Sunday, May 31, 2009

IBU-er madness

There was a frantic knocking on my office door. "Tom, come quick. Big problem!"

It was May 1995 and I was the brewery manager for the Oxford Brewing Company, now closed, but then located just outside of Baltimore, Maryland. The city would be hosting its first American Homebrewers Association national conference, and Oxford Brewing had been asked to brew the official beer.

The theme for that year had been Planet Beer. So we were brewing Inter-Planetary Ale. The beer was in style, of course, an IPA - an India Pale Ale. Bad pun.

Knocking at the door was our lab tech, Alvaro Spencer. He quickly walked me out to our production board, and pointed at the schedule and specifications for the IPA: 6.5% alcohol by volume, 55 IBUs.

Alvaro had worked in the beer business overseas for many years, albeit for large capacity lager breweries. He had never seen or brewed beers of such high alcohol or hop content.

In his charming, accented English, he exclaimed, "What is this EEE-puh? It's too big; too strong; too many IBUs. It's no good!"

IBUs - International Bitterness Units - are measures of bitterness in beer, literally the dissolved alpha acids contributed from the hops. One IBU equals one part per million of isohumulone, or 1 milligram of alpha acid dissolved in 1 liter of beer.

In 1998, I wrote a review of Tuppers Hop Pocket Pils. It included this passage describing a scene I observed at a beer festival, now over ten years ago, in Washington, DC:

At the 1998 Mid-Atlantic Beer and Food Festival, at least 40% of the attendees were women. This a proportion that had been growing at this festival since its inception five years earlier. For the most part, these women were bucking the conventional wisdom that women only drink sweet, flavored, or fruit beers. They were sampling all of the beers. (This illogic, unfortunately being practiced by some craft breweries of pandering to the least common denominator is similar to the process that led the big American brewers to dumb down their offerings.)

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 a business that prides itself on romantic notions of craft, it's strange that non-romantic acronyms —such as IPA, DIPA, IBU, abv, etc.— run amuck, as at governmental agencies. So, for me, I.P.A will always be "EEE-puh."

And Mr. Spencer? He soon became a fan of 'big beers'.

This year's National Homebrewers Conference is scheduled for 18-21 June 2009 in Oakland, CA. Tickets can be purchased at

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