What is Alcohol By Volume (ABV)?

Written by Reynolds Defense Firm

On August 14, 2018

You sidle up to the bar with a “go ahead and gimme whatever IPA you have on tap.” Particularly in Oregon, that can leave a lot to bartender’s discretion, and then you find yourself drinking something you know almost nothing about.  You know it’s straw-colored in hue, you know it’s on the bitter side, and you know it’s not Bud Light.  But before you know it, you’re feeling buzzed – in fact, a lot more buzzed than you did the other day when you and your buddies split a 6-pack on the porch.  What might be going on here? Two key factors:  ABV, or alcohol by volume, and serving Size.

ABV, or alcohol by volume

While popular domestics like PBR, Coors Light and the like are going to fall within the 4% to 5%, standard ABV range, that changes with craft beer, where flavor isn’t the only thing that gets a boost.  Let’s start with a couple of well-known and well-circulated Oregon beers.  Sipping on a bottle of Deschutes Mirror Pond pale ale at a picnic is going affect you differently than that imperial pint of Boneyard RPM at the bar.  Both will pour that similar light gold and, unless you’re training your palate, both will taste relatively similar, with a hop-forward profile.

Appearance and flavor can be misleading, though.  Where Mirror Pond falls at a standard 5% ABV, meaning the percentage of the liquid that is actual alcohol, RPM is hitting at about 6.6% ABV.  That gets hiked up again if you’re drinking something like Russian River’s Pliny the Elder, a popular California hop bomb, which falls at 8% ABV.  On top of that, you might find yourself sipping on a triple IPA like Sierra Nevada’s Hoptimum, which is clocking in all the way at 9.6% ABV.  These beers are all technically different styles, but at the end of the day, you’re usually going to hear, “oh, I had an IPA earlier” – despite the fact that one of those triple IPAs equates to almost two of the pale ales, in terms of ABV (if they’re both coming out in the same size glass).

With this spectrum of potency within just hop-forward beers, it’s another thing to consider the variation you’re going to get when you start moving between styles of beer.  On a summer day, you might sip on a fruity Berliner weisse, like de Garde’s Raspberry Bu, which sits at 4.3% ABV, feel nothing and figure, hey, I can have a few more of these!  Then you go for Mikkeller’s Raspberry Trippelbock, which also sounds fairly innocuous, until you learn that it’s hitting all the way up at 12.7% ABV – nearly three times as strong!

Serving Size

Then you take into account serving size.  A standard bottle of beer you find in a 6-er at the store is going to be 12 ounces.  That’s also a standard pint.  Bartenders are trained to conceptualize a “standard drink” of beer as 12 ounces at 5% ABV (for wine, it’s about 5 ounces, anticipating that on average wine will fall at 12% ABV).  However, breweries are expanding the way they package and sell beer.  Canning has become a popular, cost-effective, drinker-friendly way to go, and while the standard can that you could, at first glance, mistake for a can of soda, holds 12 ounces, craft beer cans can vary, with taller cans holding 16 ounces or even 20 ounces.  That’s before you get to those 24 ounce bomber bottles – recommended for sharing, just for sheer liquid volume’s sake.

Then we get to glassware, which can affect more than just the smell and taste of a beer.  Although the standard pour is 12 ounces, many bars use a variety of sizes and shapes of glasses.  A traditional American pint is 16 ounces – a full 33% more actual liquid than if you took one of your bottles home and tipped it into a glass – and some bars pour an English, or imperial, pint, which clocks in at 20 ounces.

But don’t let size alone fool you.  Craft beer these days is often served in a tulip, usually a 12 ounce pour, or a snifter, which can contain anywhere from a 6 ounce pour to a 10 ounce pour.  Snifters are small, but they usually pack a punch.  That’s because craft beers that are served in smaller pours or smaller glasses are often, but not always, higher in ABV.  That, or the beer is a specialty or rare beer, or was brewed in such a small batch that the price point is going to drive a smaller pour.  Here’s the kicker, though – that single imperial IPA may be just as potent as the two pale ales that your friend is having.

So, what does this mean to me?

So let’s cap it off with one more example:  Your buddy has worked his way through three Widmer Hefes, and with a standard hefeweizen pouring glass, these guys look tall and long.  Meanwhile, you’re going for something a little darker, which brings you to Pelican’s Mother of All Storms, a barrel-aged barleywine, which keeps coming out in these piddly little snifters that fit in the palm of your hand like Christmas ornaments.  If you are matching your buddy glass for glass, you are likely going to have very different experiences.  That’s because his hefeweizen is coming in at 4.9%, just under the standard 5% ABV for a 12 oz beer – hence the larger serving vessel (as well as the shape of the glass being suited for certain styles of beer).  Meanwhile – and perhaps the name of this beer should have been your first clue – you are sipping an alcohol bomb.  Mother of All Storms, despite its sweeter, syrupy consistency, is coming in at 14% ABV.  That’s nearly three times the ABV of your friend’s beer!  That’s why you’re getting a smaller pour, ounce-wise, but an ABV like that is going to catch up with you sooner than later.

So here’s the skinny – ABV and serving size are factors that can heavily influence how even a single beer will affect you.  Of course, there are a multitude of other factors that affect how alcohol interacts with an individual’s body.  But paying very close attention to both the ABV and the serving size can help you have just a little more awareness about and control over what you’re putting in your system.  All beers truly are not created equal.

I hope you never need to call Reynolds Defense Firm, but if you or someone you believe in has been arrested for a DUI, please do call us right away (503)223-3422.  Our six attorney team has been representing good people facing DUI charges for over 15 years.  We’re solid, we’re here if you need us, and we’re very good at what we do.



DUI attorney Oregon

Michelle Thomas one of Reynolds Defense Firm’s talented DUI attorneys. She has a journalism background, a healthy love of craft foods and beverages, and an undeniable passion to help our clients navigate through the court system. As a former prosecutor who handled a heavy DUII case load, Michelle was eager to take her experience as a hard-working trial attorney and integrate it with our firm’s goals. To learn more about Michelle and how she continues to serve our clients in the courtroom and beyond, please visit www.reynoldsdefensefirm.com.




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