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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EdTweetup at Innis & Gunn

For those not familiar with #EdTweetup it’s a Twitter “Meet Up” organized by @btocher every couple of months (or actually when Baxter decides to organize one), it takes place in different venues around Edinburgh and is basically for Twitter users to meet each other in person and have a few beers together.

Innis & Gunn are an independent brewing company based in Edinburgh (their beer is actually brewed under contract by Belhaven in Dunbar) who produce a somewhat unique range of “Oak Aged” beers, in that their beers are matured in American white oak Bourbon barrels. Innis & Gunn at 32 Potterrow is a new venture (to my knowledge) for them, in that it is actually a bar (although the current plan is that this will only exist for the summer) and I believe the bar itself is actually run by 56 North.

As part of the evenings event there was to be a Innis & Gunn beer tasting, which I was looking forward to, I am familiar with their “Original” beer having enjoyed it on numerous occasions, normally by the bottle but occasional I’ve come across it on draught, I have also once tried their Rum Finish version.

We were each given a small “shot” style glass in which to sample the beer, our host “Martin” first introduced us to the Innis & Gunn “story” (I won’t repeat it, but for those that don’t know it, you can read it on their website here) and then introduced us to each beer in turn, giving a brief explanation which was backed up by printed tasting notes, handing bottles around the table, allowing us to help ourselves. I did feel that proceedings were a bit rushed, but with nine different beers to sample it had to be to get through all of them within the hour allotted for the sampling. Anyway on to the beers and my opinion :-

Original

A golden colour at 6.6% ABV and aged for 77 days. As I said I’ve enjoyed this beer before on a number of occasions, it’s, it does have a unique flavour which is slightly sweet and in my mind reminiscent of treacle, there is also a similarity to some whiskies, which is probably from the oak ageing (some whiskies are also aged in similar bourbon oak barrels).

Blonde

A light straw colour at 6 % ABV and aged for 37 days. My first taste of this beer and probably my last, my least favourite of the range I found it too sweet and almost fruity in flavour. I guess it might work as an after dinner drink, but not to my taste.

Highland Cask

A light brown colour at 7.1% ABV and aged for 60 days. This is a limited edition beer aged in Scottish Whisky barrels for 18 years (I don’t know which whisky/distillery the barrels came from), it’s fairly similar to the original but does have a deeper smoother flavour and hints of  whisky.

Canada Day 2012

A reddish-brown colour at 7.7% and aged for 49 days. A limited edition created for Canada Day 2012 (Innis & Gunn beer is particularly popular in Canada). I wasn’t too sure about this one, it is apparently made from a number of different malts to balance out sweetness and bitterness, I thought it tasted a bit too bitter and a bit spicy, it may well work with the a nutty cheese as suggested by the tasting notes.

Winter Beer 2011

A darkish brown colour at 7.4% and aged for 48 days. Another limited edition beer and probably more suitable for the winter than mid summer. Tastes heavier than the other beers, not dissimilar to a Scottish dark ale, quite smooth with a hint of sweetness reminiscent of honey but maltier.

Irish Whiskey Cask

A very dark mahogany/black colour at  7.4% and aged for 60 days. This is a stout which is matured in barrels from “a famous distillery in Ireland”, I do like a good stout, particularly if it has hints of chocolate or coffee (or both), although I’d probably rate this above Guinness but below a number of other stouts I’ve tried. It does have a certain flavour to it which probably comes from the Irish whiskey barrels, not a good thing in my opinion (I find most Irish Whiskey a bit sharp and harsh for my taste).

Scottish Pale Ale

A gold colour at 7% and aged for 41 days. Their version of an IPA, which are traditionally hoppy and more bitter than a regular ale. This beer is certainly “hoppier” than the others and a bit more bitter, but not enough to make it stand out from other similar IPA’s. There is a tendency for smaller “craft beer” breweries to in my opinion “over hop” their IPA’s, probably following the same tendency coming from American Pale Ales, but that’s probably an entire Blog posting on its own! This is NOT “over” hopped and would possibly be to some people’s tastes.

Independence Day 2012

A light gold colour at 7% and aged for 54 days. Almost half way between the “Original” and the “Blonde”, it’s a fairly light beer but with a fresher almost citrus finish, similar to a fruity orange flavour common from using American hops, not to my personal taste but may be more popular with those not keen on beer.

Rum Finish

A dark brown colour at 7.4% and aged for 54 days. Not dissimilar to the “Highland Cask” but a bit sweeter and sharper, I guess the difference between Rum and Scottish Whisky. I’m not a big fan of regular rum, but I do like spiced rums. There used to be a limited edition “Spiced Rum Finish” but unfortunately it is no longer available, I think I might have preferred it.

Summary

By the time we had tried the ninth beer in quick succession it was getting a little hard to judge each individual beer, not helped by using the same glass for all the beers. I’ve never been convinced that drinking a small sample gives a true impression of a specific beer, but I’ll probably be sticking with the “Original”  in future, unless of course they come out with another limited edition I haven’t tried. A fun experience and if you are organizing a group night out it might be worth asking about doing the beer tasting yourself.

After the beer tasting, we got down to the serious business of drinking and chatting, I did notice that very few (if any) people were actually drinking Innis & Gunn 🙂

Some of the bottles at the end of the tasting