If IBUs don’t actually reflect bitterness, and hop flavors can go from pine to pineapple, what does it really mean to call a beer hoppy? Stan Hieronymus, author of “For the Love of Hops,” investigates.
Danish “gypsy” brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergsø sells a beer he calls Mikkeller 1000 IBU. He does not claim it actually contains 1,000 International Bittering Units, a scientific measure of how bitter a beer is. That’s a good thing, because a laboratory in Belgium measured 96 IBUs in a bottle.
Bjergsø calls the beer “1000” because, using the same formula as many other brewers and based on the amount of hops he adds, he calculates the beer would hold 1,000 IBUs. Brewing scientists believe that 100 is more likely the maximum amount of iso-alpha acids, the primary contributor to hop bitterness, a brewer can pack into beer. And German food scientists recently determined even that might not matter. Most drinkers don’t perceive the intensity of bitterness increasing once it passes approximately 50 IBUs unless they are influenced by hop aroma and flavor. Thus, when researchers in Belgium dosed beers with a spicy hop essence, consumers rated those beers with a higher intensity of bitterness; when they added a floral hop essence, the intensity scores were lower.
The bottom line: Although IBUs do not precisely measure bitterness, the numbers may be a good indication of the amount of hops brewers added to a beer. In this way, IBUs have become a synonym for hops themselves, rather than simply bitterness. More IBUs equal more hoppy aromas and flavors. However, simultaneously, the very definition of hoppy has expanded. Not long ago, “mild,” “floral” and “spicy” constituted a pretty complete list of adjectives for hop flavors. Now, they run the gamut: pineapple and grapefruit, stone fruits and gooseberries, black currant and muscat, mango and melon, with experimental varieties bound to offer more, such as chocolate and coconut.
All of these flavors are bolder and more intense, particularly when brewers use hops in larger doses. That’s what brewers such as Bjergsø—and many Americans who are just as guilty if not quite as outlandish—signal when they suggest their beers contain more IBUs than physically possible. One hundred years ago, brewers worldwide added a half a pound of hops per 31-gallon barrel; today, though the global average is just a quarter of that, American craft brewers include more than a pound per barrel on average, and some twice that.
“This love craft brewers have for hops refocuses attention on the plant,” says Alex Barth, CEO of hop merchant John I. Haas. Much of that attention has been on the bold and the new, but broadening the definition of hoppy has not deleted more traditional varieties from anybody’s database. For instance, New Belgium Brewing, which has embraced New World hops such as the lemony Sorachi Ace, winelike Nelson Sauvin and piney Simcoe, launched a “Hop Kitchen” series earlier this year. Brewers used traditional Fuggle and Perle—spicy, woody hops of English and German origin, respectively—in their first release, a pale bock. The second, for summer, will be French Aramis IPA, an IPA not at all like New Belgium’s well-established Ranger, itself full of citrus and pine. The focus is on the Aramis hop, a child of the classic French Strisselspalt: spicy, herbal and floral to the point of being perfumelike.
“We wanted to play around with hops in a way that not only we at New Belgium haven’t done before, but maybe offer something fresh or unique to the people who love hoppy beers,” says the brewery’s Matty Gilliland.
It seems they aren’t particularly worried about the definition of hoppy.
WHAT DO YOU GET FOR…
Sweetwater IPA: Zesty orange and grapefruit spearhead mellow dryness.
Big Sky IPA: Floral, citrusy hops ride an assertive bitter wave.
Maui Big Swell IPA: Grassy and grapefruit notes peak before bold bitterness.
Clown Shoes Supa Hero IPA: Pink grapefruit, melon and pine with an assertive, drying bite.
The Brew Kettle White Rajah: Mango, grapefruit and passionfruit prelude scraping bitterness.
Ballast Point Sculpin IPA: Woodsy pine and orange blend with smooth, easy bitterness.