Much the way you measure the strength of hot peppers, you can gauge how hoppy and bitter a beer will taste by it’s IBU rating. Although no scale is really the final test for a beer, (gotta go get a pint of it!) it’s an interesting statistic to start with when you’re trying to decide if a beer falls within the range your pallet is used to. I won’t expect to convince many Coors Light drinkers to enjoy Atomic Smashbomb right away, but maybe something slightly higher on the IBU scale than they’re used to would be doable.
Here’s some beers I’ve enjoyed and how they rank, from least to most “bitter”:
Mill Street Organic Lager - 14
Steam Whistle Pilsner - 21
Amsterdam Stout - 32
King Brewery Czech Pilsner -38
Duggan’s Brewery #9 IPA - 55
Spearhead Hawaiian IPA - 60
Durham Brewing Hop Addict - 85
Stone Brewing Arrogant Bastard - 100+ “classified”
Clearly an abbreviated list, and for many lighter beers (I’m surprised I could find an IBU listing for Organic) it’s not a defining number. ”How hoppy is this beer?” is sometimes like asking “how spicy is this orange juice?” It doesn’t really apply.
Now, a few oddities that might require clarification:
Yes, you see a stout closer to the top of the list in the same area as pilsners and light lagers. That’s because the dark rich flavour you’re getting from the stout isn’t traditionally a bitter, hoppy flavour. That taste comes from malted barley, not hops. Malt gives you those chocolate and caramel notes.
Spearhead Hawaiian IPA lists as more hoppy than Duggan’s? Well, yeah. It has a kick of hops to it, but that aggressive flavour is mellowed by the pineapple you get a hint of on the finish. You lose the edge on the bitter by tasting the sweet.
And of course, Arrogant Bastard doesn’t seem to publicize their IBU, as part of their “we are the most aggressive beer on the planet” style marketing. (Don’t let them fool you – denying you do a lot of marketing is marketing. To the brewer’s credit though, their beer does speak for itself. Also, most of the awareness they tend to generate is for either their pub or the craft beer community as a whole.)