The menu at Novare Res, a beer bar in Portland. Photos by Carla Jean Lauter

Watch any classic movie with a bar scene in it, and the protagonist usually sidles up to the bartender and asks for a ‘beer.’ It is handed to him or her, and that’s the end of the transaction. Try that in 2019, however, and at best, you’re going to get a helpful bartender asking, “Well, yeah, but which beer?” The process of choosing and ordering beer has complexified rapidly as new breweries have come onto the scene. Choosing a beer, especially at a bar that features many craft beers, can be a time-consuming endeavor, and can also feel like you’re reading an alien language. IPA? IBU? ABV?

Bars in Portland and beyond have taken to displaying their beer lists in a variety of ways. Some have extensive information and descriptions, others list only the brewery and beer name, leaving you to fill in the gaps using prior knowledge or by asking a server. More often than not, there isn’t a lot to go on when the menu is on a small chalkboard, or if you only see the name and style of the beer. It helps to arm yourself with a little bit of knowledge to help you interpret the menu.

In terms of alcohol content, there’s a few pieces of jargon to be aware of. Most (responsible) bars will have an “ABV” marked out next to the beer list or on the chalkboard so that you, the consumer, knows how strong the beer is. This is the percentage of “alcohol by volume” and is indicative of the strength a beer. For reference, an average glass of wine is typically 12 percent ABV – but wine is usually poured in smaller portions than a pint glass. So a beer at 12 percent would be very strong for a beer. Typically, beers rage from 5 to 8 percent ABV, with special beers brewed to have lower or higher alcohol content.

The tap list at Yes Brewing in Westbrook.

Another clue on the menu is whether something is marked as “imperial” or “session.” These two words are essentially opposite, and most of the time can give you an indication of beer’s strength. Imperial beers are those that are heavier in body, higher in alcohol, or have otherwise been enhanced in flavor or process. Bunker Brewing Company’s Trashmaster beers are deliciously rich Russian imperial stouts. The base version is 8.8 percent ABV, and the barrel-aged variants are usually above 9 percent.

Session, on the other hand, is a relatively new term that’s used to describe lower alcohol beer, and indicates that you could have several in one “session.” Officially, session beers should be 4 percent ABV or lower, but it is used more generally and can include beers that are in the 5 percent range. Rising Tide’s Maine Island Trail Ale is a session that comes in at 4.3 percent, and is a perfect fit for summer activities after which you do not want to end up with much of a buzz.

When navigating the IPAs – and there are many – it can be hard to decipher what style of IPA you might be getting. If you’re looking for the popular hazy beers that are less bitter and more tropical, look for keywords like “juicy,” “hazy” and “New England IPA” (sometimes abbreviated NEIPA). A “double” IPA or DIPA is usually packed with more hops and used to also mean that it would have a maltier body to back it up. That’s less consistent now, but usually, double IPAs are giving you an extra kick of hops, so if you’re all about it, then dive in and, if hops are not your thing, then DIPAs certainly will not be either. In contrast, “West Coast” IPAs are pinier and sometimes more bitter, and “English” versions are mild and tend to be subtle with the hops.


Tart, funky, sour – if you see any of these words on a beer menu, be prepared for some really different flavors. I love sour beers in all of their forms, but the diversity of taste in the style takes some getting used to and can be an acquired taste. If you like one sour for its tart zing, you might not love another for its musty quality. Generally, you can expect “tart” to be the kind of sour that hits the part of your mouth that reacts to sour foods, and these are usually the most accessible to those new to sours. While it is meant to describe specific musty or cheesy flavors, in my experience, the word “funky” can really mean anything on a beer menu, so that’s always my hint that I should ask to try a sip before committing.

Lastly, don’t think you need to go it alone. A little bit of Googling or asking around might tell you a bit more about a beer. And, of course, at a bar or restaurant that cares about its beer, you’ll find people on staff who can provide you with recommendations. Ask questions and provide info to your server about what you usually drink. If you’re into a particular beer but they don’t have it, ask what may be similar. If you’re up for an adventure, ask what’s rare or new. Just don’t let the jargon stop you from tackling that beer list.

Carla Jean Lauter is a freelance beer writer and blogger who lives in Lisbon. Follow her beer adventures at:

Twitter: beerbabe

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