Behind the Brewery Scenes: IBU

Not directly related to the brewing process, just a cool light we have at the Tempe location...
Not directly related to the brewing process, just a cool light we have at the Tempe location…

The brewing world is an alphabet soup of acronyms. It can be tough to navigate through them at first, but as a new brew aficionado becomes familiar with these acronyms, a whole new world opens up to them, and a flood of information is bestowed upon them.

In this edition of Behind the Brewery Scenes, I take a closer look at IBUs, what it means, and how it affects the beer in your hand.

On their site, A Brewer’s Friend defines IBUs:

International bittering units (IBUs) are used to tell how bitter your beer is (higher value means more bitterness). The IBU scale starts at zero for beers with no bitterness (fruit beers) and goes up to 120 for the super bitter and hop rich beers like Imperial IPA and American Barley Wine.

Bret the Brewer dry hops a brew at Four Peaks in Tempe.
Bret the Brewer dry hops a brew at Four Peaks in Tempe.
The pellet form of hops.
The pellet form of hops.

On an average, beer is typically hopped three times, but they can be added up to six times – depending on the profile and the complexity of the beer the brewer is looking to achieve. Hops come in three forms – leaf, plug, or pellets and each different hop plant lends a different flavor or aroma, yet there are no dedicated plants to an addition time in the cycle.

Typically, three stages of hop additions are timed out throughout the boil. The timing depends on the recipe and should be followed carefully. The first addition of hops is for bittering, the second for flavoring, and the third for aroma. IBUs rely heavily on this first addition of the hop addition and is done, by and large, to balance the sweetness derived from the malt and grain used to make the wort.  Brews with high IBUs mean a whole bunch of hops have been added in the first stage of the hop addition, and there were a high amount of alpha acids (the makes hops hoppy) from the hops were isomerized (broken down) in the boil.

Rob the Brewer posts a helping of hops used in the Black IPA.
Rob the Brewer posts a helping of hops used in the Black IPA.

Hops haven’t always been one of the four ingredients outlined in Reinheitsgebot, or German purity law. The first documentation of this addition surfaces from a Benedictine abbot in about 822 AD. Before then, other bittering agents included (but are not limited to) heather, ground ivy, juniper, ginger woodruff, and a super secret, special blending of such ingredients called gruit. And that’s another conversation for another time. It’s sort of fascinating.

Bret the Brewer stops to smell the flowers.
Bret the Brewer stops to smell the flowers.

Does that mean every IPA needs to have high IBUs? Not at all! IBUs give the indication of how bitter the beer will be – you know, that feeling that kind of hits the back of your throat when you take your swig of it and leaves you wanting more. Multiple additions of hops give dimension to a beer that also include aroma and flavoring (spice, floral, boutique, citrus) and the types of hops used relate to the style of beer (i.e. English IPA, West Coast IPA, Pilsner, Stout families).

With IBU levels reaching 100+, one can be left missing some of the malty sweetness to counter-balance the bite of that hop. Low levels of IBUs result in a biscuity, malty, or sweet brews.

The additions of hops are carefully calculated (more math) and, like every style of beer a brewery puts out, intent and ingredients are what makes that brew… that particular style of brew.

A member of our sales team, Scott Kinard, breaks it down like this:

To me, the term “hoppy” could mean different things. I use hot sauce as a gauge to fit the person asking into exactly what they are looking for and as a way to describe IPA differences. 

Some hot sauces have tons of big flavor but with a very low heat factor.  The IPA’s with bright citrus and floral/piney aspects, with a nice easy finish are these.  

Others hot sauces are low on the bright flavor, but will burn a hole through your face.  I equate this with beers that have that high hop “bitterness” that hang on your tongue and make it tough to really taste much else for the night.  Both descriptions are versions that fall into the category of “hoppy”.  People tend to have a favorite and whether you’re a bartender or in beer sales, the customer always appreciates the time taken to put them into the right beer. 

Scotty K FTW.

Share with us! Are you a Hop Head that embraces high IBU brews or are you on the path to discovering your favorite style? Hit us up on Twitter and share your experience!

 

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