One of the things that we do at the brewery is think about beer. It's sounds contradictory, but we do. Yesterday we sat down with tasters of six beers (three pale ales, one "india session ale" (or ISA) and two ambers) and had a conversation with one of our accounts about beer. None of the beers were ours, two were local and four were not. It was an interesting conversation and it's always nice to get input from people who drink beer rather than make beer when contemplating the stuff that so often fills our glasses.
There are a few things that came from that meeting including a future blog topic of the process we use to come up with a new beer recipe, but it also was interesting to consider just what goes into a category of beer.
First, let me state clearly and loudly that a) I applaud the creativity and risk-taking that American brewers (particularly western brewers) are willing to take; b) I am not a category snob and care relatively little about the exact bounds of which beer fits into which category or style; and c) I only had two things to clearly and loudly state.
With that in mind, take a look at the IBUs of the beers we drank - 65, 60, 50, 50, 46 and 35. With the prior knowledge that this session included an ISA, three pales and two ambers, would you guess that the ISA was the 65, the pales 60, 50 and 50, and the ambers at 46 and 35? I would. But then again I always go for the red herring in a murder mystery.
Instead the highest IBU rating of 65 was on one of the pales, the other two pales were both 50, the ISA was 46 and the ambers were the furthest apart at 35 and 60.
Of course, the other thing about an IBU is that it is a mathematical calculation that is objective, hence it's use, but that is only a starting point and can lead to vastly different subjective experiences with the same number. At our tasting, the highest IBU pale was definitely the hoppiest overall, but the 60 IBU pale had very little hop aroma and relatively little body hop, while the 46 IBU ISA had a very noticeable (and nice) floral hop aroma and good hop flavor throughout.
What does this tell me? Two things: first, that brewers today are constantly pushing the bounds of our pre-defined categories, so that we accept and expect that an IPA or ISA might be lower hopped than a handful of pale ales and that ambers will have a wide range of hop character; and second, that the IBU is a starting place, but hardly the definitive answer on what your nose and taste buds are going to experience.
In the wine world it is expected that at times you stop to "think" about your wine, the grapes, flavors, etc. It has gotten a bit silly at times ("This wine has essence of black currants that have been braised in a fennel-balsamic reduction made over an oak fire on a cool spring day."), but it does lead to an appreciation of what is in your glass. I would encourage you to stop and smell not only the roses this weekend, but also your beer. Take a drink, think about it, then go on enjoying it. Cheers.