Everybody loves a nice, cold beer on a hot summer day. Whether you like your beers light and fruity or dark and bitter, one thing is for sure: tossing back a few beers with your friends is one of life’s simplest pleasures. You may think you know alcohol is in the beer in your hand, but did you know that the alcohol by volume, or the ABV, can vary widely between different brands and styles of beer? You may think you know how many beers you can handle, but do you actually?
We’ll tell you everything you need to know about the alcohol content of beer, and we’ll break down which styles and brands of beer have the highest and lowest ABVs.
How is beer’s alcohol content measured?
Two measurements are widely used to measure the alcohol content of a wine, beer, or spirit. The first measurement used in alcohol by volume percentage, often abbreviated as ABV%. The second measurement, which is used exclusively for liquor, is proof.
ABV measurements are pretty intuitive and are used all around the world. The ABV% indicates what percentage of your wine, beer, or spirit is pure alcohol. If you have a can of beer labeled 5% ABV, that means that 5% of the contents of your can are pure alcohol. Proof is measured slightly differently. The proof of a given liquor is always twice the ABV. So, if a bottle of rum is 50% ABV, it is 100 proof.
Typically, beer and wine don’t use the proof system of measurement. It’s not technically incorrect, but since beer and wine have relatively low ABV percentages compared to spirits, it’s really unnecessary to label them using the proof system. So when talking about the alcohol content of beer, we’ll use the ABV% system of measurement.
How much alcohol is in a standard beer?
Not all beers are created equal when it comes to ABV%. Some beers can have as low as 2% or 3% ABV, and beers have even been brewed to have up to 55% ABV (although you’ll come across these very rarely).
While beer has a large range of ABVs, the average beer has about 5% ABV, while light beers are usually closer to 4.2% ABV. The United States Government defines one standard drink of beer as 12 oz. of 5% ABV.
How much alcohol is in different styles of beer?
Different beer styles are categorized in various ways, based on the fermentation method used, the characteristics of the beer, the location it’s brewed in, and so on. In general, beers in the same stylistic family will have similar alcohol content. For example, two IPAs will probably have a more similar ABV% than an IPA and an American Lager.
We’ve broken down some of the most popular beer styles and how much alcohol they usually contain below.
American Pale Ales
American Pale Ales are easy-drinking, golden to deep amber in color, medium-bodied, and moderate-to-high hop flavor. They’re probably the best representation of American craft brewing. They’re very food-friendly and can pair with just about any meal. The average American Pale Ale is around 4.4% ABV to 5.5% ABV.
The most iconic example of an American Pale Ale is Sierra Nevada (5.7% ABV).
India Pale Ales
India Pale Ales, or IPAs, are probably the newest beer style, yet one of the most popular in the United States today. IPAs are similar in color to American Pale Ales, perhaps slightly darker, with a much more concentrated hop flavor and aroma. The style was originally intended to be shipped from England to India, where the name comes from, so extra hops were added as a preservative. They usually have big herbal and citrus flavors and high bitterness when compared to regular Pale Ales. IPAs usually have an ABV of around 6.3% to 7.5%.
Imperial, or Double IPAs, are like regular IPAs, but with a stronger flavor, more hop bitterness, and higher alcohol content. Their ABV percentages usually range anywhere from 7% ABV to 14% ABV.
Stouts are extremely dark and have a variety of variations. There are dry stouts, such as Guinness (4.2% ABV), and sweet or milk stouts made with lactose are usually much sweeter, like Belching Beaver Peanut Butter Milk Stout (5.3% ABV). Stouts are usually made with deeply roasted malt, which results in a jet black color and flavors of espresso, unsweetened chocolate, or burnt bread. Stouts usually have ABVs from 4% to 9%.
Wheat beers use wheat as their malt. They are generally lighter in both color and alcohol content. They usually have tangy fruit flavors, which go very well with chicken, fish, salads, and fruit. Popular wheat beer varieties include American Pale Wheat beers, which have anywhere from 3.5% to 5.6% ABV, and Belgian Witbier, which has 4.8 to 5.6% ABV.
Pilsners are a specific type of lager that is usually more flavorful than an American Lager. They’re usually pale gold and fairly clear, with a spicy, floral hop bouquet. They’re crisp and refreshing, with complex maltiness and bitterness. Pilsners usually range from 4.1% to 5.3% ABV.
Amber Ales have maltier, more caramel-forward flavors, as well as roasted toffee characteristics. They’re slightly sweeter than other beers but still have a heavier body than a standard pale ale. American Amber Ales have American Hops, which add slightly citrusy and pine notes. The ABV% of Amber Ales usually ranges from 4.4% to 6.1%.
English Pale Ales
English Pale Ales usually have milder, more malt-forward characters than American Pale Ales, which are hoppier. English yeast gives these beers fruitier notes, which balances the bitterness, leading to a well-balanced brew. English Pale Ales usually range from 4.5% to 5.5% ABV.
Porters are fairly similar to stouts but have slightly different characteristics. Typical porters are dark brown to almost black in color, with a mild hop flavor complemented by notes of dark chocolate, burnt caramel, and sometimes fruit. Porters are fairly complex and have ABVs ranging from 4.5% to 6% ABV.
Hefeweizens are German beers typically characterized by strong flavors of banana and clove, which come from chemicals called esters and phenols. They generally have a fairly low alcohol content and have a huge range of flavor intensities. They have a nice balance of fruit and spice and have ABVs of around 4.9% to 5.6%.
Over the past few years, Sour Beers have risen in popularity. They taste exactly as they sound: usually tart and sour. The tart flavor comes from the lactic acid produced by microorganisms during fermentation. Levels of tartness can vary greatly between brands. Many brewers also add spice and fruit to their Sour Beers to balance out the tartness. The ABVs of Sour Beers can vary greatly, but most fall between 3% and 5%.
When it comes to alcohol content, not all beers are created equal. While the average beer is around 5% ABV, some beers contain far less alcohol, and others contain far more. The amount of alcohol in a variety of beer depends on a variety of factors. It’s important to check the alcohol content of the beer you’re enjoying so you have all the information you need to drink responsibly.
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