Describing the strength of beers can be fairly difficult, especially to someone new to brewing terminology. If you say a beer is “light,” do you mean low in alcohol, pale in color, or light in body and flavor? Or all three? It can be pretty confusing, but it doesn’t have to be. I think it’s important to communicate how strong a beer is because some people are unlikely to enjoy a strong beer, so you need to be able to steer them towards something that they will enjoy.
To start, let’s break it down the most simple way possible: alcohol content. You can describe beers by their alcohol by volume, which is very straightforward. Commonly, beers 4% and under are referred to as session ales. Beers of this strength can be consumed back to back, with a low likelihood that you’ll be hanging from the chandelier over the course of the evening. Beers 5-6% don’t really have a name that I’m aware of. Average-strength beer. Normal beer. Whatever you want to call it. Someone should come up with a name! I refer to any beer 7% and up as a big beer. A lot of people use the term strong ale, but that usually denotes something a bit stronger. Personally, I think that a 7% beer is undoubtedly big.
It would be easy to describe beers if this was the only vector, but there’s also color and taste. A lot of people new to beer think that anything dark is strong. Interesting fact: Guinness is only 4% ABV and has about 120 calories, putting it right alongside Bud Light…hardly a “meal in a can.” At the same time, a Belgian tripel clocks in at 8% alcohol, but is the same pale yellow as a light American lager. If you drink them in the same fashion, you’re going to be on the floor by the end of the night. That’s why I like ABV; it’s objective.