Beer Geeky: IBU vs. Perceived Bitterness

In today’s craft beer industry, marketing has become essential for breweries to be successful in a very competitive field. One tactic that has become very popular is listing information on bottles or cans, such as the type of hops used or the IBU rating. IBU stands for International Bittering Unit, and it is essentially marketed as a way to know how bitter a beer should taste by testing the presence of acids from the hops in the beer. The marketing side of that is many people associate IBU rating, specifically high ratings up to 60 or higher, with how “hoppy” the beer will taste, which is something people often look for in a beer. However, as craft beer evolves, we are learning that this is an outdated way of measuring the taste of a beer and there are several reasons why.

While an IBU rating is a good way to measure certain aspects of a beer, there are too many variables in beer today that can make the IBU rating obsolete. When the rating system was first developed, most beer in America was low alcohol content, light lager-style beers. In that case, the acid in the hops is going to be very prevalent in the taste and the IBU rating will be close to what we actually taste, or the “perceived bitterness.” Lagers are not the only type of beer being made in America anymore. For example, a stout could have a very high IBU rating because of the type or amount of hops being used, but because they often also use a very high amount of dark roasted malts and other ingredients the bitterness will not be as present in the flavor as it would be in an IPA.

The process of brewing the beer also affects the perceived bitterness in ways not always reflected in the IBU rating. When the system was developed, not much experimentation was done in the brewing process as opposed to today when many are trying to be the one to create something new and exciting. An example of this is the increasingly popular process of “dry hopping” a beer, where the hops are added later in the brewing process to add more to the aroma of the beer. Dry hopping will have different affects on the perceived bitterness compared to the IBU rating, but either way the result is that the rating won’t accurately reflect the taste. This is especially noticeable in today’s hazy IPA craze, which often heavily relies on dry-hopping beers.

IBU rating is by no means useless, it can still definitely be used in some cases to measure a beer’s bitterness, such as in a traditional west coast IPA. The rating shouldn’t be ignored but it is important to understand what it means so that you can use it effectively in your search to find beer you truly love.

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