What Is IBU in a Beer and Why Doesn’t It Much Matter?

I probably find statistics and numbers as boring as you find statistics and numbers…maybe even more. In the craft-beer world, knowing a brew’s ABV, IBU and SRM shouldn’t interfere with the pleasure drinking it provides. Of these numbers, only the ABV (alcohol by volume) is a truly objective number measuring the alcohol level of the beer. It’s good information to have when your goal is to have more than one beer at a sitting. But even with that in mind, ABV isn’t always reflected in the beer’s flavor.

IBU or International Bitterness Units, in many cases, doesn’t tell us much of anything about what we are about to drink unless it’s an IPA. More about that later. SRM (Standard Reference Method) attaches a number value to the color intensity of a beer. As an average beer drinker, should you care about a brew’s SRM? Not unless you are rating it in a beer competition or have a philosophical aversion to brews of a particular hue. The scale runs from “2” for pale-colored pilsners to “40” for black beers, such as Imperial Stouts and Baltic Porters.

Because ABV basically speaks for itself and SRM is to beer flavor what the accordion is to chamber music, let’s stick with the wild card that is IBU. I refer to IBU as a wild card because it’s one of the most discussed topics when looking over a beer list, but it may or may not have a lot to do with what you taste when the beer passes over your tongue.

Big Jon Richards, my partner in the BEER2WHISKEY YouTube channel, often says about IBU, “It’s trying to apply math to describe a beer’s flavor. It doesn’t really work.”

Indeed. I won’t drag you into the weeds on the method many breweries use to measure IBU. It is, though, chemistry and math. Basically, IBU is a measurement of the bittering compounds in a beer. Hops comprise the delivery system for these compounds. All hops aren’t created equal. Each hop varietal brings a unique amount of bittering compounds to the beer. Some contain a high amount of alpha acid, while others provide low amounts. Brewers control a beer’s bitterness by choosing the appropriate hop(s), adjusting the amount of a hop used, as well as blending hop varietals. Again, it’s chemistry and math.

Here’s the rub: Actual bitterness isn’t necessarily the same as perceived bitterness. That is, a 30 IBU beer isn’t always less bitter than a 60 IBU beer. How can that be? Well, other ingredients and the brewing process can conspire to overwhelm the bitterness. Malt, residual sugars, barrel aging and so forth, can simply mask the bitterness to the point your tongue may not grasp even a hint of bitterness in a 60 or 70 IBU brew.

Widely available across the country, Founders Breakfast Stout has an ABV of 8.3 percent and an IBU of 60. One of my favorite stouts, this brew has so much going on, treating every inch of your tongue to a variety of flavors, the bitterness is simply lost. This is true for most big, dark beers.

The one beer style in which the IBU count is often an indicator of a beer’s perceived flavor is IPA (India Pale Ale). Though, even here, that is more true for West Coast IPAs than it is for New England IPAs. For years breweries were in a competition to produce the hoppiest, most bitter West Coast IPA. Where New England IPAs tend toward hazy, juicy, citrus characteristics, West-Coast IPAs are about showcasing the hops and bitterness.

Sierra Nevada’s Hazy Little Thing IPA and Samuel Adams New England IPA are widely accessible examples of New England IPAs. A couple of banner carriers of West-Coast IPA are 21st Amendment Brewery’s Brew Free or Die and Ballast Point Sculpin.

If you take one thing away from this stab at prose, let it be that you resist allowing yourself to fall into the IBU trap. Unless you are shopping IPAs, a beer’s IBU may mean very little to its flavor. True, two plus two always equals four, but math is no way to predict a beer’s flavor. Drink, enjoy, and quit counting. Cheers!

Russ is a long-time bourbon and craft-beer drinker who also produces the BEER2WHISKEY channel on YouTube.

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