What Does ABV Mean?

When it comes to enjoying a cold beer, there’s more to the experience than just the flavor and aroma. One essential aspect of understanding and appreciating beer is understanding its alcohol content, often denoted as ABV. You’ve likely seen ABV listed on beer menus or on the product itself, but what does ABV mean, how is it calculated, and how does ABV affect your drinking experience?

What does ABV mean?

Alcohol by Volume, or ABV, is a crucial metric in the world of brewing and consuming beer. It represents the percentage of pure alcohol present in a given volume of beer. Put simply, it tells you how strong or alcoholic a beer is. For example, if a beer has an ABV of 5%, it means that 5% of the liquid in that bottle is alcohol.

The alcohol content in beer is created by adjusting the amounts of fermentable sugars in the beverage’s recipe. For example, using more grain in the malt mix or adding dextrose, honey, or molasses to the malt will result in a beer with higher ABV. If you are brewing beer at home, you can examine the “extract potential” on the certificate of analysis or COA that comes with the malts to get an idea of your batch’s ABV.

ABV plays a significant role in determining the strength and character of your drink. While there can be some variability within each category, different types of alcohol generally adhere to standard ABV ranges. Here’s an overview of ABV in beer and other popular alcoholic beverages.

ABV in Beer

Beer is typically at the lower end of the ABV spectrum than other alcoholic beverages. Still, there is a wide range of ABV values among different beers. Most beers are between 3.5% to 7% ABV as those are the most preferred by consumers.

Low ABV Beers:

A session beer is a style specifically designed to be low in alcohol content typically has an ABV of 5% or less, which allows for extended drinking sessions without becoming overly intoxicated. The term “session beer” originates from the British pub tradition, where patrons would enjoy multiple pints during a “session” at the pub without becoming too inebriated to continue socializing or engaging in other activities. Today, session beers are great choices for tailgaters, barbeques, or other get-togethers where people consume a larger quantity of beer.

It’s important not to confuse low ABV with the color of beer. A light-colored beer can have a higher ABV, and there are dark-colored stouts and porters with low ABV. Common low-ABV beers include:

Light Lagers: Light lagers are among the most well-known low-ABV beers. They usually have an ABV ranging from 3% to 4.2%. These beers are light in flavor, crisp, and easy-drinking, making them a popular choice for warm-weather occasions.
Wheat Beers: Wheat beers, such as American Wheat Ales or German Hefeweizens, often have an ABV of around 4% to 5%. They are known for their refreshing and slightly fruity characteristics, with a cloudy appearance and a moderate hop presence.
Pilsners: Pilsners are a classic beer style known for their clean, crisp, and balanced flavors. Many pilsners have an ABV ranging from 4% to 5.5%. They are often characterized by their light maltiness and a subtle, noble hop bitterness.
Session IPAs: Session IPAs are a subset of India Pale Ales (IPAs) designed to have lower ABV, typically between 3.5% and 5%. They aim to maintain hoppy flavors and aromas similar to traditional IPAs while providing a more moderate alcohol impact.
Mild Ales: Mild ales, often associated with British brewing traditions, have an ABV of around 3% to 4%. These beers are known for their balanced maltiness and low hop bitterness. They come in both dark and light variations.
Berliner Weisse: Berliner Weisse is a German wheat beer style with an ABV typically ranging from 3% to 4%. It is characterized by its tart and slightly sour profile, often accompanied by fruit syrups or flavorings.
Gose: Gose is another German-style wheat beer with a low ABV, usually around 4% to 4.5%. It combines tartness with a touch of saltiness, making it a unique and refreshing option.
Bitter: Bitter is a British beer style and ordinary bitters often have an ABV of around 3.5% to 4%. These beers feature a well-balanced combination of malt sweetness and hop bitterness.
Table Beer: Some breweries produce “table beers” with an intentionally low ABV, often around 3% to 3.5%. These beers are meant to be easy-drinking and pair well with various foods.
Saison: While many saisons have moderate ABVs, some brewers produce “table saisons” with lower alcohol content, often around 3.5% to 4%. These beers retain the farmhouse ale’s yeast character and are highly drinkable.

High ABV Beers:

Beers with higher ABV are often referred to as “strong” or “high-ABV” beers. These beers typically have a greater alcohol content than the average beer, often exceeding 5%. Those on the higher end of the scale are often sold in smaller quantities, such as an 8-ounce snifter rather than a 16-ounce pint glass. Some common types of beers known for having higher ABV include:

