Bitterness is a key component in a beer’s flavor there to balance out the sweetness of the malts and prevent beer from tasting like a “barley soda.” The mass-produced American Light Lager beers are so light in body that they only need a touch of bitterness to find balance, and many people have trouble adapting to the more assertive bitterness in craft beers. Few beer drinkers we know of started off loving the very bitter double IPAs, but like with coffee, dark chocolate, and grapefruit you can develop your palate to enjoy the bitterness in beer. Experimentation and exploration is the key to discovering your comfort level.
Hops began to be used regularly in beer around the 16th century; before that time the sweetness of beer was balanced with all manner of herbs and barks. The bitterness of hops is caused by the alpha acids that are stored in the glands of the hop flower, and these acids are extracted by the brewer during the boil. Additionally hops provide antibacterial and preservative qualities, which were critical for storing beer before refrigeration, and hops add their own distinct flavor and aroma. This hop flavor is prized by many beer fans, and avoided by just as many. We’ve found that a taste for the herbal flowers developed over time. Even if you think that IPAs taste like bile today, some day in the future you might find yourself craving the pungent hit of a hoppy brew.
Bitterness in beer is measured in “International Bitterness Units” or IBU, with each style having a typical range of bitterness. This is a measurement of the concentration of bitter hop acids in the beer in parts-per-million. American Light Lager beers score around 10 IBU, while Imperial IPAs and their ilk can reach over 100. Some claim that there is a threshold between 70 and 100 IBU that above which you cannot taste any more bitterness, but we could find no definitive sources for these claims. There are many genetic factors that effect ones perception of bitterness however, and these can lead to large differences between how the same beer will taste for two different people.
There is one other aspect to IBUs that make them an imperfect measure of a beer’s taste. Bitterness is relative to the amount of malt in a beer. The more malt in a beer the sweeter the beer, and the sweeter the beer the more bittering acids are needed to balance that sweetness. This is why a Guinness Stout doesn’t taste as bitter as a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale even though they are both around 40IBU. The chart at the left shows several popular craft beers and their IBU ratings, and craft beers often include IBU information on their labels or websites.
Take a look at some of the beers you enjoy and see if they fall along a “sweet spot” on the IBU scale, and let us know your experiences with developing a taste for the more bitter brews.
If you can’t get enough bitter in your beer, check out this list of the commercial beers with the highest IBUs.