IBUs Defined – How bitter is your beer?

The hop cone, source of beer bitterness.

The hop cone, source of beer bitterness and all that is holy!

On the surface, IBUs (International Bittering Units) is a straightforward measurement of how bitter a beer is, but it’s not that simple. Like a super-light colored IPA, appearances can be deceiving. While high-IBU beers are usually quite bitter, the IBU bite can be balanced by high-malt sweetness – so some heavy, sweet, not-at-all-bitter beers like imperial stouts can have higher IBUs than some “punch you in the tongue” IPAs.

Let’s step back a minute to explain that any good beer is a careful balance of sweet and bitter. A beer with 40 IBUs could fall anywhere from a non-bitter sweet malt bomb like a barleywine to a well-balanced German Pilsner to a light-colored but somewhat bitter IPA like Harpoon’s. They all have the same IBUs, but taste nothing at all alike and have completely different bitterness profiles. It’s all about what’s on the other side of the sweet-to-bitter ratio.

Measured in parts per million (PPM), IBUs typically range from 5 to upwards of 120 in some imperial IPAs or American barleywines. Even the lightest and most flavorless American beers (we’re looking at you, Keystone Light) have some hops and measure on the IBU scale. Without hops, beer is simply too sweet. Hops add crispness and a refreshing quality to a beer, even when they can’t be tasted. Most people can’t detect any bitterness below 5 IBU, and most American light lagers are below 5.

This is why Miller can say that their beer is triple-hopped, yet nobody can actually TASTE their hops. The hops are in there, but the IBUs are so low that the human tongue can’t detect their presence.

Like judging books by covers, one can’t judge beers’ bitterness by their IBUs. It’s just one of many factors that affect the flavor of beer.

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