If you love IPAs you probably have an interest in how bitter, or “hoppy” (since the hops provide bitterness in beer), an IPA is. The IPA is the most bitter style of beer, and many IPA lovers seek the most bitter IPA they can find. Many rely on what their friends tell them, but as your dorky science teacher Mr. Turpentine used to say, “Everyone’s taste buds are different!” You might also find that your own impressions of an IPA’s bitterness change depending on factors like what you were eating with the beer, the freshness of the beer, what other beer you drank just before, etc.
That’s where the International Bitterness Unit (IBU) comes in. The IBU is a standardized measure of the bitterness of beer, taken through the use of a device called a spectrophotometer. Although some brewers have released IBU figures for their beers that exceed 100, it is said that an IBU figure over 100 cannot be accurately determined. All things being equal, a beer with a higher IBU figure will taste more bitter or hoppier than a beer with a lower figure. However, as usual in this world of ours, all things are not typically equal.
Malt counterbalances hop bitterness, so a beer with a high quantity of malt might not taste very bitter, regardless of the IBU figure. For example, let’s take two Ska Brewing IPAs: Modus Hoperandi (65 IBUs) and Decadent (99 IBUs). Based on the IPA figures for these beers you might assume that Decadent would be far hoppier. However, I think those of you who have sampled these beers will agree with me that quite the opposite is true. This is because Decadent has a strong malt base to it, while Modus does not.
Therefore, I am afraid that IBU measurement is not as useful as you might have hoped. However, there is no question that IBUs are relevant and helpful when seeking out IPAs. And there is even less question that IBUs add to the conversation when talking IPAs. By the way, the owner of the highest IBU figure on this website at 127 IBUs is Alpha Dog by Laughing Dog Brewing. Is that the hoppiest beer out there?