What defines beer? Specifically, what's a definition of beer that allows this to be classed as one:

Snake Venom is the world’s strongest beer as of 24 October 2013, coming in at 67.5%. It is dark amber in colour with no carbonation due to the high ABV. Unlike the previous Armageddon, the alcohol is not masked in Snake Venom. It is highly present yet it still tastes like a beer with a good degree of hop profile. Each batch is tested by the brewery before bottling and random batches are tested externally.

An alcohol content of 67.5% is not something I would associate with beer. So, why is this considered one and not a spirit?

Dictionary.com defines beer as

an alcoholic beverage made by brewing and fermentation from cereals, usually malted barley, and flavored with hops and the like for a slightly bitter taste.

This is not a very restrictive definition and would seem to also apply to whisky if you add some hops to it. So, is there a better one?

  • Dictionary.com is far less regulated than beer production and is not the only source of definitions of beer. Specifically many countries have legal definitions. In the USA I believe it's based on alcohol content. In Japan it seems to be based on barley content. Germany has very strict and highly regarded laws about how beer can be made. Commented Mar 30, 2014 at 3:43

5 Answers 5


Snake Venom is beer not a spirit because spirits are distilled. Beer is technically not distilled.

As the definition you cited says, beer is the product of fermenting sugar derived from cereal grain which is dissolved in water. So water + grain + yeast = beer. The grain has to undergo a saccharification process where the carbohydrate chains (starches) in the grain are transformed into sugar (glucose, fructose, sucrose, maltose...) which is then converted into alcohol by yeast. Fermentable sugar is extracted from barley through malting and mashing. The yeast is generally added to the wort (unfermented sugary water) manually by the brewer or wild yeast can fall into the beer from the air.

Other processes may be involved with fermenting other grains. For example, in sake brewing, koji (a type of mold) is grown on rice (and soybeans) before fermentation in order to convert starches into fermentable sugars, as rice does not contain the enzymes needed to convert its starches into sugars (note: sake is generally not consider beer, but there are beers made with significant quantities of rice, up to 100% rice beer is possible).

Hops is not a necessary ingredient in beer, and beer was made for thousands of years before people started adding hops to it.

These strong beers like Snake Venom are generally brewed to this high ABV level through freeze "distillation." This isn't really distillation, because no heat is involved, so people still call them beers. But this is a concentration process similar to distillation. Alcohol has a lower freezing point than water, so when you freeze beer, you can remove the ice and you're left with a more concentrated beer. This is the process used in the German eisbock style. The brewers also start with a high ABV beer, using special ingredients (sugar sources other than malt, like table sugar) along with strains of yeast that can tolerate high levels of alcohol and still continue to live and ferment. This process can be somewhat difficult and expensive, so it gets attention. In my opinion it's a novelty, but I guess people like it, because they sell a lot of it.

  • Thanks and +1, that helps. So a definition would have to exclude distillation. Can it be any grain? Any yeast? Is it only S.cerevisiae that can ferment to beer?
    – terdon
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 4:21
  • 5
    It's not really well-defined in practice - any fermented grain-based beverage can be called beer, regardless of the yeast used (you can use Brettanomyces or even more unusual fungal organisms), but one would not ordinarily refer to sake as beer, even though it's brewed from a grain using a fungus. You can use wheat or corn or millet and still have it be beer, though. So the answer is probably a matter of local custom.
    – user505255
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 5:44
  • That sake is often called "rice wine" is more to do with the fact that it's just a traditional name which stuck and that its flavour is more like wine than like beer. Some people do in fact point out that it could just as well be called "rice beer". It's all about the nature of language rather than about the nature of beer etc. Nobody regulates the definitions of English words so some stick and some do not. This is why special technical legal terms and definitions also come into existence (malt liquor, happoushu, etc). Commented Mar 30, 2014 at 3:52

Some key attributes that make a beer a beer:

  • the primary process to make it typically involves brewing, i.e. steeping something in water. For beer it's cereals or grains to extract something, that something is usually mainly carbohydrates, but also color, flavor and aroma.

