What you need to know about hops, IBU’s & more


There is perhaps no geekier drinks love than the beer nerd’s love for suds. Here we’ll dive deep into hops, and explain a bit of the more obtuse terminology that surrounds them.

What are IBU’s?

You may have seen these labelled on some of the new wave of craft brews kicking around the bars. IBU is an acronym for International Bitterness (or Bittering) Units, which is a scale that attempts to provide a guide as to — you guessed it — the bitterness of a given beer. Except that it doesn’t. Why? Well, as a geeky bartender you’ll be quite aware that the perception of bitterness on the palate can be capped or reduced by a couple of things: the presence of salt, and of course, sweetness — such as you might find in a malted beverage like beer. So depending on the level of malt in your brew, you could still have a high IBU but a beer that doesn’t taste particularly bitter.

What the IBU does measure is the presence of alpha acids in the beer.


What are alpha acids?

Put simply, this is more or less where the bitterness in a beer comes from. Alpha acids are released into the beer during the wort boiling process — they are isomerized during the heating, creating iso-alpha acids. How long the heating progresses, releasing more acids into the brew, and the the acid level of the particular hop variety used (some have higher levels than others) will all contribute to the final IBU of the beer.

What is dry hopping? 

OK, so don’t get confused here. For the large majority of brews, hops are dried and added to the wort. That’s just how hops come generally — they are dried, because they decompose quickly if they’re not (read further about wet hopping below for more information).

Dry hopping though refers to the stage at which hops are added to the brew. Generally speaking, hops are added during the boil so that bitterness can be extracted and made soluble into the beer. Dry hopping, on the otherhand, is when another round of hops is added either during fermentation or afterwards (the boil comes before fermentation). The chief aim for this is to add to the beers aromatics.

But I’ve heard about wet hopping too?

A beer that has been wet hopped is one that has had freshly-harvested hops added to the mix. Hops are very delicate and start to spoil quickly. To avoid this, they are kiln-dried. The beers that are made with these wet hops, need to get deliveries of the hops very quickly. Apparently it results in a fresher, finer hoppiness.

Here’s some common hops…

Here’s a few common hops to look out for, and some of their characteristics.

Amarillo: chiefly used for aromatics, with an alpha acids of 8-11%.

Cascade: popular aromatic type, can have flowery and citrus aromas, alpha acids of 4.5-6%

Hallertauer Mittelfrüh: floral, with gentle bitterness, alpha acids of 3.5-5.5%

Saaz: traditional hops for pilsners, earthy spice, alpha acids of 3%

Challenger: tea-like, citrusy fruity bitterness, alpha acids of 6-9%

Columbus: piney, marijuana-like aroma, pungent, alpha acids of 14-16%

Nelson Sauvin: NZ variety, melon, lychee, gooseberry aromas, alpha acids of 11-13%

Galaxy: Aussie variety with passionfruit aromas, fruitiness, alpha acids of 13-15%

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