International Bitterness Units (IBUs) explained

Friday, February 24, 2023




Those three letters get tossed around a bit in the brewing world. 

What do they mean?

International Bitterness Units (IBUs) is a scale used to measure the bitterness of beer. 

This scale is essential in the beer brewing industry, as it allows brewers to understand the bitterness of their brews and adjust their recipes accordingly. 

The science behind IBUs is fascinating, and it involves understanding the chemical reactions that occur during the brewing process.

The bitterness of beer comes from hops, which are the flowers of the hop plant. 

As you probably know dear reader, during the brewing process, hops are added to the wort, which is a mixture of water and malted barley. 

The hops give the beer a unique flavor and aroma, and they also help to balance the sweetness of the malted barley.

The bitterness of beer is caused by compounds known as alpha acids.

IBU bitterness explanation

These alpha acids are not present in their bitter form in the hops, but they are converted to bitter compounds during the brewing process. This conversion occurs when the hops are boiled in the wort. 

The longer the hops are boiled, the more alpha acids are converted to bitter compounds, and the higher the IBU of the beer.

To measure the IBU of a beer, a sample of the beer is extracted and then mixed with a solution of iso-alpha acids. The mixture is then analyzed to determine the concentration of iso-alpha acids. This concentration is then converted to an IBU value using a mathematical formula.

The IBU scale ranges from 0 to over 100, with lower values indicating less bitterness and higher values indicating more bitterness. For example, a typical lager may have an IBU of 10-20, while a highly hopped IPA may have an IBU of 50-70 or more. 

However, it is essential to note that the perception of bitterness is subjective and can vary depending on the individual's taste buds and sensory experience.

IBU definition for beer

How does a brewer measure IBU in their beer?

A brewer can measure International Bitterness Units (IBUs) in beer using a spectrophotometer or a photometer, which are both devices used to measure the absorption of light by a substance. To measure IBUs, the brewer extracts a sample of beer and then mixes it with a solution of iso-alpha acids, which are the bitter compounds found in hops. 

The mixture is then analyzed using the spectrophotometer or photometer to determine the concentration of iso-alpha acids. This concentration is then converted to an IBU value using a mathematical formula. The specific procedure for measuring IBUs may vary depending on the equipment and methods used by the brewer, but the general principle is the same: analyzing the concentration of bitter compounds in the beer sample to determine its IBU value. 

It is worth noting that while IBU is a useful tool for measuring beer bitterness, it is just one of many factors that contribute to the overall flavor profile of a beer. Other factors, such as the types and amounts of malt, hops, and yeast used, as well as the brewing process, can also have a significant impact on the taste of the beer.

hops IBU meaning

Why do "beer snobs" go on and on about IBU? Why do they have such a bad image?

"Beer snobs" are known to place a high value on IBU when evaluating a beer's quality. They may go on and on about IBU because it can provide insight into the complexity and balance of a beer's flavor profile.

However, the term "beer snob" often has a negative connotation associated with it. This is because some beer enthusiasts may come across as overly critical and judgmental, creating a perception that they look down on others for their beer choices or knowledge. 

The image of a beer snob has been perpetuated by individuals who place an excessive emphasis on the IBU, and other technical aspects of beer, at the expense of simply enjoying a beer.

Or are they just are drunk wankers at the pub?

Additionally, some people may find beer snobs to be intimidating or unapproachable, especially if they lack experience or knowledge about beer. This can lead to a negative perception of beer snobs, and a stereotype that they are elitist or pretentious.

While the IBU measurement is a valuable tool for evaluating beer bitterness, it is important to remember that beer is a subjective experience. Taste preferences are personal, and what one person perceives as too bitter, another may enjoy. 

Beer snobs may have a reputation for being overly critical or elitist, but it is important to recognize that everyone has different tastes and preferences and that there is no "right" way to enjoy a beer.

Long as it's cold right?


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