International Bitterness (or "Bittering") Unit

IBUs were invented because it was hard to measure how “bitter” a beer was, just like it’s hard to measure how “comfortable” your favorite sweater is…it was all about perception. Since the early 20th century, the IBU scale was introduced (and has evolved) as a way to put a number to, or quantify, this perception and assess just how bitter a beer turned out to be when it was ready to drink.

The strict definition is simple:

International Bitterness Units are a chemical measurement of the number of bittering compounds, specifically isomerized and oxidized alpha acids, polyphenols, and a few other select bittering chemicals, that make your beer taste bitter. The IBU correlates well, in most cases, with the sensory bitterness of beer, and this is why brewers use it. Almost all the beer you’ll ever drink will have a measured IBU between five (which is a very low measured bitterness) up to 120 (which is a very high measured bitterness). Most beer falls in a narrower range within these parameters (between 15-80ish), but that’s the gist of it

We want to be clear on something though. Beer is about the balance of ingredients and taste. Just because a beer has a higher IBU doesn’t necessarily mean it is perceived (or tastes) to be as bitter as something with a lower IBU. You can drink a strong Amber ale rated to 60 IBU that doesn’t taste nearly as bitter as a 55 IBU Pale Ale. The stronger malt character of the Amber ale balances the overall bitterness of the beer. The IBU scale simply measures the number and quantity of chemicals in a beer that makes it taste bitter. Make sense?

Now…that being said, IBU’s are generally indicative of how bitter a beer will taste. Generally speaking, the more IBU’s, the more bitter it will taste, but in reality, it’s a very loose correlation at best.


International Bitterness Units are measured on a scale from 0 to….infinity basically. There’s no ceiling on the IBU scale because you could make a beer more and more bitter (with more and more of the chemicals found in beer’s ingredients, namely hops and malt) without an end in site. Technically speaking, there’s probably a limit on how many IBU’s a beer can have, simply because there is a physical limit on how many of these bittering compounds you can shove into a glass of beer.

Almost all the beer you’re ever going to drink will have an IBU rating between 5 and 120.

5 having a very low measured bitterness and 120 having a very high measured bitterness.

We’re not going to get into the science of how this is actually measured, because frankly, it’s way above our heads and interest levels, not to mention that accurate IBU measurement involves spectrometers, isooctanes, industrial grade acids, and complicated/expensive machinery like centrifuges.

Basically, commercial breweries have this equipment, and measure IBUs, as a quality control tool. They make a large quantity of the same beer, and they want to make sure the beer tastes the same every time. Quality control is a huge part of brewing, and the IBU measurement quantifies the bitterness of the beer their brewing, allowing them to put out a consistent product.


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