is the archetypical example of the doppelbock style. The "liquid bread", nicknamed for its hearty, robust character quickly became a very popular style that inspired subsequent versions from other producers. Thus launched a naming trend: all the names of these beers carried the suffix "ator". There was some debate at the time as to whether these breweries were paying homage or simply attempting to piggyback off of Salvator's success, but the custom stuck regardless. Today, you can find the likes of Ayinger Celebrator, Bell's Consecrator, Spaten Optimator, and plenty of other -ators on your favorite beer menus.
How Much for How Little?
When you're trying to decode a beer list, it can be useful to pay particular attention to price, pour size, and alcohol content, as they're all potential indicators of style. Generally speaking, greater alcohol content is directly related to a smaller pour size and a higher price tag. Coupled with other indicators, this can help narrow down the massive beer database in your mind.
A menu might offer Stone Brewing Company's Old Guardian, for example, in an eight ounce glass for $7, while there are 12-ounce pours of lighter styles available for less. Keeping in mind what we learned about the word "old", you can probably deduce that should you make that selection you'll be sampling Stone's barleywine.
Let's test our skills, shall we?
ABC Brewing Company Quercus Lupulus. 8 oz. $8, 10%
Quercus points to oak and Lupulus suggests hops, so my guess here is that this is some kind of oak-aged hoppy beer, perhaps an imperial or double IPA. At 10% ABV, we're not looking at a pale ale or even a standard IPA, and the price is reflective of that. Are you craving something big and hoppy?
ABC Brewing Company Lucifer's Revenge: 8% ABV
Calling on the devil? Definitely a Belgian Golden Strong. The ABV is right in range and the name nods to its devilishly deceitful character.
ABC Brewing Company Le Petit Tableau 4% ABV
The French words suggest a Belgian-style brew, and at 4% alcohol, my first guess would be a table saison or a Belgian pale ale.
Occasionally you'll find a rogue brewer who wants to refer to their Wee Heavy as "old" or a beer with a French name that is actually just from a French brewery, but for the most part, once you've locked down these simple tricks, even the most encyclopedic rotating beer menus won't have you beat. Next time you head to the bar, leave the decoder ring in the Cracker Jack box and dazzle your friends with your comprehension of craft beer context clues. Or just order the beer you're craving with confidence.
About the Author: Stef Ferrari is a Brooklyn-based Certified Cicerone, food writer/photographer, and author of a forthcoming beer industry guidebook with Wiley & Sons Publishing. In addition to her passion for craft beer, cocktails, and fine food, she considers ice cream to be life's greatest pleasure and spends most spare moments in pursuit of the Mr. Softee truck.