IBUs Explained…

Beer 101: IBUs – International Bitterness Units – have wide range on beer labels

Fat Head’s Bumble Berry – a honey blueberry ale – has only 13 International Bitterness Units, or IBUs. 

International Bitterness, or Bittering, Units – commonly listed as IBUs – are a measurement of exactly what you think: a beer’s bitterness. But it’s not necessarily a gauge of hops. It’s a fine distinction: It measures a beer’s bitterness coming from hops, but not necessarily how hoppy it is.

A spectrophotometer – how’s that for a name – is used to help evaluate the bitter compounds in a beer. A beer ranking in at 10 IBUs would be very low, probably lean heavier on its malts, and would not be very bitter. But a double India Pale Ale easily could smack you at 90 IBUs and would satisfy the most ardent of hopheads.

Martha Harbison, writing in Popular Science, covers IBUs from the technical side, which details the chemical process. She questions any score that exceeds 100. “Beer bitterness, actual or perceived, is a very complex topic,” she writes.

Craftedpours.com lists a few high-IBU beers, topped by Hoppin Frog’s Mean Manalishi, a double IPA that rocketed up the chart to 168 IBUs. It’s a “double IPA with intensely high hop bitterness,” the site says. The Akron brewer is known for its big beers.

Generally, wheat beers rank at the low end of the scale, with IPAs, imperial IPAs and barley wines at the top.

Having IBUs listed on menus or bottle labels is helpful: While it is not a surefire way to say you will love or hate a beer, it isn’t a bad indicator. If you are partial to, say, nut brown ales, that whopper of an IPA from the West Coast you spotted in a tasting room might not be for you. (Then again, that’s what samples are for.)

Matt Cole of Fat Head’s Brewery in North Olmsted knows something about hops and IBUs. His award-winning Head Hunter IPA registers at 87 IBUs. (He doesn’t shun crafting beers at the bottom end of the IBU scale; his Bumble Berry is only 13.)

“Hops that have just been harvested earlier,” Cole told The Plain Dealer, “tend to have higher oil content and higher aromatics.”

He added: “As time goes on some hops change their storage properties,” he said, meaning some hops are more susceptible to losing bittering properties and aromatics.

As an example, Cole said, Centennial – a citrusy, flavorful hop common in many IPAs – “has a poor shelf life.”

“Every year Mother Nature runs its course, and certain hop varietals can go up in alpha oil acids,” Cole said, referring to a compound in hops that lead to a bitter flavor.

Fat Head’s puts IBU counts on both its labels and in the beer bios on its website.

If you are truly into IBUs and love high-ranking bitter beers, then pay attention to the types of hops used. If you see the same hops coming up in the IPAs you like, that’s an indication – though not a tell-tale sign – that you might enjoy that particular ale.


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