How Many IBU?
Vic Kralj and Tom Nickel see the passion every day, and they feel it as well. Kralj (otherwise to be known as Vic in this story) runs the Bistro in Hayward, CA, which organizes a variety of hoppy beer events. He is at the GABF for the first time since 1998. “I want to be here when they award the first Double IPA gold medal,” he says. Vic started his own Double IPA festival in 2001. “The first year we had 12, then 20 and 24. I wouldn’t be surprised if we had 30 for this one (February 7, 2004),” he says.
Tom Nickel is a brewer, bar owner and veteran beer judge. He made the category his first preference for judging this year. At his pub, O’Brien’s in San Diego, the best-selling beer is an 8 percent IPA and he regularly has at least one double IPA on tap, sometimes more than a half dozen.
“As a pub owner I like to have a big beer from a brewery on tap at the same time as another beer—they like one, odds are good that they will like the other. I want to expand people’s horizons about what they think is beer and what is proper to put in a pint glass,” Nickel says.
And then there’s the fact he just plain likes to drink double IPAs. “They are awesome tasting, strong and hoppy, but you can still drink by the pint,” he says. “It is why I think Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA is so impressive. I can have pint of it and enjoy it without it being too heavy or thick—mind you, the alcohol catches up with you fast, but the flavor and body beg to be put in a pint.”
Dogfish Head Brewing in Delaware hops relentlessly, adding hops constantly to its 60 Minute, 90 Minute and 120 Minute IPAs, with the latter two labeled “imperial.” Because they are bottled and sold across much of the country, they act as ambassadors for the style. The 90 Minute falls within the GABF guidelines, but at 21 percent ABV, the 120 is far too high (for style) in alcohol. Yet it was probably the first of the 1,400-plus kegs to be drained on the Thursday of GABF.
The 120 also is dry hopped every day for a month. Is it really 120 IBU? “That’s what we calculated,” says brewery founder Sam Calagione, “but we should probably send it out (to a lab) to make it official.”
Brewers and consumers toss around IBU numbers that likely aren’t accurate. “Hey, did you try the one that’s 130 IBU?” we hear Thursday as we walk. In fact, that might not be possible. Brewing chemists can fill a blackboard explaining why, so Mitch Steele—an assistant brew master at Anheuser-Busch who also judged the category—provides an English translation:
“The maximum IBU level in a beer is somewhat dependent on composition of the beer. A higher alcohol, higher gravity beer can have more IBU than a beer at 5 percent alcohol. A 5 percent beer will max out at 120 parts per million iso-alpha acids, which corresponds to about 80 IBU. It is physically impossible to have more IBU than that in a 5 percent beer. As alcohol and unfermented carbohydrate in the beer increases, so does the ability of the beer to carry more IBU. Our hop research expert feels that the claim that some barley wines have over 100 IBU is probably valid.”
What a chemist may measure and a drinker may taste can differ. “Perceived hop quality versus measurable bitterness, that’s a tough one. I’m not sure there is a relationship because so much more is involved, like flavor balance, and the types of hops used,” says Steele. “Many feel that low cohumulone hops produce a better, cleaner bitterness. I do know that during the judging, the imperial IPAs that were not harsh or unbalanced did better with the judges. Clean bitterness was key.”
“This set a standard, a benchmark,” Nickel says. “If you enter this category and expect to win, your beer better be at least this hoppy. This category is only going to get better as hop usage becomes more refined. In the grand scheme of things, craft brewers know very little about hops.”