Imperial or Double IPAs: These beers are known for their bold hop flavors and elevated alcohol content. They often range from 7% to 12% ABV, with some even higher. Imperial IPAs, called Double IPAs, are renowned for their strong, bitter, and complex profiles. If you see the word “Imperial” on a beer label, it means it comes with a higher ABV.
Imperial Stouts: These rich and robust stouts are characterized by their high ABV, often ranging from 8% to 12% ABV or more. They feature deep, roasted malt flavors with chocolate, coffee, and dark fruits notes.
Belgian Tripels and Quadrupels: Belgian Tripels typically have an ABV of 7% to 10%, while Quadrupels can reach 10% to 14% ABV or higher. These Belgian ales are known for their complex flavors, including fruity esters and spicy phenols.
Barleywines: Barleywines are strong ales that can have ABVs ranging from 8% to 15% or more. They often have a high malt presence, with a sweet and full-bodied character.
Saisons/Farmhouse Ales: While many saisons are moderate in ABV, some craft brewers produce “imperial” or “strong” saisons that can reach 8% to 10% ABV. These beers maintain the farmhouse ale’s yeast character but with more alcohol.
Belgian Strong Ales: These ales can vary in ABV, but many fall into the 7% to 12% ABV range. Belgian Strong Ales include styles like Dubbel, Tripel, and Strong Dark Ale, which offer a wide range of flavors and complexities.
Russian Imperial Stout: This style of stout is known for its extreme richness and high alcohol content, often exceeding 10% ABV. It’s characterized by dark, roasted malt flavors and a full-bodied profile.
Wheatwines: These beers are made with a substantial amount of wheat, similar to barleywines. They can have ABVs ranging from 7% to 12% ABV or higher, offering a unique twist on traditional barleywines.
Old Ales: Old ales can vary in ABV, but many fall from 6% to 10% ABV. They are typically aged, leading to complex, malty, and sometimes sweet flavors.
Bourbon Barrel-Aged Beers: Various beer styles, such as stouts and barleywines, are often aged in bourbon barrels, which can significantly elevate their ABV due to alcohol absorption from the wood. Some bourbon barrel-aged beers can exceed 15% ABV.

Hard Cider ABV

Hard cider is often mistaken for a type of beer, but it’s distinct in that it’s made from fermented fruit juice rather than malt. The ABV of hard cider closely resembles that of beer, commonly ranging from 4.5% to 7%. Unlike beer, hard cider doesn’t exhibit significant variation in its ABV levels, so you’ll often find it within this range. This consistency in ABV makes it easier to predict the strength of your cider.

Wine ABV

You may not have thought about wine as having an ABV rating, even though you expect it to have alcoholic effects. Most wines have an ABV of around 12%, higher than most beers on the shelf. Like beer, however, different types of wine will have varying ABV values. If you’re looking for a lower ABV, choose a sparkling or white wine since those are usually closer to 10%. On the other hand, having a glass of red wine will give you a more substantial alcoholic effect with an ABV of around 14%. The highest ABV wines are “fortified wines, ” which incorporate distilled grape spirits into fermentation. A fortified wine will have an ABV closer to 20%.

Liquor ABV

Instead of ABV, liquor is measured in “proof,” although distillers may also list ABV on their labels.

The term “proof” has historical origins and dates back to the 18th century when it was used as a method to test and verify the alcohol content of distilled spirits. The proof test involved soaking a small amount of gunpowder in the alcohol and then attempting to ignite it. If the gunpowder ignited, it was “proof” that the spirit contained a sufficient amount of alcohol and was not watered down or diluted.

Over time, the term “proof” became standardized, with 100 proof representing the minimum alcohol content at which gunpowder would ignite. This corresponds to an ABV of 50%. Therefore, a spirit with an ABV of 50% was considered 100 proof, while spirits with a higher ABV were expressed as multiples of 100. For example, a spirit with an ABV of 60% would be 120 proof.

In the modern era, proof is still used on many liquor labels in the United States, although it is not as commonly used or required in other parts of the world. Most countries express alcohol content directly in ABV, and their labeling standards do not use proof.

Given the intense flavor of liquor, it is frequently mixed with non-alcoholic ingredients or muddled components to create cocktails. This dilutes the strong taste and reduces the overall alcohol intake.

How is ABV calculated?

Part of the journey to answering “What is ABV?” is understanding how ABV is calculated. If you want to get very technical, here is how brewers approximate the ABV for a style of beer.

ABV = ( Original Gravity (OG) – Final Gravity (FG) ) times 131.25

Gravity is the density of the wort (the liquid including mashed grains) as compared to the density of water. Brewers measure this with a meter such as a hydrometer or refractometer. The density of the wort depends on the amount of sugar content of the wort. The first measurement of gravity is OG or original gravity. During fermentation, the yeasts in the wort convert the sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol, decreasing density. When the gravity stops declining, fermentation is complete. The ending measurement of gravity is final gravity or FG.

There are other ways to produce more precise measurements of the ABV, but this method is the most commonly discussed among brewmasters.

How does ABV affect your drinking experience?

If you’re wondering, “What does ABV mean?” it’s natural to wonder how alcohol content will impact your drinking experience. ABV is a measurement of alcohol content so that you will notice the intoxicating effects of the beverage corresponding with the low or high level of alcohol content. However, ABU on its own does not necessarily impact the taste. For example, if you think about a high-alcohol (high-proof) liquor, it may have far less flavor than a glass of wine. The same holds true for beer.

Learn the answers to all your beer questions like “What does ABV mean?” from our team at The Growler Guys.

Explore the growing variety of beers in one taproom, The Growler Guys. Each location carries the best local varieties, from the palest ales to the darkest stouts, along with ciders and kombucha. Our friendly staff is happy to walk you through the characteristics of every style to help you discover your favorites. Take home the beers you love best in a growler to share with family and friends. View our online tap list to learn about the selections currently available at a location near you!

Filed Under: Tagged With:

Reader Interactions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.