012. Style parameters

Style parameters

Beer styles can be measured qualitatively and quantitatively. Today’s lesson describes the different ways to measure the characteristics of a beer, and understand its style.

Best in Show by capnvynl on flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Best in Show by capnvynl on flickr (CC BY 2.0)

This isn’t psychology. I mean, who’s to say why people put things into categories.

Cars, trucks, SUVs. Apartments, condos, single-detached homes. Men and women. Dogs and cats. Ales and lagers.

Categories help us understand things and appreciate things. Beer styles are a way to understand the beer in hand.

Reading material for this section was found in the Certified Beer Server syllabus and the following sources.

Discussion of quantitative assessments come mostly from the BJCP 2015 Style Guidelines; Beer, Mead, and Cider Guidelines with Special Ingredient Descriptions.

Discussion of qualitative assessments, especially pertaining to beer character, come mostly from:


Knowledge requirements: qualitative measurements versus quantitative measurements

I first learned the terms qualitative and quantitative in university science classes. It’s a way to differentiate between a measurement that is subjective from a measurement that is objective.

Qualitative measurement is subjective to the observer. It’s usually described with adjectives. What one person calls brown, another might call beige. Therefore, a quality is descriptive and can be perceived slightly differently from person to person.

On the other hand, quantitative measurement is objective. It helps me to think of the word “quantity,” like a weight or a measurement. It’s quantifiable. Quantitative descriptors usually come in the form of numbers. Therefore, a quantitative measurement is the same for everyone.

We can say qualitatively that a person is tall. We can say quantitatively that she is 5’11”.

So it is in beer styles, they can be measured qualitatively and quantitatively.

Qualitative measurements
Quantitative measurements
Usu. adjectives
Usu. numbers

NOTE: For all of the beer styles that we’ll be following, please keep in mind that these styles are a general representation of most beers of the given style. That is, most beers in a style will follow these parameters and ranges that we’ll discuss, but there will be some outliers, some beers that fall slightly outside of the strict parameters for a given style.

It’s a spectrum, it’s fluid, it’s artistic, and it’s open to some interpretation by the individual brewers.

The four parameters that define beer style: Color, perceived bitterness, alcohol content, and character

As described earlier, the Certified Beer Server syllabus goes by the BJCP Style Guidelines for beer styles. Allegedly, the BJCP Guidelines don’t change as often as other guidelines.

BJCP Style Guidelines have lots of prose describing each style, sometimes half a page or more. In the next lesson, we’ll get into the descriptions for each specific style. For now, we’re just outlining how the descriptions are measured.

I’m changing the order of these parameters from that shown in the syllabus. I present them in the order we perceive them when approaching a beer.

In fact, I’m going out a little further on that limb; I’m grouping this study not by measurement type, but by the different parameters. It makes more sense to me to look at one parameter at a time, and understand both qualitative and quantitative measurements for that parameter.

Parameters of beer styles fall into these categories:

  1. Color
  2. Perceived bitterness
  3. Alcohol content

Often these parameters will be abbreviated as follows:

  • C – color
  • PB – perceived bitterness
  • ABV – alcohol content (alcohol by volume)

These 3 parameters each can be measured qualitatively or quantitatively.

A fourth parameter, however—character— can be measured only qualitatively. That is, character has no quantitative measurements.


The first thing we will notice when approaching a beer is its visual color.

BJCP uses 12 qualitative color categories and corresponds them to the quantitative “Standard Reference Method” scale. For this exam, we need to know just the following 5 color descriptors:

  1. Straw
  2. Gold
  3. Amber
  4. Brown
  5. Black

Each of the qualitative color descriptors above correlates to a quantitative range on the SRM scale. We don’t need to know SRM values for the Certified Beer Server exam, but I’m including the information in case you want to get nerdy about. I like to get nerdy about it.

SRM is often used as a quantitative measurement of beer color. It’s measured on a scale of 1 to 40+.

