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How many IBU? ‘About one hundred’

Oakshire BrewingMatt Van Wyk at Oakshire Brewing in Eugene, Oregon, has a new standard answer when he’s asked how many IBU (International Bitterness Units) are in one of his beers. “About one hundred.”

How many in the Perfect Storm Imperial IPA? “About one hundred.”

How many in the Oakshire Wheat? “About one hundred.”

He’s not trying to be rude, just having a little fun at festivals with a question brewers hear all the time. I think the answer is brilliant because it naturally moves the conversation from a number with questionable meaning to one about aroma and flavor.

Make no mistake. Hops are about more than bitterness, about more than being macho. They are about aroma and flavor.

That said, next week Stone Brewing releases its 13th Anniversary Ale and it’s been measured at 100 IBU. I emphasize the word measured because breweries and their fans sometimes toss around crazy claims about beers with 120 IBU and more. Next time somebody tells you a beer clocks 100-plus ask whoever tells that if he or she had seen a proper lab analysis. I know of a couple of beers that have topped 100, but only a couple.

Brewers should know better and what they say should reflect that. First because education has been an important part of craft brewing since the get-go. Second because when it comes to perceived bitterness the big numbers may not be that important. There’s some question if us mere mortals can actually detect any additional bitterness above 60 or 70 IBU.

Why do brewers fall into this trap? Everybody, and that includes me, asks about IBU. The number is a shorthand for telling us the volume of hops added to a recipe, which may well impact aroma and flavor. It’s unfortunate that a number sounds so precise, but is usually based on a formula a heck of a lot more accurate for beers of something sane like 40 IBU. Adjectives would be so much better, although it can be a challenge to describe the difference between piney and in-your-face-big-ass piney.

Stone 13th Anniversay AleTurn up the volume another notch or two from big-ass and you have Stone 13. That was the impression out of the tank when I tasted it, before it was dry-hopped for the second time. For the record Stone calls this a 90-plus IBU beer, but the first batch in the bottle measured dead-on one hundred. The lads in the brewery added four and a half pounds of hops per barrel, more than any Stone beer ever.

They did a quick check on the wort prior to fermentation and it measured about 130 IBU. A pretty impressive number, don’t you think? But . . . “IBUs drop during fermentation because the pH of the liquid drops from about 5.3 to about 4.5,” Stone brewmaster Mitch Steele explained via email. “This reduces the solubility of the iso-alpha-acids, the bittering component of hops, so some bitterness solidifies and drops out, and/or gets absorbed by yeast.”

So now you know what it’s best to say “about” when talking about the IBU in beers brewed with bunches of hops.

Monday musing: Beer weeks and beer nationalism

I’ve been amazed reading reports from SF Beer Week, and am even more astonished when I look over the ridiculously long list of events planned for Philly Beer Week. These are the big dogs, but Jay Brooks has pointed out “beer weeks” are popping up all over.

Has to be good for local beers, I think. But let’s hope we don’t get another round of arguing about which is the best beer city in the United States or where the best beers are brewed. Why? Read Ron Pattinson’s post on “Beer nationalism” and you should understand.

The world of beer is one exciting whole. Not a series of competing fragments. “Which country brews the best beer?” What sort of stupid question is that? “Where’s the pub?”, “Can I have a pint of that, please?”, “What are you having?” They’re good questions.

Brilliant.

Here’s another reason SF Beer Week was a good idea: A beer tasting hosted at Alpha Sigma Phi in Berkeley. Yes, I too, had to get past the fraternity part. But Mario at Brewed for Thought put the event together and writes about it.

Repeat after me. When I read that a beer has 108 or 128 or 104 IBU (when I read that a beer has 108 or 128 or 104 IBU) I will ask if that was measured in a lab or if that is calculated (I will ask if that was measured in a lab or if that is calculated).

Because I know of only two beers (the Samuel Adams Imperial Pilsner and Bell’s Big Head San Diego Style Ale brewed for the 2008 Craft Brewers Conference) that clocked over 100 IBU when verified by a laboratory. Everybody else is guessing.

So you should read the Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics entry in the Deschutes Brewery blog. Hop Henge Experimental IPA is brimming with hop flavor and bitterness. But in case you’ve been wondering about the 95 IBU listed on the label, well you won’t be seeing that number anymore.

The first time Deschutes had the beer tested the lab found 80 IBU. The brewers since beefed up the hop additions (resulting in a picture you should look at) and had Hop Henge tested again. This time 87 IBU.

The moral of the story for us is we will not again put 95 IBUs on the label. The moral of the story for you might be a wink next time someone tells you their beer has 120 IBUs in it (or even 95 for that matter).

Wink, indeed. And ask the brewer to talk about hop flavor instead.

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