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What IBUs Are and Aren’t

hopsRecently I have had a couple of odd interactions with customers at one of my beer tasting events. I would be chatting about a beer and the person (so far always male, but not making any generalizations) would ask “how many IBUs in the beer?”

I found I would pause momentarily, mostly because I hadn’t expected the question. Over my years of doing this work, the notion of IBUs (which stands for International Bittering Units) was one restricted to homebrewers, beer geeks and consumers who REALLY knew their stuff. I never got questions about IBUs from regular drinkers.

My first take on this new development (don’t get me wrong, it is still pretty rare, but the fact it has happened two or three times over the past couple months is significant) is one of satisfaction and elation. This is a very positive sign about how much more educated, beer savvy and craft aware prairie drinkers are becoming. We should all be encouraged by it.

But the (moderately) deep thinker in me started contemplating how the term IBU is being used these days. When I started doing that my opinion on the matter got more complex. And when I started contemplating the complexity of the issue, I decided I had to write a column about it. So I did.

My last CBC column (which you can listen to hear) as well as my most recent Vue Weekly column (or read here if you prefer) address the question of IBUs. More specifically they talk about what IBUs tell us about beer, what it DOESN’T tell us about beer and how, therefore, it is being misused in certain quarters and thus may be misleading beer drinkers.

Here is my case in a nutshell: IBUs is a scientific standard designed to measure the amount of alpha acids that have isomerized and saturated into the beer. Since alpha acids are the agent that create bitterness in beer it is a useful proxy for how “bitter” a beer is. This is all perfectly helpful for brewery quality control, homebrew recipes and a general “sense” of how much hops were used.

The problem is that it actually tells us very little about what the beer tastes like.  That is because our perception of bitterness varies widely from the scientific calculations done in a lab. There are lots of reasons for this. Bitterness is only one flavour component of a beer. Other things such as malt, yeast characteristics and other additions (e.g., smoke) can shift how much the bitterness stands out. Plus (and this is my favourite), our physical capacity to detect bitterness tops out at about 120 IBUs or so, meaning all the stuff at the top end of the IBU scale is all coming across pretty much the same. That 1200 IBU beer is nothing but marketing gimmick. (I give some other explanations in the columns if you want to read/hear more).

This would all still be fine if that nuance was shared with the beer consumer. Instead – and here I blame (some) breweries and craft beer bars – we slap the number on the label or menu and leave it at that. We expect the consumer to know what it means and how to contextualize it. Except often they can’t (obviously some can). The people who asked me about IBUs had very little understanding of its meaning beyond “higher means more hoppy” (which is what they were looking for).

By all means, let’s promote the use of IBUs to educate consumers. It’s a great idea! But if we are going to do that, we need to provide context. We need more than one number to tell the story. In fact it is a bit dangerous to expect numbers to tell a full story at all. Even if we tossed in SRM, OG, FG, etc. we still wouldn’t be telling the drinker what to expect in terms of aroma and taste.

I love IBUs. Wouldn’t live without them. But they need to be placed in their proper context if they are going to advance consumers’ beer knowledge and passion.

6 comments to What IBUs Are and Aren’t

  • Ernie

    I agree that IBUs only tell part of the story, and you need the rest of the context. Even in IPAs, I find the IBUs mean less unless you have other data, such as the OG, for example. An imperial IPA with an IBU of 100 but an OG of 1.100 won’t taste as bitter as an IPA with an IBU of 80 but an OG of 1.065.

    It’s like saying Connor McDavid is a mediocre player because his plus/minus was -1 this year. Stats are meaningless without context.

  • Mark

    I have lots of sayings. A new one I have is, “IBUs are pretty much bullshit.”

    I have been ranting about IBUs for years. I will spare you the details. We dont provide IBU levels on our beers.

    If I stuck my finger in the air and said “yup it’s windy outside, I’d say about 25km/hr,” am I at all accurate? Of course not, it is just a guess. Did I tell you which way the wind is blowing? Is it warm, cool, humid or dry? We have no clue.

    The same applies to just about every brewery that states IBU levels on their beers; it is a wild ass guess and tells the customer sweet FA about how the overall beer will taste.

    IBUs are pretty much bullshit. Y’er welcome.

  • Mark

    Sorry, typing from a phone.

    To finish the weather analogy, I provided a wild guess about wind speed, which says nothing about the overall weather.

  • Chris

    I think this is where well educated staff in stores and bars, and an individuals personal understanding of what they like comes in. If I walk into the store or bar and can say “I like ESB’s and English Pale, some IPA’s, but find DIPA’s too bitter”, the well educated server/clerk can probably point me towards something within my comfort zone, or challenge my tastes a bit without going too far.

  • Mark

    Maybe the wine industry should come up with a measurement for amount of tannin in each wine so I can make better purchasing decisions.

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