I am an inveterate beer drinker, the kind who will travel to a different continent for the right blonde. It started innocuously enough, with a tall cold one at an embarrassingly young age. Now, after a few zillion litres, a dizzying array of beer styles and breweries added to my drinking résumé and countless hangovers, I have developed a loathing for the weak stuff that masquerades as beer and a lifelong love for the real stuff: the big aromatic bitter beers.
I am now a hophead beyond redemption. But, I know what the nectar of gods tastes like. It tastes like a big bitter India pale ale.
If one had to simplify the subject of bitterness in beers, one could say that it comes from the alpha acids in hops and is measured in IBUs (International Bitterness Units). The higher the IBU count, the bitterer the beer.
But, the reality is far messier. The ‘perceived bitterness’ of a beer is a product of its bitterness on the palate (measured in IBUs), the aroma from its hops and the flavour from its malts. Researchers in Belgium took the same beer and added spicy hops to one batch and floral hops to the other. The IBU numbers of both beers were the same, but consumers said the beer with the spicy hops was bitterer.
Just making a beer bitter is pointless. You may as well drink a glass of bitter gourd juice. The Holy Grail is a beer that strikes the right balance between bitterness, aroma and malt profile. Every now and then there comes a beer that transcends the numerical tyranny of the IBU and delivers on this mythical promise. These are my favouriteflavour bombs, in no particular order.
Style: American Double/ Imperial IPA
Bitterness (IBU): 120
Beer Advocate Score: 92
This one is the brainchild of one of the most colourful people in the American craft beer scene, Sam Calagione. At 18% ABV and 120 IBUs, the 120 Minute IPA is a treat for hopheads. (An average Indian industrial beer, such as a Foster’s or a Kingfisher, stands between 7 to 10 IBUs). It is deep orange and has lively carbonation and a stable head. The rich malt backbone and burst of citrus on the nose and palate balance the intense bitterness from the high-alpha American hops.
Style: American Strong Ale
Bitterness (IBU): 100+
Beer Advocate Score: 100
According to the Stone Brewing Co., this is “one lacerative muther of an ale” and “your feeble palate is grossly inadequate and thus undeserving of this liquid glory”. My opinion? Your palate is indeed grossly inadequate. So, sip it slowly. (It took me a good 45 minutes to finish this one.) It is a mysterious light brown and has notes of citrus and pine resin from the hops and more than subtle hints of alcohol. The heat from the alcohol masks the bitterness up front, but it slowly ramps up through the middle and the beer finishes with a slightly dry feel and a lingering pine-hop bitterness. Fun fact: It is a special release item and goes on sale every November in 22 ounce and 3 litre bottles.
Style: Imperial IPA
Bitterness (IBU): 105
Beer Advocate Score: 96
This brew says that it will “forever change your preconceptions of what defines good beer”. The Ruination IPA begins a full frontal assault on your senses with a riot of pine and citrus on your nose. The toasted bready malts quickly give way to some intense bitterness that coats your tongue like a blanket. The beer finishes with a barely discernable residual sweetness. Fun fact: Stone Brewing has been voted by the readers of Beer Advocate as the best brewery in the world.
Style: Czech Pilsener
Bitterness (IBU): 40
Beer Advocate Score: 81
Brewed using the same recipe since 1842, its name Pilsner Urquell, or PlzeňskýPrazdroj (in Czech), means “Pilsner from the ancient source”. And, Pilsner Urquell is history in a glass: it is the first pilsner ever made and is the precursor to every pale insipid industrial lager on sale today. Talk about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. It pours a pale straw colour with delicate carbonation and a fluffy head. The noble Czech Saaz hops provide subtle grassy notes on the nose, and their bitterness on the palate is held in check by the bready malt. The Pilsner Urquell is crisp, and despite a sturdy 40 IBU, you can drink several pints.
Style: Extra Special Bitter
Bitterness (IBU): 30
Beer Advocate Score: 83
There is nothing remarkable about any of the Double Barrel Ale’s individual components, but the way they come together is magical. Though it has a beautiful clear amber colour, it is not the greatest looking beer — it has a thin head, no lacing and, honestly, looks a bit flat. The aroma is of delicate floral hops and roasted caramel. The DBA is a hearty beer that takes your palate on a rollercoaster of toasted malt, ribbons of caramel, English toffee, toasted oak, hints of vanilla and all sorts of other awesome tastes. Fun fact: The DBA’s oaky taste is attributed to the use of large oak casks for fermentation. Firestone Walker is one of only two breweries in the world to use these casks.
Style: American Double/ Imperial IPA
Bitterness (IBU): 150
Beer Advocate Score: 88
Another IPA makes it to this list. And, this one comes from the Scottish brewery BrewDog, one of the most promising and daring young breweries on the European craft beer scene. Like any self-respecting Imperial IPA, it will challenge you and push you out of your sensory comfort zone. It is a beautiful hazy orange in colour and has a lacy head when poured. Pine and grapefruit dominate the aroma, and the hyper-assertive citrusy hop bitterness is balanced by sweet caramel and a biscuit-y malt base. All this drama culminates in a long warm boozy finish. Out fucking standing.
Style: Extra Special Bitter
Bitterness (IBU): 55
Beer Advocate Score: 93
This one is one of those rare beers that despite being over 50 IBUs remains eminently ‘sessionable’, which means you can drink plenty of it at one sitting. It is deep amber in colour and has moderate carbonation and a thin head. It has a surprisingly intense floral and citrus-themed aroma. Even more surprisingly, very little of this intense aroma is carried over to the palate. On the palate, there is a bit of tangy citrus flavour from the hops, but it is the interplay of the hops with the sweet caramel and shortbread malt profile, rather than the bitterness, that keeps bringing you back for the next sip.
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