IBUs - Helpful or hurtful?

January 3, 2018

 "I don't like hoppy beers!"

 

You've all heard this, probably coming out of the mouth of your macrobrew drinking uncle who proudly wears his MAGA hat and has used temperatures this week to deny climate change, because his understanding of science is equivalent to that of a 13th century Russian serf. 

 

Look, hops are one of four staple ingredients to making the liquid we call beer, along with water, yeast, and grain. I'm not walking you through the entire process, and I won't tell you there haven't been the occasional experimental beers made without hops, but by and large, even that tallboy of "America" has hops as part of the recipe. If you like beer, you like hops to some degree. 

 

Now, hops add flavors to beers in many ways, some fruity and tropical, some piney and dank, but one way they can affect how a beer tastes is by adding small or large amounts of bitterness to it. This is the taste we usually associate with IPAs, although the plethora of beers that classify themselves as IPAs is now about as vast and varied as the population itself. I mean, we were constitutionally guaranteed life, liberty, and our own personal hop profile from the onset of this once-great nation. 

 

But I digress, as I often do. 

 

 

The way in which we measure how bitter a beer is we call IBU, or International Bitterness Unit. There's a more proper definition here, https://www.thebrewenthusiast.com/ibus/, if you want to read it, but the scale basically runs from 5 to around 120. A Budweiser runs 15 IBUs, to give you a place to start. Your basic, dank IPAs which have been in such high demand in recent years run in the 60-70 range on that scale.

 

The problem is, so can a lot of darker, heavier beers. Barleywines, for example, register in that same IBU range. Hell, a pint of Guinness stout clocks in at 44, while the much sought-after Zombie Dust is 50, according to Three Floyd's own website. So, they're both "hoppy" beers, or neither of them is "hoppy," right?

 

Well, wrong. As evidence, I direct you to your own taste buds. 

 

This is the problem with using just IBUs as a measuring stick for beers. A dark, rich beer is going to rate highly on that scale, and be bitter, but its bitterness comes from malts instead of hops. A lot of people scoff at me when I tell them Guinness is a bitter beer, by comparison, because with a creamy head and notes of chocolate and raisin, it tastes sweet to most. Zombie Dust, to my taste buds, is fruity and hardly bitter at all. (Guinness is also a light beer, with less calories than a Bud Light, according to the MyFitnessPal app, but that's another argument for another time.)

 

Look, I love both Guinness and Zombie Dust, just for different reasons and in different seasons. 

 

My whole thing is, IBUs can often confuse - especially when we get into things like theoretical IBUs  and other such nonsense - because taste isn't about a scale, it's about a preference. We are talking about two totally different kinds of bitterness here, like Bengals fans and Browns fans. Who is more bitter, the fanbase who experienced a comically, epically ruinous season that will set their franchise back for half a decade or the one who didn't win any games? 

 

 

I mean, seriously?

 

One of the best examples of the follow of strictly following the scale is MadTree's Identity Crisis. Is it a black IPA, a hoppy porter, a hybrid of both styles ... I'm genuinely asking here, what the fuck is it? The thing is, it doesn't matter because it's pulling bitterness from both malts and hops, and registering at 61 IBUs ... yet can taste both more or less bitter than beers with respectively higher or lower ratings. 

 

Bottom line is, the Bengals are being paid off as patsies by the rest of the AFC North - well, the professional, competitive teams, anyway - and the only way to judge a beer and its bitterness is to try it for yourself. Palate is preference, in both football and beer, after all. 
 

 

 

 

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