I’m not bitter, but this beer is (or is it?)

Just to clarify, I am NOT a brewer, I’ve never brewed any beer, except once as part of a “Higher” Biology class project at school, I am also not a chemist (I never took chemistry at school and never really understood it). So I am not writing this post with any authority, expert knowledge or even real experience except I drink beer on occasion.

Over the last couple years there has been a significant rise in “craft beer” or at least it has come to the fore-front more, in no small part due to “Brew Dog” (in the UK) and their highly public “antics”. There is no real definition for “craft beer” but for today’s purposes shall we say “non-mainstream”, smaller brewers that like to experiment with different beers as opposed to the “mainstream” mass producers of beer.

I could get into a long post about what is “craft-beer” or even what is “beer”, it’s odd to me (a Software Engineer) that there is no standards or strict definitions for these things, what is the difference between “beer”, “ale”, “stout”, “lager”? Most people would be able tell the difference between a lager, a stout and an “ale” but what about a “porter”, or a “pilsner” or an “IPA”,  or something more abstract like a “golden ale”? I know CAMRA have a definition on what they call  “real ale” (it’s got something to do with the beer continuing to ferment in the cask/bottle due to the yeast still being alive and NOT killed off by pasteurisation or filtered out).

One measure that everybody understands is ABV which is Alcohol By Volume (expressed as a percentage of the amount of alcohol), there are other measures (in the U.S. they use “proof” which is essentially double the percentage e.g. 40% ABV is “80 proof”). Another measure used is “gravity“, which I’ve never really understood, it measures the density of liquid and relates to the amount of sugar but I’m not sure what it actually means!

But what is IBU & EBU?

EBU = “European Bitterness Unit”

IBU = “International Bitterness Unit”

According to Wikipedia IBU was coined by the Americans and EBU by the Europeans, luckily they are pretty similar, apparently they use a different method of measuring so there can be differences, with EBU being slightly lower than IBU. I tried to find a specific definition of these terms on the internet but failed, one homebrew site I found says “One IBU is equivalent to 1 mg of iso-alpha acid per litre of beer”. IBU seems to be used most commonly from my observations (showing an influence of the U.S. craft beer market over here?). Theoretically the maximum IBU is around 100, but depending on a number of factors this can be surpassed, this table shows beers going up to 2500 IBUs! Although apparently you cannot taste the additional bitterness much above 100.

I have tried “Mikeller 1000 IBU” (which is theoretically a 1000 IBU’s) and in my opinion it was “foul”, WAY too bitter and virtually undrinkable, but that’s just my opinion, it has an overall rating of 99 on “ratebeer“, just another reason why I don’t really use the site, or any other beer rating sites. (I do use Untappd more for fun to check-in different beers than for the ratings).

This eventually brings me to something that has been bothering me for a while about the so-called U.K. “craft beer” industry, why are so many of the “craft” brewers making massively (over?) hopped and often too bitter beers? In my opinion there is three possible reasons for this:-

  1. An influence of the American “craft” beers.
  2. An attempt to push/experiment to the limits.
  3. A genuine love of hoppy beers.

There has been for a long time a significant difference in the stereotypical “U.S.” & “British” beers. U.S. beers are fizzy, flavourless, weak lagers while British beer is warm and flat. Like most stereotypes these views are generalisations based on truths: the biggest beer by far in the States was for a long time (and probably still is) Anheuser Busch’s “Budweiser” which is always served extremely chilled and is a carbonated 3% lager (U.S. laws for a long time restricted beer to 3% after prohibition). “British” beer (or often “English” if you’re from the “States” 🙂 was originally what we call Ale today and was/is served at “cellar” temperature  (typically between 11–13 °C / 52–55 °F), and not carbonated. Lagers generally should be refrigerated at lower temperatures and as they are “dead” and do not produce gasses naturally normally need to have carbon-dioxide pumped into the barrel (or keg), while “Ales” are still alive and produce natural gasses in their “casks”. You can usually tell the difference by the type of tap used on the bar, “hand pulled” taps tend to be Ales in casks while “kegs” have a on/off type tap. This is an over-simplification but works as a general rule, craft brewers are now blurring the lines and new technologies are emerging that blur these rules further.

Of course, these are stereotypes that are not strictly true, but I do believe that the U.S. “craft beer” industry has created a backlash against these typical lagers and U.S. craft brewers have been deliberately using a large amount of hops in their beers to “compensate” for years of flavourless lager drinking. I suspect a lot of U.K. craft brewers have been influenced by these U.S. brewers and emulate them to some degree (I know “Brew Dog” make no secret of the influence from U.S. brewers). There also appears to be a habit of “dry hopping” or “secondary hopping’, which if I understand correctly is the process of adding hops to the beer after it has fermented so even more hops flavours are added.

I assume part of the “fun” of brewing your own beer is that you can experiment and push the limits of what has been commercially accepted in the past (or at least go past the “norm” mainstream beers). I am not surprised that craft brewers want to exceed 100 IBU and see what they are capable of. I’m guessing that producing in smaller quantities means they can always sell one or two cask/kegs to specific bars and it will sell, if the beer isn’t popular they try something else.

Of course I assume that these brewers do genuinely love very hoppy/bitter beers. I’m sure they don’t produce many beers they don’t like or enjoy.

I am talking in vague generalisations again, not every craft beer is extremely hoppy and bitter. In fact a lot of hops doesn’t necessarily mean very bitter, but it does seem to be a trend in U.K craft beers, as well as those from the U.S. and  personally I think they are going too far at times. Yes it is nice to taste the hops in a pint of beer but not to the extent of everything else, and obviously different hops have different flavours and some produce a very sweet “flowery” tasting beer as opposed to a bitter beer.

To conclude: a plea to all brewers please stop “over hopping” your beers, not everybody enjoys “too much” hops and also it would be nice if you’d supply more information about all your beers. Brew Dog have some nice downloads for some of their beers on what they call “sellsheets” which if you ignore all the “sales blurb” tell you the alcohol content, the IBU as well as the types of malts and hops used in each (it would be nice if they also included colour coding, yes there are various scales for that too). It would be great if this information was available for ALL beers, then we poor uneducated drinkers could make better informed choices about the beers we drink. I have come across some brewery websites that don’t even lists their beers. or at least I couldn’t find them!

Of course at the end of the day there’s no substitute for tasting the beer and I for one will continue to select beers I haven’t tried before when I find them and hope that the “craft brewing” industry continues to go from strength to strength and continues to produce new and unique beers.

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