Understanding the bitterness of beer

One of the most common ways of navigating the beer scene is the rate of bittering used in the pint in the glass before you.

A beer lover will know the unexplainable draw from the bitterness of their favourite pint, but even regular beer drinkers often don’t understand what bitterness is beyond a sensation.  Some beer drinkers end up seeking more and more bitter beers as their palate evolves.

According to beer writer and judge Lucy Corne, “hops are to beer what herbs are to your dinner – sure you could manage without them but they elevate the dish (or the beer) and add extra dimensions of flavour and aroma. Hops are also the sexiest ingredient. They’re the only one that beer could realistically do without and yet they’re the ingredient that gets beer lovers most excited; the only one with their own veritable fan club!”

But how exactly do you find out how bitter a beer is? Fortunately, brewers invented a way to measure the potency of bitterness in your beer, giving you some idea of how to gauge a beer before taking that first sip – however it’s important to note that malt and other flavours can mask the taste of bitterness in beer, which is imparted from hops, an essential ingredient. Isohumulone is the acid found in hops that gives beer its bitter bite. 

The internationally recognised method to measure bitterness is by using the International Bitterness Unit (IBU) scale.  An IBU is the chemical measurement of the number of compounds in a beer that make a beer taste bitter. This number is used by brewers as it corresponds with the sensory bitterness of beer. IBUs scale from five up to as high as 120 (although there is no limit on the scale), however most beers fall between 15 and 80. A beer with more IBUs will be more bitter than one with less, however beer is all about balance. “Beer has a taste bud satisfying bitterness but balancing that with other tastes and aromas is what creates a palate-pleasing combination,” said Tshepo Tloubatla, Beer Culture Manager at SAB & AB InBev Africa. “This isn’t something you can measure with IBUs.”

For reference, here’s how some well-known beer styles measure in IBUs:

·         American pale lagers: 8-12

·         Brown ale: 15-25

·         Pale ale: 15-30

·         Märzen/Oktoberfest: 18-25

·         English bitter: 20-35

·         Pils and pilsners: 20-40

·         Porter: 20-40

·         Dry stout: 25-60

·         India Pale Ale: 40-75

·         Double India Pale Ale: 75-100

According Tloubatla, well-loved brand Castle Lager, has an IBU of 22 while the flavoured beer Flying Fish is the least bitter beer at 5 IBU. Stella Artois is SAB’s beer with the highest IBU, at 30, and Castle Milk Stout is the highest locally brewed beer at 28 IBU.

Corne said that within the craft beer industry, many of the brewers push the hop to new levels – such is the case with the eponymous “1000 IBU” from Danish gypsy brewery Mikkeller, one of the world’s most bitter beers. Then closer to home, The Kraken from Triggerfish Brewing in Somerset West, clocks in higher at 1254 IBU, which was conceptualised to celebrate the brewery’s 1000th Facebook fan. The imperial India Pale Ale was brewed to try and meet the fan count on the day – 1254.

IBUs might be a great way to measure bitterness, but don’t let it stop you from exploring new beers. “Knowing about IBUs not only allows you to sound much smarter when talking about beer but also allows you to know your own preference and judge which beers would suit your particular palate,” Tloubatla said.

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