Ultimately, I’m here to have experiences and share those experiences with you. So when I was presented the opportunity to take home a beer scoring 111 IBUs – that is international bitter units, the scale used to measure bitterness in beer) — there was no way I could refuse. By all accounts, this was going to be a crazy experience.
For those of you who are currently asking “Huh?” … well, if you drink beer and want to know more about it, here’s a crash course in IBU theory. Most commercial beers rank 30 or less in the IBU scale. Light beers (i.e. those lowest in alcohol and calories) tend to be on the lowest end (e.g. Coors Light is 10) while many of your commercial lagers like Molson or Budweiser don’t score much higher: both are 15 IBUs. Popular European brews like Heineken (20) and Stella (25) score a bit higher and start to end with a crisp ‘bitter’ finish by comparision. It’s not till you get into full-on “bitters” like an English bitter or ESB that you get into the 30s of the scale. Over the past decade, however, Indian Pale Ales (IPAs) and west-coast (aka “American”) IPAs have begun to change the beer landscape. These beers have shamelessly privileged the hop (the source of much of the bitterness) in their beer making and have produced a world-wide following of so-called “hopheads” (myself included), beer aficionados who like the bitter (aka “hoppy”) flavours in a beer. The result has been a glut of beers that now have IBUs of 60 and above, with the biggest I’ve tasted being an Imperial Black IPA from Dunham that measured in at an extraordinary 117 IBUs. It was an extraordinary beer.
But here’s the thing, bitterness only shines through when the sweetness of a beer is tempered. After all, what do you to mask the bitterness of, say, canned tomato paste in a sauce? You add sugar. This is where it gets very interesting. Great beers are generally great because they are in balance. They need to balance the sweetness of the malts which also produce a variety of nuances depending on their roast and colour, to the amount alcohol which adds ‘strength’ to beer (so it doesn’t taste ‘watery’), to the bitterness from the hops which keeps the malts in check so it doesn’t taste sickly sweet. Naturally, without much technologies going, the thing keeping much of this in harmony is the yeast, a microorganism which consumes the sugars in the beer and produces CO₂ and alcohol as by products of its insatiable hunger. It’s not surprising, then, that when the Egyptians figured out yeast that they pioneered both bread-making and beer-making; both use fundamentally the same chemical reaction and with artifacts of both having been found inside the pyramids. Controlling the proportions of ingredients and how they work together is what a brew master does to produce the huge variety of beers that exist today.
The thing is, how a beer ranks on the IBU scale isn’t necessarily aligned with how a beer tastes. The measure of IBUs is not how a beer ‘tastes’ but is actually measured using spectrophotometry: it’s an objective, scientific measure. How a beer tastes, is a result of the balance (or imbalance) of hops vs. malts. So while there might be a lot IBUs listed on the label, if the malts are high – if the beer is sweeter – the beer may not actually taste overly bitter.
… which is a long story to say, that the 111 IBUs on this bottle doesn’t tell the full story and doesn’t really predict how it tastes: this is not a ‘bitter’ beer … and now you know why.
To the beer itself: I wasn’t honestly impressed. It’s a big strong beer, of that there is no question. What continues to irritate me, though, is why some breweries insist on bottling stupidly strong and sweet beers in 750mL bottles. To drink this single beer is the equivalent of 4 beers – and there is no reason for that unless this is a party beer. If that’s the case, then why not just put it in a mini-keg because, with the sweetness, it isn’t really a beer that you’d want to drink in a single sitting anyway.
The beer pours extremely foamy and frothy – way too much for a beer brewed sur lie, in my opinion. While it does pour a beautiful golden brown (if you’re careful not to disturb the lees on the bottom of the bottle), but right out of the head, I didn’t like the aroma of this beer: yeasty and oddly spiced, like some bock winter beers I tasted last year. In truth, it’s the alcohol and the malts which rise like sweet stone-fruits with some alcohol.
The bitters in this beer are very nice and there is actually a nice aftertaste – but that’s about all the beer has going for it. The rest of the beer is off-balance with too much malt and probably even the wrong malts and hops as well, because the alcohol is way too present. Yet, for all that, and again, probably the result of too much malt, the beer drinks a bit watery in the middle.
This is actually the fourth beer I’ve reviewed from Brasseurs Illimités and it is also the fourth disappointment. It wasn’t until writing down the stats for this beer that I actually realized this is coincidentally the same brewery of the Pumpkin Ale I just reviewed. The back-to-back review wasn’t intended but this is 4 times that my palette has consistently rejected the works from this brewery … so I suggest you do as well.
Stats: DIPA (aka Imperial IPA). 8.0%. St-Eustache, Quebec.
Colour: Golden-Brown; sur lies.
Mouth Feel: Big carbonation and very creamy, but with sweet, smooth finish
Purchased: Quebec (e.g. Bières du Monde)