BJCP Style Guidelines describes SRM as “a measure of beer color or density more than hue/tint.”

A friend from the Beer Color Laboratories sent me a Beer Color Reference guide. The transparent card has a gradient of colors that you can compare to any beer and gauge the SRM number. It’s a handy way to hone your visual skills and beer knowledge.

Anyway, he says, “SRM is actually a measure of ‘darkness’ at one wavelength and not a good representation of ‘color’ by any means. You need to gather color data for many beers… to get a representative color for beers at those [SRM] values.”

Beer Color Reference by Beer Color Laboratories.

Beer Color Reference by Beer Color Laboratories is a handy tool for measuring the SRM of beer.

How we perceive the color and the hue/tint of a beer can be affected by a number of factors such a lighting and backdrop. Therefore, it’s very difficult to correlate qualitative measurements of color directly to quantitative measurements.

Just know that beer can be classified by color, and by darkness.

Five color descriptors and an example of each:

Color descriptor SRM number (optional) Style example
Straw 2 – 4 American Light Lager
Gold 6 – 7 Belgian Blond Ale
Amber 10 – 18 American Amber Ale
Brown 19 – 30 American Brown Ale
Black 35 – 40 Stout

Check out the Wikipedia article on Standard Reference Method for a wider range of color representations on the screen.

The SRM ranges shown above are from the BJCP Style Guidelines 2008, but generalized from the 5 descriptors in the Certified Beer Server syllabus.

Perceived bitterness

After observing a beer’s color, let’s see how it tastes.

Actually, I like to describe aroma second, because, after looking at a beer, we’ll smell it before we taste it. But aroma has only a qualitative measurement, so the Certified Beer Server syllabus describes in the “character” descriptor. Therefore, we’ll describe aroma below when we talk about beer character.

Flavor is also so varied and nuanced that is has mostly qualitative descriptors. We discuss a variety of flavors in the character section.

In the meantime, let’s cut straight to one aspect of flavor that is very popular in beer: bitterness.

Certified Beer Server syllabus qualitatively generalizes perceived bitterness with the following 5 categories of bitterness:

  1. Low
  2. Moderate
  3. Pronounced
  4. Assertive
  5. Highly assertive

Each of the qualitative descriptors above correlates to a quantitative range on the International Bitterness Units scale. The scale for IBU ranges from 0 to 100+. We don’t need to know IBU values for the Certified Beer Server exam, but I’m including the information in case you want to further advance your knowledge.

Popular Science has a pretty informative explanation of IBUs. It demystifies and debunks a lot of misinformation that I’ve heard going around. Basically, IBUs measures the concentration of bittering compounds in beer.

Not all tongues are the same. Bitterness can be perceived differently from person to person.

Additionally, perceived bitterness doesn’t correlate directly to IBUs. The way we perceive bitterness is affected by the amount of malt in the beer, so if you have 2 beers with the same IBU, the more malty beer won’t seem as bitter.

Just know that beer can be classified by perceived bitterness and by actual bitterness.

Five descriptors of bitterness and their corresponding IBU:

Perceived bitterness IBUs (optional) Style example
Low 0 – 30 American Light Lager
Moderate 20 – 40 Märzen
Pronounced 35 – 75 American Amber Ale
Assertive 50 – 100 India Pale Ale
Highly assertive 80 – 120 Double IPA

The IBU ranges shown above are generalized from the 40-or-so beer styles in the Certified Beer Server syllabus.

Alcohol content

While still tasting the beer, we can perceive a general feeling for the amount of alcohol in beer. The amount of alcohol can vary from beer to beer.

Qualitatively, we can use the following 5 descriptors of alcohol content:

  1. Lower
  2. Normal
  3. Elevated
  4. High
  5. Very high

Alcohol content can also be quantitatively measured. There are two measurements, both are expressed in percent:

  • Alcohol By Volume (ABV)
  • Alcohol By Weight (ABW)

Alcohol By Volume is the more common measurement.

