Brewers and beer geeks know all about IBUs—or international bittering units. IBUs are basically the amount of hops that have been permanently imparted to a beer through the brewing process. More hops equals more bitterness—at least in theory.
India Pale Ales (IPAs) are typically the hoppiest, most IBU-heavy style of beer. And the past decade has witnessed an explosion in pale ale popularity—as well as a minor craze among some craft brewers to concoct pale ales with “insane” or “extreme” IBU values.
“You’ll see brewers claiming 500 or 1,000 IBUs,” says Matt Simpson, a.k.a. The Beer Sommelier. But Simpson says these IBU values are both manipulable and misleading. “First of all, the human palate can only detect bitterness up to about 100 IBUs,” he says. “So anything above that is what we call ‘technical’, and mostly for show.”
What’s more, Simpson says a beer’s bitterness depends on when the hops are added during the brewing process and how they’re balanced with malt. He says a brewer could dump in a ton of hops “on the back end,” which would supercharge the beer’s IBU score and provide some huge hoppy aroma without imparting much bitterness.
“You could have a beer with 1,000 IBUs that tasters describe as ‘smooth’!” he says, incredulous. “On the other hand, an IPA could have 50 or 60 IBUs and taste super bitter if it’s crafted that way.”
As a result, Simpson says there’s some backlash against the IBU craze among certain brewers. “I have a good buddy who’s a brewer and a huge hoppy beer guy, and he’s been a judge at the Great American Beer festival,” Simpson says. “He doesn’t even put IBU figures on his beers anymore because they don’t mean anything to him.”
So, to sum all this up, just because a beer advertises an “insane” IBU doesn’t mean it’s going to be particularly bitter, Simpson says.
He adds that hoppy beers are very “volatile,” and tend to lose their essence quickly. “Your biggest, hoppiest beers need to be fresh, so finding something local is often going to be better than having some hop-bomb shipped to you from across the country,” he says.
For all of these reasons, Simpson is hesitant to recommend beers based on “hoppiness.” But for those intent on trying some of the most talked about, bitter, and hop-heavy brews, he suggests sampling these five.
THE ALCHEMIST “HEADY TOPPER”
“This is one everyone’s looking for, and it’s worth it,” Simpson says. “ He calls it “very well balanced” with lots of big floral aroma. According to the brewers: “This double IPA is not intended to be the strongest or most bitter DIPA. It is brewed to give you wave after wave of hop flavor.” Simpson says it comes in a can, but “you don’t drink this out of the can. You’re wasting the aroma if you do.”
SURLY “ABRASIVE ALE”
Brooklyn Center, Minnesota
Simpson describes this brew as similar in profile to Heady Topper with a little less balance and a little more of a hop bite. “These brewers are exceedingly good, and this is a great double IPA,” he says.
DOGFISH HEAD 120 MINUTES IPA
At somewhere between 15% and 20% ABV, this beer is notorious for a reason. It’s also excellent. “They steadily hop it over the course of two hours, hence the name,” Simpson says. “It’s very big and rich and sweet, but also very hoppy.” It’s only brewed a few times a year. If you have the chance to drink some, don’t miss it.
KNEE DEEP BREWING COMPANY “SIMTRA TRIPLE IPA”
“A punch to the face” according to the people who make it, this 11.25% ABV brew will definitely be a punch to your liver. A delicious punch, that is. “Like most IPAs, lots of piney, grassy, citrus-y notes,” Simpson says. “Delicious if you can find it fresh.”
MIKKELLER “1000 IBU”
This bitter Danish brew weighs in at 9.6% ABV. Simpson says this is a very highly regarded beer for such a colossal IBU rating, and one you can find in the States if you keep your eyes open and make the effort. The most common tasting note among those who have tried it: “Over the top.”