  • fermentation is used to convert the brew liquor (wort) into beer. There are unfermented "beers" such as the Norwegian "vørterøl" (wort-Ale) but these aren't strictly beers. Fermentation is usually by yeast, Saccaromyces cerevisiae (ales) or S. uvarum (lagers) but other yeasts (S. Brettanomyces) or bacteria (such as lactobacillus) may be used.


In the UK the legal definition of beer is really silly it is a drink that HMRC deems to be beer, bacause you said it was beer. That is pretty much it. And below 0.5% can be call Low/No Alcohol beer. No definition of what it is made from or the process used.

Alcoholic Liquor Duties Act 1979

" “Beer” includes ale, porter, stout and any other description of beer, and any liquor which is made or sold as a description of beer or as a substitute for beer and which is of a strength exceeding 0.5 per cent."

Excise Notice 226 refers back to the 1979 act.

Most people would consider beer to be a fermented beverage that used grains or malted grains as its base, and has not been distilled.

I personally would not consider Snake Venom a beer, as it has been fortified and to get it to 60+% I would say it likey has more distilled spirit in it than it does beer. So, to my mind it is strong vokda with a beer mixer.

As opposed to Sink the Bismark or Tactical Nuclear Penguin from Brewdog that were freeze distilled to increase ABV, these were not mixed with alcohol, they had water removed. I still struggle to see this as beer, as although it has not been distilled in the standard sense it has still gone through a distillation process.

I would say tthat beer must not be distilled, but, this raises a issue of low alcohol beers. Would they still be beer as many of them go through vacuum distillation to remove the alcohol.

  • Do you have any references to support any of these claims? Especially the one about how it's the HMRC that defines beer. If true, in what context is that definition important and how can it be the only one?
    – terdon
    Commented Oct 30, 2020 at 10:02
  • Added in refs to Act and Excise Notice
    – Mr_road
    Commented Oct 30, 2020 at 10:11
  • lol,. so they define beer as anything referred to as beer. That simplifies things :) Thanks. Are you sure this is the HMRC specifically though?
    – terdon
    Commented Oct 30, 2020 at 10:16
  • This is how it is defined legally in the UK, it is very silly and sef referential, but as a brewer it gives me lots of freedom, but also is just not helpful.
    – Mr_road
    Commented Oct 30, 2020 at 10:30

For me the hardest definition seems to be between beer and wine. Both are a source of carbo plus yeast plus fermentation (and minus distillation). In a general sense it would seem beer is from cereals and wine is from “other” and doesn’t require the addition of water. Then we have cider, which I’m guessing is defined by the substances used, ie apples and pears, and carbonation. But champagne (sparkling wine) is carbonated... I think it comes down to language conventions.

  • 1
    UK cider is from apples or pears. Wine from other fruit, water or sugar can be added depending on definitions, fruit and taxation laws that are to apply to the finished product. Champagne can only be made in the Champagne region of France, many of the definitions differ between common usage and legal tax based definitions.
    – Mr_road
    Commented Oct 30, 2020 at 10:03

Alaska Man's definitions:

  1. Facilitator of the warm and fuzzy, all is right with the world, euphoria.

  2. Nectar of the Gods.

  3. Bubbly beverage beloved by billions.

  4. Barley Enjoyed Everyday Repeated.

Oh great and wise Ninkasi, let me sing to thee a Hymn

  • Please only post answers if they are actually answering the question asked. This isn't an answer, it is just noise.
    – terdon
    Commented Nov 1, 2020 at 18:52
  • @terdon Who pissed in your beer. "What's the definition of beer?" When i wrote my answer i was not thinking, gosh i hope everyone approves. Lighten up. We are not sending a man to moon here, we can have a little fun. Nobody was harmed in the making of this Question and answer post. Kids, do not try this at home.
    – Alaska Man
    Commented Nov 1, 2020 at 19:28

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