Five descriptors for alcohol content and their corresponding ABV:

Alcohol content descriptor ABV (optional) Style example
Lower <4.5% American Light Lager
Normal 4.5% – 6.0% German Pils
Elevated 6.1% – 7.5% Helles Bock
High 7.6% – 10.0% Belgian Tripel
Very high >10.0% Imperial Stout

Beer character

Another assessment of beer is the beer character. This one is qualitative, but has no quantitative measurements. It’s sort of the overall description of a beer.

For this exam, we’ll cover 6 parameters of beer character.

Here they are in the order that you will experience them:

  1. Appearance
  2. Aroma
  3. Flavor
  4. Perceived bitterness
  5. Mouthfeel
  6. Aftertaste

We’ll discuss how these are perceived and how to evaluate these later on in section III. Beer Flavor and Evaluation. For now, we’ll just try and give basic definitions.

Appearance – For appearance, we’re just trying to get an overall visual assessment of the beer before you really get into the smell and taste of it. Color is kind of part of it, but that’s covered more in the qualitative measurements above.

Get an overall impression of the beer from any visual cues you can pick up such as color, hue, clarity, or viscosity.

Aroma – “Whether the drinker sniffs or not,” says Michael Jackson, “much of what we think we taste is actually experienced through our potent and evocative sense of smell.”

We can’t list all of the aromas. Randy Mosher says humans can perceive 10,000 different aromas.

Flavor – Different kinds of flavor include sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami (“deliciousness” can also be perceived as meatiness), and fat.

According to Mosher, fat is “the most recently discovered member of the taste family, having been added only with the discovery of its receptor in 2005.” He also admits that “it’s not clear if this receptor plays any role at all in beer tasting, as beer is a fat-free product.”

Beyond that, the variety of flavors that can be perceived in beer is limited only by experience and imagination. Michal Jackson’s Great Beer Guide has a “Lexicon of flavors & aromas” that gives a good variety with explanations of why we perceive these flavors in beer.

For example, the perception of cloves in beer, he explains, “arises from phenols created in fermentation.”

Perceived bitterness – Bitter flavors are nature’s way of protecting us from food poisoning. For most people, bitterness is an acquired taste. In beer, we consider bitterness as a good thing.

Hops provide beer’s bitterness as well as flowery aromas and flavors.

On the other hand, astringent bitterness can signal a bad beer.

Mouthfeel – Mouthfeel can encompass a variety of sensations including temperature, carbonation, viscosity, and cooling or burning sensations.

Common mouthfeel sensations from beer are described as crispness or dryness, palate fullness, richness, oiliness, and more.

Aftertaste – Aftertaste refers to perceptions after you have swallowed the beer.

If you swallow a beer and it’s just gone, it doesn’t have any aftertaste.

On the other hand, flavors, aromas, and mouthfeel can linger or even change long after the beer is swallowed.

I love what Jackson says about tasting beer:

“Enjoyment of beer does not demand some special tasting talent. All it requires is an open mind, an interest in beer, and an eagerness to find aromas and flavors without fear of mockery.”


This lesson is really important. The information presented in this lesson is the building blocks for the next few lessons. It’s really important to memorize this information. It will make the next few lessons a lot easier to understand and absorb.

In the next section we’re really going to hit beer styles hard. We’ll pull together everything we learned from the last two chapters and get cozy with history, characteristics, and flavor attributes of styles by region.

It’s a big section. Let’s do this!

Flashcards for this section

Based on the reading materials mentioned and my notes above, here are my flashcards for this section.

There are a lot of flashcards for this section. Some of it seems redundant, because it’s a lot of intricate details presented in different ways. I did it this way to help us better learn these little details that will be so important for our future ability to understand beer styles.

What’s the difference between qualitative measurements and quantitative measurements?

