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. – hippietrail Mar 30 '14 at 3:43

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.

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  • 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 Feb 11 '14 at 4:21
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    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 Feb 11 '14 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). – hippietrail Mar 30 '14 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.

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