Whether you have visited several breweries or you are interested in heading for your first one, when you go to order a beer, you will notice a few pieces of information. One of the most common – and one you will often see on bottles or cans of beer outside a brewery too – is the listed IBU. The moment you first see this, you’ll probably think, “What’s the meaning of IBU?” and either keep wondering that or quickly move on to enjoying your drink and the company of good friends.
But today, we’re going to take a look at what “IBU” means and why you should care as a beer connoisseur – or at least someone that enjoys a tasty brew. The good news is that it’s not particularly complicated, and once you know what it means, you’ll be well informed the next time you order a delicious malty beverage or go to the store for a six-pack. So let’s dive in! (We mean that figuratively; don’t worry, we do not dive into our beer… no matter how tempted we might sometimes be).
What’s the Meaning of IBU?
First things first, IBU stands for “International Bitterness Unit” or “International Bittering Unit,” depending on who you ask. In other words, it is a measurement of the bitterness of a beer – it can be used for other foods and beverages, but we’re only worried about beer today. Before this term was coined, it was quite difficult to really measure, evaluate, and discuss just how bitter one beer was compared to another. But with the IBU system, it is (somewhat) easier.
The exact method of measuring and indicating IBU for a beer is relatively complicated and can involve some very precise scientific equipment. Without getting too technical, know that it is based on measuring the number of compounds in a quantity of beer that cause bitterness on the tongue. In general, the more of those compounds that are present in a beer, the higher its IBU, and the more bitter it will taste.
Have you got that? High IBU = more bitter. Low IBU = less bitter. Most beers fall somewhere between about 5 IBU at the absolute minimum and up to 120 IBU at the maximum, though somewhere between 10 and 80 are most common for commercial and craft beers.
Does IBU Really Matter?
Unfortunately, this question is not quite so simple, and the answer is basically “yes and no.” Yes, IBU does matter when you are looking at different craft beers and trying to decide on what you want to taste, but only to a certain extent (that’s the “no” there). This is because IBU does not always directly relate to how your tongue actually tastes a particular beer. Remember, IBU only measures the presence of bittering compounds in a beer, nothing else.
Our taste buds and receptors are complex things that experience all kinds of different flavors and create an ultimate experience from a rich tapestry of tastes. Certain other flavors in a beer, in particular the presence of malt, actually lessen just how bitter that beer will taste on your tongue. So even if a beer has a pretty high IBU, it might not be all that bitter when you taste it because it could have a high malt content that offsets that bitterness.
In other words, you can use the IBU as a general guideline to get a sense of how bitter one beer is compared to another. However, you really need to use it as one part of the larger picture and consider the ingredients and overall flavor profile of a beer to get a sense of how bitter it will actually be when you drink it. That’s why samples are always such a good idea!
What about Fort Brewery Beers?
So, now that you have a sense of what IBU is and how to apply it when considering different beers let’s take a look at our standard beers here at Fort Brewery and how they compare. Just remember, raw numbers are not everything, and what you actually taste might surprise you.
- Grey Eagle – Hefeweizen – Kicking things off, we have the Grey Eagle, which has a pretty low bitterness at just 10 IBU. This is a traditional German wheat beer and is pretty low in hops and higher in maltiness. As such, not only does this have a low IBU on paper, but it does not have much bitterness when you drink it.
- 1849 – Irish Red Ale – Our Irish red, 1849, comes in at 18 IBU, which is not a considerable increase but quite a bit more than the Grey Eagle. You’ll notice more bitterness in this one, but it’s not overpowering.
- Los Muertos – Mexican Style Lager – One thing that marks most lagers is a pretty low bitterness, and our Los Muertos also comes in at 18 IBU. This lager has a very clean finish and a light overall taste, so you’re not going to notice much bitterness when you drink it.
- Clara – Kölsch – This is another German-style beer, though it has 20 IBU, which is double the Grey Eagle. It has a pretty mild hoppiness to it, and due to its overall flavor profile, it is not as bitter as you might expect with the higher number.
- Zeppelin – Marzen – Our take on a traditional Oktoberfest beer also has a 20 IBU, but as another German-style beer, its bitterness is not as strong as you might first expect. It has a nice, balanced flavor with a strong maltiness to it. This strong malt flavor offsets bitterness, as we mentioned earlier, so the IBU rating can be somewhat misleading.
- Moonrider – Oatmeal Stout – Speaking of malt, our oatmeal stout, the Moonrider, comes in at 28 IBU, but also has a full-bodied malt character. That means that, once again, the high IBU can be a bit misleading, and this is less bitter than you might initially expect. Instead, the use of oats gives it a bit of sweetness and a great body that is smooth throughout.
- Ocho – India Pale Ale – If you’ve been waiting for an IPA, then here it is: the Ocho with its 60 IBU stands out among our other offerings. IPAs are often noted for being much more bitter than many other ales and lagers, and with such a high IBU, it’s no wonder why. We use eight different kinds of hops in our IPA, which produces a very complex overall flavor, and it is undoubtedly the most bitter of our standard beers.
Ready for More?
Now that you know a bit more about craft beers and IBU, you’re ready to put that knowledge to good use. Come have a taste of what we offer and see how different IBU ratings and the overall flavor profiles of each beer translate into reality when they hit your tongue. You might find you like something you didn’t expect, and you can experience how malt reduces bitterness when it comes to the way you taste what we brew.
Visit us at Fort Brewery in Fort Worth, TX, today and learn more about beer and bitterness through practical experimentation. Which is to say: come have a beer and see what all the fuss is about!