Qualitative measurements
Quantitative measurements
Usu. adjectives
Usu. numbers

What 4 parameters define beer style?

  1. Color (C)
  2. Perceived bitterness (PB)
  3. Alcohol content (ABV)
  4. Character

What does SRM stand for?

Standard Reference Method is a quantitative measurement for color.

What does IBU stand for?

International Bitterness Units is a quantitative measurement for bitterness.

What does ABV stand for?

Alcohol By Volume is a quantitative measurement for alcohol content. It is expressed in percent.

Which of the 4 parameters that define beer style can be measured only qualitatively, not quantitatively?

Beer character has only qualitative measurements, not quantitative measurements.

What are the 5 descriptors of color?

  1. Straw
  2. Gold
  3. Amber
  4. Brown
  5. Black

SRM range for straw color

SRM: 2 – 4

SRM range for gold color

SRM: 6 – 7

SRM range for amber color

SRM: 10 – 18

SRM range for brown color

SRM: 19 – 30

SRM range for black color

SRM: 35 – 40

List the 5 color descriptors with corresponding SRM number and a style example for each.

Color descriptor Style example SRM number (optional)
Straw American Light Lager 2 – 4
Gold Belgian Blond Ale 6 – 7
Amber American Amber Ale 10 – 18
Brown American Brown Ale 19 – 30
Black Stout 35 – 40

What are the 5 descriptors of perceived bitterness?

  1. Low
  2. Moderate
  3. Pronounced
  4. Assertive
  5. Highly assertive

IBU range for low perceived bitterness

IBUs: 0 – 30

IBU range for moderate perceived bitterness

IBUs: 20 – 40

IBU range for pronounced perceived bitterness

IBUs: 35 – 75

IBU range for assertive perceived bitterness

IBUs: 50 – 100

IBU range for highly assertive perceived bitterness

IBUs: 80 – 120

List the 5 bitterness descriptors with corresponding IBUs and a style example for each.

Perceived bitterness Style example IBUs (optional)
Low American Light Lager 0 – 30
Moderate Märzen 20 – 40
Pronounced American Amber Ale 35 – 75
Assertive India Pale Ale 50 – 100
Highly assertive Double IPA 80 – 120

What are the 5 descriptors of alcohol content?

  1. Lower
  2. Normal
  3. Elevated
  4. High
  5. Very high

ABV range for lower alcohol content

ABV: <4.5%

ABV range for normal alcohol content

ABV: 4.5% – 6.0%

ABV range for elevated alcohol content

ABV: 6.1% – 7.5%

ABV range for high alcohol content

ABV: 7.6% – 10.0%

ABV range for very high alcohol content

ABV: >10.0%

List the 5 alcohol content descriptors with corresponding ABV and a style example for each.

Alcohol content descriptor Style example ABV (optional)
Lower American Light Lager <4.5%
Normal German Pils 4.5% – 6.0%
Elevated Helles Bock 6.1% – 7.5%
High Belgian Tripel 7.6% – 10.0%
Very high Imperial Stout >10.0%

List the 5 qualitative descriptors for color, perceived bitterness, and alcohol content.

Color Perceived bitterness Alcohol content
Straw Low Lower
Gold Moderate Normal
Amber Pronounced Elevated
Brown Assertive High
Black Highly assertive Very high

What are the 6 parameters of beer character?

  1. Appearance
  2. Aroma
  3. Flavor
  4. Perceived bitterness
  5. Mouthfeel
  6. Aftertaste

Beer Style Flashcards

Beer Style Flashcards

Beer Exam School flashcards, beer styles set. Formatted for perforated business card sheets. Compatible with Avery 8371.


Nathan Pierce

    I'm Nathan Pierce. I drink beer, I quit my job, and I'm planning to start a brewery. I also host a podcast about how to start a brewery. So I’m studying for Cicerone® Certification Program, Certified Beer Server exam.

    Study along with me!

    Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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