As I mentioned last time, there is debate in the brewing industry on the importance of measuring IBUs. Some see IBUs as an easily measurable parameter meant to serve as a guideline for consumers. Others see it as too simple and can be confusing for less knowledgeable drinkers; thus, not deserving reverence.
I prefer to take a nuanced look. It’s up to brewers to educate beer drinkers, which is the intended purpose of this entry. For IBUs, it’s important to recognize what they can or can’t tell you. It is both a useful tool for identification, but not the authority on bitterness and flavour.
Let’s use our core brands as an example. Of the five beers, the beer with the highest IBU is the Farmhouse Saison at 41. However, in a blind taste test, it’s likely that the other flavours would be mentioned first, with little/no mention of bitter. The reasoning relates to the flavours provided by the yeast and malts overshadowing the bitterness. In fact, a higher IBU is needed to help balance out the saison’s flavour.
Last time, I noted how hops provide other characteristics unrelated to bitter. Our brand with the largest quantity of hops is the East Coast IPA, but so little hops are added early in the process, that the IBU is low (20). This is especially low compared to other IPAs on the market. Yet, when informing customers of this, they may still describe bitter taste because of, but not limited to:
- different bittering compounds added by hops during the dry-hop process
- different bittering compounds added by the malts, or yeast during fermentation
- a hypersensitivity to bitterness, common in people who don’t normally drink beer or eat bitter foods
- a preconceived notion that all due to IPAs having more hops, and hops equate to bitter
That last point is key to understanding flavour perception. Of all five senses, taste has been shown to have the greatest influence from outside factors. Taste can vary from examples like the immediate environment, a person’s physiology, pre-conception based on a person’s memories, etc.
My point is, it doesn’t really matter what some numbers may say because everybody tastes beer differently. Some people have described our Vienna Lager as hoppy and bitter, despite the fact it sits at around 20 IBUs, a number not much higher than standard commercial lagers like Labatt Blue or Molson Canadian (10 and 15 IBU respectively). Most beers have within 10-20 IBUs minimum. Others, myself included, can drink these styles with lower IBUs and not think much of bitterness at all.
Ultimately, when finding what you like in a beer, it’s up to you to choose to try new things and drink what you want to drink, stats be damned. How will you know what IBU means to you, if you never try it? There’s an old quote by Robert Frost. “Two beers offered divulged in bitterness and I-, I chose the one more favoured by, and that has made all the difference”. I’m almost positive that’s how the poem goes.