Know that feeling of walking down a beer aisle and wondering where the hell to start? I certainly do. It feels like my eye is being drawn in fifteen different directions at once as each brand tries to rise to the front of my awareness—much like the pirate ship in those magic eye posters. (Oh, man -- tell me you’ve never seen the pirate ship…) When encountering a wall of unknown beers, each product’s label can end up being the single most important factor in choosing one.
The label bridges the gap of perception and reality as you strive to make an informed decision; it serves as a buffer between you and the great unknown. It’s an enticer, descriptor, and educator that must instantly convey a compelling message before you move on down the beer aisle.
As consumers, we are constantly surrounded with brand imagery, catchy slogans, marketing stories, and purported health benefits of products. Oftentimes, it’s hard to know which messages to allow into our psyches and which to filter out. For example, we absorb plenty of taglines and catchphrases like “Where’s the beef?” and “Just do it,” as if they were sage words that grandpa once uttered in infinite wisdom -- when in reality, they’re just a bunch of marketing slogans created to sell more product.
So, flashy logos and bright colors aside, what are the key label components to be aware of when picking up a bottle? It’s the stuff that best describes the characteristics of the liquid inside. Below are the top four indicators on a beer label that will most accurately lead you to the flavor profile you’re looking for:
Ale vs. Lager
Amidst the many sub-varieties of beer, we should first look at the yeasty building blocks tying the whole darned thing together. The label should instantly clue you into whether you’ve encountered an ale or a lager. Based on those classifications alone, you’ll know whether to expect the presence of fruity esters in an ale, or the crisp, clean flavors of a lager.
The International Bitterness Unit is a scale from 1 to roughly 150 (God help you) that measures the actual bitterness of a beer. This can be a bit tricky because the value isn’t necessarily indicative of perceived bitterness for the taster. Rather, there are other ingredients in beer such as malt sweetness that can affect how bitter the beer will actually taste. Though we may see a change in IBU labeling in the future, for now it’s a fairly reliable means of communicating bitterness (i.e. any IPA with more than 60 IBUs should be an especially hoppy treat).
The percentage of alcohol by volume is one of the most important facts on your label. This number will tell you if the alcohol content of a beer is elevated (7% or higher) and should be approached with a bit more caution; moderate (5 - 7%), meaning two will be plenty; or sessionable (4.5% or below), indicating that you’re good to crush a few beers in one sitting. In fact, here’s a chart to help know where you stand when it comes to the legal limit.
Whether it’s “born on,” “bottled on,” “best by,” or the Julian system (good luck!), a beer date will let you know if you’re getting the fresh stuff -- or the stuff that got lost in the shadows of your grandpa’s basement. Generally speaking, beer is best consumed within 90 days after being bottled, although some higher ABV beers can last up to 180 days -- or even longer if properly cellared. The date may also vary depending on production methods (e.g. is it pasteurized?), beer style, or packaging. For more on date coding, check out this great article and guide.
BONUS: BEER SCAVENGER CHALLENGE
The next time you’re in the beer aisle, take a few extra minutes to do some detective work. Grab your go-to beer and examine the label. Take note of the details, as some of the things you like about this beer will likely appear as components of other beers within that style. Search for a beer that you’ve never tried before that has similar characteristics to one of your faves, and see if passes your taste test.
You should also look to some random beers that are new to you, searching for one that has characteristics completely different from your usual brew of choice. For example, if you generally gravitate to light lager, you should be looking for something with high IBUs, or a nice malty porter. Love it or hate it, what matters is that you’ve catapulted yourself out of your comfort zone and given yourself a better understanding of which characteristics are most likely to make your mouth water.