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10 May 2018

Desert Cicerone: When It Comes to Beer Consumers, IBUs Need to Just Go Away

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I dislike IBUs. Allow me to explain.

Approximately a decade ago, hops were king in the craft-beer world. People could not get enough, and breweries were finding ways to jam more hops into beer (double dry-hopping, for example). This led to all sorts of excesses.

This is where IBUs enter into the more mainstream picture. IBUs (International Bittering Units—it sounds ridiculously over-important, but it’s indeed a thing), as you might have guessed, measure how bitter a beer is ... kind of. Hops contain compounds called alpha acids that make beer bitter during the boil through a process called isomerization. The longer the beer is boiled, the more bitter the beer is, given the same hop strain. (Some strains contain more alpha acids than others.) Hops are vitally important, as this bitterness can counterbalance the otherwise sweet wort that is to become beer later on. Hops also contribute flavors and aromas when added later in the process; they’re antiseptic, which helps keep bad bacteria out; and they are “cousins” to cannabis.

The brewer then dips in the IBU Detector and finds out the exact number. Actually … no, they don’t.

When an IBU is provided on a beer’s label or a brewery’s menu, that is a theoretical number, in all likelihood. One of the biggest misunderstandings about the IBU is that it somehow measures perceived bitterness. It actually measures the amount of iso-alpha acids in the beer. In order to do that accurately, spectrophotometry needs to be employed. This means chemistry and a lab and that is prohibitively expensive. Instead, brewers generally rely on a formula that is a rough approximation. If I typed out that formula here, it would make you feel like you were back in your high school algebra class.

Brewers use this calculation to help them with quality control—and that’s a good thing. However, at some point years ago, IBUs captured craft-beer fans’ imaginations. Some brewers then set about making beers with as many IBUs as they possibly could. Mikkeller Brewing (whose beers I have enjoyed for years) planted their flag in this trend with a 1,000 IBU beer. I tried it … and it wasn’t great. The thing is, anything over about 110 IBUs is not discernible by the human palate—so this was just pure wankery, and it really confused many beer-drinkers.

The biggest reason why this is all so inane is the aforementioned fact that IBUs only tangentially have to do with perceived bitterness. Some malts contain bitterness just from the malt itself—never mind roasted malts or any other potentially bitter additions (herbs, for example). A huge, malty imperial stout can have a high level of IBUs, but perceptually, the beer can be quite malty on balance. People come into the taproom where I work with the idea that they need to know which beer has the highest IBUs—and therefore will be the hoppiest. For one, what does “hoppiest beer” even mean? Secondly, that’s not at all how it works anyway.

All of this nonsense needs to end. I am not blaming consumers here; it is not their fault. They like hoppy beers, and they want to try more. They hear about this measurement (It’s gotta be accurate, too, right? I mean, it’s printed right there on the label!) so they go in search of the beer with the highest amount of these IBUs.

Free yourselves from the thought of IBUs, people. Stop torturing yourselves with math. Enjoy the beer in your glass at that moment. Much happiness and enjoyment will come to you.

And go away, IBU. You are not needed anymore.

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