Tuesday, June 19, 2007

It's a beer, not a number.

It was at an in-store tasting, and I had just finished describing to a potential customer a technique Clipper City Brewing uses in brewing Loose Cannon Hop3 Ale.

Our brewers strain hot wort through a hopback - an open vessel holding many pounds of whole leaf hops, literally steeping a hop tea. This imbues Loose Cannon with an herbaceous and fruity character, a flavor distinct from the grassiness of dry-hopping and utterly different from the bitterness of hops.

It's what makes this strong pale ale unique.

"That's great", the customer said, but he still demanded to know: "How many IBUs?" [IBUs, or International Bitterness Units are the measure of dissolved alpha acids in a beer. Precisely, an IBU is one part per million of isohumulone.]

This all-too-common obsession with a number - one which most craft breweries do NOT determine in an accurate scientific fashion - misses the point. Bitterness is perceived in conjunction with the beer's sweetness or maltiness. Think of lemonade - too little lemon and it's too sweet, too much and it's too sour.

From a review I wrote in 1998(!):

Particularly intriguing was a conversation between two women who appeared to be just past the minimum age. They were standing in line, eagerly waiting to receive refills of Hop Devil Ale, an India Pale Ale, brewed in Pennsylvania by the Victory Brewing Company, that is big, bold, very bitter, and very aromatic.

These women, however, were not remarking upon the bitterness of the beer, but, rather, upon its hoppiness, that is, its fresh herbal aromatics.

Too often, many of us refer only to bitterness when we talk of hop quality, as in the macho muscling in of as much 'hair-on-your-chest' bittering as possible. We forget about the appealing bouquet that hops impart to beer. Hops are herbs, after all.

In cooking, spices such as allspice or cinnamon are thought of as sweet spices. They aren't sweet, per se, but, rather, confer a sweet character to the foods in which they used.

Similarly, the aromatic character of hops lends a fruity, herbal character to a beer quite distinct from maltiness.

Or, as a Jon Binkley is quoted in beer writer Lew Bryson's blog:
Specific Gravity only captures one narrow aspect of "MALTY," just as IBUs only capture one narrow aspect of "HOPPY." Neither addresses FLAVOR.

But, at this tasting, this particular customer would have none of it.

So, I said, "It's 75 IBUs!" He turned and walked away.

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