Anyone who has ever been in a taproom or bar where large selections of beer are served will have seen the alcohol by volume abbreviation of ABV written next to the beer. So what is ABV in beer exactly? Why are some beers higher and other beers lower? How does the ABV influence the beer and what kind of effect does it have on its taste and aroma? In this post, we are going to tackle these questions and provide you with a full understanding of the relationship between ABV and beer.
Table of Contents
What Does ABV in Beer Mean?
Although not the only measurement used to determine the ethanol content of alcohol in a beer, ABV or Alcohol by Volume is the most commonly used measurement worldwide. In layman’s terms, it simply means how much of the total volume of the beverage is alcohol. If a beer has an ABV of 4 % and another 7% it means the latter has more alcoholic content in the same amount of liquid, which also means you will feel the effects of it quicker.
Different beers range in alcohol content depending on the recipe the brewer uses. Most beers will fall within the range of 3 – 12% ABV, with some being even higher.
The more base grains that are used during the making of the beer results in more fermentable sugars being available for the fermentation stage. During fermentation, the yeast eats the sugars and as a result creates two byproducts, CO2 and alcohol. In order to make even bigger beers and increase the alcohol level brewers can add other sources of sugar such as corn sugar, honey, or even brown sugar.
How is ABV Measured?
There are two main tools that can be used to measure the ABV in a beer, a hydrometer, and a refractometer.
The hydrometer is the most widely used of the two due to its simplicity of use and low cost to purchase. Most homebrewers and craft brewers will have many of these on hand in their brewery.
A hydrometer is a weighted glass vial or tube-like apparatus. It is very slender at one end and wider at the other. The wider end is weighted and the slender end has numerical measurements on it. The hydrometer comes with a test tube or liquid container.
You simply fill the container up with the liquid you wish to measure the density of, in this case the beer, and place the hydrometer into it. The hydrometer will sink into the liquid to a certain level and then float there.
The level it settles at depends on the density of the liquid. During fermentation, the alcoholic density of the beer you are fermenting will change as the yeast converts the sugars over to alcohol and CO2. Sugar and alcohol levels affect the density.
A brewer will check the density of the unfermented beer with the hydrometer prior to fermenting it and then again after fermentation has completed, recording the measurements each time. The unfermented beer has a higher density than the fermented beer due to all of the sugars that are still present in the liquid and have not as of yet been consumed by the yeast.
To determine the ABV with these two measurements you take the first one called the original gravity or OG and subtract the second one which is called the final gravity or FG. You then multiply that figure by 131.25.
Here is how that looks:
ABV = (original gravity – final gravity) x 131.25
For example, let’s say you were brewing this Irish Red Ale, your original gravity registered at 1.048 and your final gravity was 1.010, plugging those numbers into the formula you would get an ABV of 4.99%.
1.048 – 1.010 = 0.038 x 131.25 = 4.987%
There are also ABV calculators you can use instead of doing the math yourself.
Here is a step-by-step instructional on how to use a hydrometer.
The refractometer is another simple tool used by many brewers to determine the alcohol percentage. However, it varies in that it measures the degree to which light changes direction when it hits the beer. Sugar and alcohol both have varying effects on how light is refracted. Refractometers measure the degree these varying effects have on the light’s change in direction.
The refractometer measures the concentration of sugar in the unfermented beer also called wort. This tool somewhat looks like a telescope a pirate would use to look off into the distance. Except at the far end, you put a drop of the wort inside a compartment. You then look into the other end and aim the refractometer up to the light.
Inside it, there is a measurement tool called the Brix scale, which indicates the concentration of sugar in the wort. To determine the ABV of the beer the sugar measurements must be taken before and after the fermentation phase. Refractometers are used to take measurements before fermentation more so than after as it is a more complicated process after fermentation with precise adjustments needing to be made.
How Does ABV Affect the Taste?
ABV of a beer affects more than just how soon you become intoxicated. It can also have a significant impact on the taste of the beer. Lower levels tend to allow for a sweeter beer, whereas higher levels can create significant bitterness in the beer. Think about the last time you had a taste of whiskey, then compare it to the taste of the last beer you had. One of the significant differences in taste is the greater alcohol content of the whiskey.
