How to Read your Beer Labels or WTF do all those Abbreviations mean?

As an avid beer drinker sometimes I am dismayed by my complete and utter ignorance when it comes to deciphering beer labels. As a beer blogger this ignorance is blissfully overlooked as you become some sort of de facto expert by proxy of sounding like an actual expert.

But my inadequacies came to the surface the other night when someone casually asked about the presence of Plato on our beer selection.  Apart from the degree of philosophical discussion that may arise once said beer has been consumed I was at a loss. This got me to thinking about the other abbreviations that adorn beer labels -I presume for some purpose other than filling up space. The brewer and the name of the beer are a gimme, this is also true for the bottle deposit but what could I learn from the other shorthand?


ABVAlcohol by Volume. This indicates how much alcohol is in the bottle. Ethanol is the type found in fermented  beverages but other types also appear in beer in small quantities. The higher the alcohol, the more rich and complex the beer tends to be. High alcohol beers also often have a thicker, smoother mouthfeel.

IBUInternational Bittering Units. The accepted method of expressing hop bitterness in beer.  This refers to the amount of dissolved iso-alpha acids (bitter hop resins) present in the beer given in parts per million (ppm). Essentially, the higher this number, the more hoppy the beer.

FGFinal Gravity. This is a measure of the density of the beer at the time of bottling and is used to determine the alcohol content of the fermented beer. Sometimes you’ll see the term Apparent Attenuation (AA), which refers to the difference in original and final gravity.  Attenuation is the degree to which residual sugars have been fermented out of a finished bottle.

Plato – European and American scale of gravity based on a percentage of pure sugar in the wort.  This indicates the ratio of fermentable sugars to water in the beer. It’s based on the specific gravity and is given in degrees. A newer, more accurate version of the Balling scale.

Lovibond, SRM, or EBC – All terms describing the color of beer. Lovibond is a beer and grain colour measuring system that compares vials of beer to vials of coloured liquids. SRM (Standard Reference Method) is expressed as ten times the optical density of beer as measured at 430 nm in a spectrophotometer. EBC (European Brewers Convention) is continental standards organization for brewing. EBC is most commonly encountered as a term applied to malt colour. For all scales, the higher the number, the darker the beer.

Bottling and Expiration Date – If they list this, beer labels generally give one or the other. With the exception of higher alcohol beers meant for aging, beer is generally good for about one year after the bottling date. If the expiration date is given, this means that the brewer feels the beer will not be at its best after that date.  With the introduction of cask beers there is an increasing amount of beers sporting a Best After date as well.

Other information that can be found on beer labels includes, but is not limited to, serving temperature, recommended glassware, storage recommendations, food pairings, brewery information (address, website etc.), ingredients, musings, government warnings on the dangers of alcohol consumption etc.


And just for fun…


The collecting of beer bottle labels. — labeorphile, n. 


The study of beer bottle labels. —meadophile, n. 


The collecting of cardboard beer coasters. —tegetologist, n.


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