Visit just about any beer pub or restaurant, and you’ll find a lengthy list of beverage options. Most beers will list a value for ABV and IBU. Understanding ABV and IBU – what each of these percentages mean and how the combination of the two creates a flavor – will help you better decide which new beers you might like to try.
What is the IBU?
Beer is produced by fermenting starch and then flavored with hops. Hops are the plants that contribute to the bitterness of a beer, but not all hops will make beer bitter. The bitterness comes from alpha acids found in the resin glands of the flowers of the hop plants. The degree of bitterness will depend on three factors:
- The type of hops used. Hops with a higher concentration of alpha acids will generate a stronger bitter taste. These are usually referred to as “bittering hops.” Hops with less concentration are called “aroma hops” and will add flavors such as citrus, pine, or mango.
- The amount of hops added. It should be no surprise that the more hops added to the brew, the more bitterness there will be.
- When the hops are added. Adding hops early in the brewing process will make the beer more bitter. When hops are added late in the process, the hops contribute more to the beer’s aroma.
IBU stands for International Bitterness Units. The IBU scale ranges from 5 to 100+, although anything over 100 is difficult to differentiate. Most craft beers range between 10 to 80. A beer over 60 is considered bitter.
However, before you rely on the IBU score to pick your beer, it’s essential to understand how ABV should impact your decision.
What is ABV?
ABV stands for alcohol by volume. It is a standard measurement of the alcohol content of the beverage. Alcohol content will vary depending on the types of base grains used in its production. During fermentation, yeasts eat the sugars from the grain and create carbon dioxide and alcohol. Darker, bolder beers are produced with grains with higher sugar content, such as malts, and may also have additives like honey or chocolate. More sugar in the production will increase the alcohol content and ABV score.
Some dark beers, such as Great Notion’s “Vanilla Double Stack” Imperial Stout, are produced for a rich, smooth taste and contain an ABV of 11% but have an IBU of 0. Another Stout, Gigantic’s “Fancy Pants” stout, contains an ABV of 7.2% and an IBU of 55, resulting in slightly less sweetness.
What if a beer has a high IBU and a high ABV?
Here’s the tricky part. A higher ABV can cancel out much of the bitterness of a high IBU. When a beer contains malts, the sugar content of the malts will make the beer far less bitter but will increase the alcohol content. This results in a high IBU and high ABV. Because of this, it’s important to consider how high the ABV score is in conjunction with the IBU and not rely solely on the IBU. For example, many people will find the “Fancy Pants” stout above tastes smoother than Ex Novo’s “For Whom the Helles Tolls” lager with an ABV of 4.9% and IBU of 22.
Understanding ABV and IBU will help you enjoy beer tastings more.
It is tempting to find a category of beers you enjoy and stick to that on your visit to the local pub. For example, some customers come in only looking for hazy IPAs. Yet, by understanding ABV and IBU, you will begin to decipher the beer menu on a new level and quickly be able to pick out other types of beer to enjoy. Stop by your local Growler Guys and let us help you discover new beers to love.