Beers under 10% can be balanced nicely with their hops and malts and are able to hide any hot flavors from the alcohol. However, once you get past 10% the harsher alcohol taste is very difficult to hide and additional ingredients are typically needed to be added in order to mask the alcohol taste.
What is the Average ABV of Beer?
Although ABV levels vary all around the world and even from brewery to brewery within the same town. The average beer strength of the majority of beers is typically between 4 – 6 percent. Most of the commercial beers you buy come in at 5%.
Beers with higher ABV are becoming more and more popular as brewers attempt to push the envelope of what is possible and as a result, it is not unusual to see numerous beers sitting in the 7 – 8% range with some brands even coming in at the higher 10 – 14% range.
You can also now get outrageously strong beers that take specialized knowledge and equipment to brew, such as Brewmeister Snake Venom that claims to be the world’s strongest beer coming in at 65% ABV. This would be a sipping beer and you might not want to have too many in one sitting!
ABV vs Proof
A common question is what is the difference between ABV and Proof? They are simply different metrics to measure the amount of alcohol in a beverage. A simple way to remember the difference is that proof is actually just about double ABV. If a drink is 25% ABV it would be 50 proof.
Proof was first used by the British, however, they now use the ABV metric instead of proof to measure the alcohol content of all beverages. The United States continues to use proof when it comes to spirits.
A fun fact is that the term proof actually comes from the good old days when they would test or proof the strength of an alcoholic beverage by mixing it with gunpowder and attempting to light it on fire. If it did not catch fire it was considered not strong enough, if it burned yellow it was too strong, but if the flame was blue the proof was where it should be.
ABV vs ABW
ABW is simply another metric for determining the alcohol content of a beverage. It stands for alcohol by weight. It is not a method used in many places in the world any longer, some states in the USA and also India continue to use it. Instead of measuring the portion of the beverages volume that is alcohol ABW measures the portion of the beverage mass that is alcohol.
The ABW value of a drink is always lower than ABV. If you ever wanted to convert alcohol content by volume to alcohol content by weight you simply need to multiply the ABV by 0.8%.
For example a 4% ABV beer is equivalent to a 3.2% ABW beer. 4 x .08 = 3.2%
Alternatively, if you are ever somewhere in the world where you notice the beer is listed as ABW, in order to convert it to ABV simply multiply it by 1.25.
For example, take the same beer at 3.2 ABM and multiply it by 1.25 = 4% ABV.
Average Alcohol Range of Other Beverages
Where beers typically range from 3 – 10% the following is the range for other popular beverages:
- Spirits tend to range from 35 – 45% ABV or 70 – 90 proof.
- Liqueurs come in less at 15 – 30% ABV or 30 – 60 proof. This is due to them being mixed with syrups and other sweeteners to give them a sweeter taste. Doing so dilutes their alcohol content.
- Wine is typically between 11 – 13%
The Difference Between ABV and IBU
You may have also noticed another measurement listed on the beer you purchase. IBU or International Bitterness Units. The first thing to understand is that this metric has nothing to do with the alcohol content of your beer. Instead, it measures the beer’s bitterness level, which has a direct correlation to the amount and type of hops used when it is brewed.
The IBU scale is designed to help you determine what bitterness level you prefer in your beer. Different people not only enjoy different levels of bitterness but have varying abilities to be able to determine or perceive bitterness.
IBU’s are measured on a scale from 0 – 100. The higher the IBU the more bitter the beer should be (although that is not always the case). Although some beers will report having an IBU over 100, the average person can not perceive bitterness past 80 IBUs.
Here is an IBU graph that can help you determine what level of IBU you prefer. It lists the IBU’s of the popular beer styles. You can take a look at where your favorite beer style comes in at to get an understanding of your IBU preference.
There you have it my friend you should now have a thorough understanding of what ABV means when it comes to beer. If you have any questions on what we covered feel free to ask in the comments below.
Also for the fun of it let us know what your favorite alcohol level is in the beer you drink. I like mine around the 5% range, as it allows me to feel the effects while also being able to enjoy a few pints without feeling too much of the effects!
Cheers, Big Robb is Out!
P.S. If you are a homebrewer be sure to take advantage of my offer to get access to the recipes for my top 5 best-selling beers from my brewpub. Sign up is on the side of the blog or the bottom if you are on a smart device. Enjoy!