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In Class at the CIA: I.B.Useless

Class is in session at Brooklyn Brewery at the CIA, our brewhouse and teaching facility at the Culinary Institute of America. Each month, we’ll take you inside the classroom to learn alongside the students participating in the most robust beer education of any culinary institute. You don’t have to do the homework, but you might want to do some extra reading.

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Summer is a busy time at the Culinary Institute of America, with classes, tons of visitors to their restaurants, and everyone trying to take as much time as they can to enjoy the Hudson River views of their campus. Unlike most schools that take a nice, long summer break, the CIA only closes for two weeks in August. Students are still hard at work in The Brooklyn Brewery at the CIA Brewhouse, making beer and learning the ins and outs of brewing.

As beer has strengthened its spotlight over the last few decades, people have demanded more precise ways of describing their drinks and their experiences. One of the more problematic descriptors to seize popularity recently is IBUs. International Bittering Units once existed solely within brewery labs as a way to measure iso-alpha acids in beer. Now, the term is tossed around by legions of hopheads to describe the bitterness in their prized IPAs and compare stats across breweries. The enthusiasm is undeniably positive. But IBUs themselves are a problem as a drinker’s metric.

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Taking this position tends to bring scorn from the hop-hunters of the bottle shops and bars. Bitterness is a key description for beers, especially for those newer to the world of flavorful beers. IBUs have been pointed to as an unassailable measurement, easy to dole out and simple to understand for even rookie drinkers. Recently, beer writer Kate Bernot’s piece “The Case Against IBUs,” published in Draft Magazine, turned some heads and emboldened some brewmasters– including our own Brooklyn Brewmaster Garrett Oliver– to lay the IBU myths to rest.

The first part of the problem is that IBUs are simply not meant to measure a flavor. Yes, “bitterness” is part of the acronym. But the test measures only the level of iso-alpha acid within the beer. This totally leaves out other bittering compounds in the beer, malt properties, water chemistry, residual sugar, and a host of other variables. What matters is perceived bitterness– how bitter the beer actually tastes, not what a number tells us. To use an example from Garrett, 35 IBUs added to a Bud Light (estimated IBUs: 17) would taste very bitter. But add that same 35 IBUs to a bottle of Coca-Cola, and you still have a sweet beverage.

Another issue that arises is that IBUs are difficult to truly measure. Popular Science has the complete description, but the basics are that a spectrometer must be called in to measure the isohumulones (bittering compounds) present in a beer sample. If the sheer number of syllables in those words didn’t tip you off, this is a very tricky, time-consuming and expensive process. Most brewers make do with formulas and recipes to provide an estimated IBU level.

Imagine if other important measurements in life could be estimated as loosely as IBUs. How much more ice cream would we all eat if the calories were estimated at “gosh, a bunch?” If IBUs aren’t taken seriously enough to stringently measure by those who rely on them most, why are we, the folks with the least science involved in our drinking experience, bothering to throw the word around?

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This brings us to a final important point: IBUs are useless because IBUs don’t actually tell you anything about how your beer tastes. As Bernot asks, “Are you looking for the bitterest beer? Are you looking for the one with the most hop character?” In Brooklyn’s own lineup, Sorachi Ace is undisputably “hoppy.” The bulk of its unique flavor and aroma come directly from the Sorachi Ace hop, and the world is a better place for it. But the IBU measurement of Sorachi Ace could never tell you about the lemongrass in the aroma, or the dill in the finish. We don’t list our IBUs, because we don’t think that’s a useful part of the conversation. That conversation is on you as a drinker, and the bartender, and the brewer, all talking about what’s in the glass.

The only way to describe a beer fully is poetry, but that’s obnoxious in most settings. Numbers– especially ones as highly specialized as IBUs– aren’t delicious. Strike the middle ground, and simply talk about your beer. If someone asks what the IBUs in your latest double IPA were, smile big and say, “buggered if I could tell you, but gee whiz did it sure taste like pineapple!” Your slang could probably use a little work, but your friends and bartenders will thank you. And who knows, you might even find a little poetry in there too.

Any questions? See us after class on Facebook or Twitter and we’ll answer any questions we can to further your beer knowledge.

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