If you’re looking to become part of Sacramento’s thriving beer scene, it can be a lot of fun. But it can also be intimidating, especially when it comes to the language of beer. What, exactly, does your beer geek friend mean by “hoppy?” And did he say “bread” or “brett” when referring to the yeast? Session beer: Is that a good thing? And are you considered cool if you still love Pliny? Or you’ve moved on?
Our breweries have won significant awards, the top-tier brewmasters have separated themselves from the pack, the overall quality of the beer is high and the range of styles in Sacramento is broader than ever. With such excellent brew flowing around town, what follows is an informal primer to get you up to speed and help you feel at home at your favorite brewery or beer-centric pub.
Craft beer: This refers to the little breweries, the underdogs, the up-and-comers. But wait. Aren’t behemoths Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas craft breweries? Well, yes. Craft beer gatekeepers keep changing the definition.
The Brewers Association says any brewery that produces 6 million barrels or less annually, uses traditional brewing methods and is not more than 25 percent owned by non-craft brewing interests qualifies as craft. What about craft breweries that have been gobbled up by the giant breweries? That will probably be up to the consumer.
Do all craft breweries make well-crafted beer? No. Do all giant beer companies make bland beer? For your answer, try a head-to-dead taste test.
Barrel: A unit used to measure beer. It’s equal to 31.5 gallons or two standard kegs.
Hoppy: This adjective may or may not refer to the bitterness you smell and taste in a beer. The term generally is associated with India pale ales and pale ales, whose hoppiness or bitterness is actually measured as international bittering units (IBUs). The higher the IBUs, the more bitterness you’re going to taste and feel raking over your palate. To some, it’s unpleasantly harsh. To others, it’s joyous. But it’s also very broad. It can mean citrus, tropical fruit, earthy, dank and more. Interestingly, the human species is not naturally fond of bitter things, likely because bitter things in the wild tend to be poisonous. Hoppy can mean so many things that it really isn’t very helpful if you use it to describe an IPA.
Hops: They grow on vines and brewers use the flowers, or cones. There are all kinds of hops used for flavoring and bittering beer, but you only have to know a few to start.
Cascade is the most popular hop and is important because it was the first American-bred variety, dating to the 1950s, and it is the hop used to brew Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Centennial hops have similar, though bolder and more bitter, characteristics.
Citra is all about creating wonderful aromas in IPAs. Take a big whiff of many an IPA and you’re likely to get notes of grapefruit, melon and more. That’s probably the Citra hop on full blast. Look no further than Knee Deep’s Citra Extra Pale Ale, a self-proclaimed citrus bomb done right.
Simcoe: This is the signature hop in Russian River’s renowned double IPA, Pliny the Elder. It’s bitter, fruity, earthy and piney, and its overall aroma is alluring and complex. You’ll find Simcoe in plenty of other robust IPAs, including Track 7’s Panic IPA.
Brett: This is a term you’re likely to hear more and more often. Not so much at breweries but at beer bars that carry certain Belgian styles. Short for Brettanomyces, brett is the wild yeast that can either contaminate beer and render it undrinkable or infuse beer with a kind of funky complexity that makes it taste magical. A very unlucky and, perhaps, careless brewer creates the former; a very skilled brewer, the latter.
Nitro: The process of using nitrogen (usually 70 percent) along with carbon dioxide to create carbonation with smaller bubbles that imparts a smooth, creamy mouthfeel. Guinness stout is the most famous nitro beer. Some beer bars have experimented with serving nitro IPAs on draft, though the effect tends to mute the bitterness you might be expecting with that style.
Bomber: This is a big bottle of beer, a 22-ouncer. Not to be confused with “a 40,” as in a big can or bottle of cheap beer designed to get you inebriated good and fast. The bomber is the most commonly used container in craft beer and is usually sold as a single. Many of the best beers in the world are bottled this way. Locally, this is important because Sacramento does not allow the sale of single beers in midtown and downtown, a law that predates the significant growth in local breweries as creative enterprises and community hubs.
In other words, this local ordinance passed before folks were sitting in tasting rooms or on the patios of beer bars talking about Citra and Simcoe hops or opining about their favorite brett beer. These days, Sacramento is being taken seriously as a force in craft beer, just as it is respected for its farm-to-fork bona fides, but its laws for buying and selling beer now seem distressingly out of date.