Do You Really Understand ABV?

Do You Really Understand ABV?

Posted by Matteo Lahm on 16th Jun 2024

Understanding the true impact of alcohol by volume (ABV) can be a challenge. This article aims to help you better comprehend the implications of ABV and understand how it might be misleading. It is easy to give little or no credence to a mere 1% increase or decrease. But when you dig into the numbers, you find out otherwise. 

To truly grasp ABV, we need to get a little nerdy so you can better visualize how much alcohol is actually in the bottle. If you work from kits, wrapping your brain around a 1% difference in ABV can help you better select the right kit for your taste. The long and the short of it is that higher alcohol levels do not directly equate to better beer and wine. A small increase or decrease in ABV noticeably affects your flavor profile. Too much or too little just might ruin your batch. The bottom line is that a 1% shift in ABV is a lot more alcohol than you think, especially with beer and wine.

You, the home beer or winemaker, know that alcohol by volume (ABV) is a key measurement for a successful beverage. It tells you the percentage of alcohol expressed as a component of the total volume. While ABV is a useful and widely accepted tool, it can easily mislead you when trying to understand the actual alcohol content of your creations. The percentage increase in alcohol content doesn't follow a linear path with the increase in ABV. This can lead to underestimating the impact of an increase in your alcohol content.

To tackle the limitations of understanding ABV, you can utilize alternative methods for measuring alcohol content in beer and wine. One such method is to use standard drink units, which represent the amount of pure alcohol in a beverage. In the United States, a standard drink contains 14 grams of pure alcohol. To illustrate the difference in drink units between a 5-ounce glass of wine with 12.5% ABV compared to one with 14% ABV, let's calculate the pure alcohol content in each.

A 5-ounce glass of wine with 12.5% ABV contains 0.625 ounces of pure alcohol (5 ounces x 12.5%), while a 5-ounce glass of wine with 14% ABV contains 0.7 ounces of pure alcohol (5 ounces x 14%). By using standard drink units, you can determine that the 14% ABV wine has approximately 12% more pure alcohol than the 12.5% ABV wine (0.7 ounces vs. 0.625 ounces). That is a huge difference!

Another method is alcohol by weight (ABW), which calculates the alcohol content as a percentage of the total weight of the beverage. This method offers a more precise depiction of the actual alcohol content, as it takes into account the differences in density between alcohol and water. Since alcohol is lighter than water, with a density of approximately 0.79 g/mL compared to water's 1 g/mL, using ABW can provide a more accurate assessment of the alcohol content in your beverages.

Despite the numbers, it is still harder to make sense of this with wine and beer because they are lower alcohol drinks. So, let’s contextualize this with something a little stronger. Make two 5-ounce screwdrivers. Make one with 2 ounces of 80 proof vodka and another with 2.5 ounces. Only half an ounce more doesn’t seem like much but when you do the math, that half ounce more is a drink with 25% more pure alcohol. You’ll taste the difference right away and feel it when you’re done. Four drinks with 2.5 ounces of pure alcohol is five drinks with 2%. 

While ABV is a widely used and convenient metric for measuring alcohol content in beer and wine, its true significance can be easily misunderstood due to its representation of alcohol content as a percentage of the total volume, not the actual amount of pure alcohol. By understanding the limitations of ABV and employing alternative methods for assessing alcohol content, you can make more informed decisions about what you’re making. This knowledge will help you perfect your craft, ensure your beverages taste how you want them to taste, and increase your awareness of what you are drinking. That 1% difference in ABV is always bigger than you think. 

When it comes to flavor, it is all about balance. A softer white is not pleasant to drink with 14% ABV. Conversely, a full-bodied red with high tannins can benefit from it. An IPA with a strong hops profile can be pushed to 8-9% while it will mask the subtleties of a porter. A rule of thumb to follow is that the lower the ABV, the more a 1% increase or decrease matters. Pushing a pilsner from 5% to 6% is a 17% increase in alcohol. Wines and beers that call for more alcohol are flabby when the ABV is too low. In those that call for less alcohol, higher levels mask all the their subtleties. 

So the next time you are buying a wine or beer kit, remember reading this article. If you want a more low key wine and you like to make Winexpert kits, choose a Classic or Reserve over a Private Reserve. If you make Finer Wine Kits and you want something bolder, opt for a Forte instead of a Tavola or Novello. For your beer kits, you might want to make an IPA if you want to push your limits. On the other end of the spectrum, a gentle pilsner is perfect for you to kick back and relax. ABV is not indicative of quality. Some wine and beer taste better with more alcohol and others with less. It is about what you like to drink.