What Makes Beer Bitter in Flavor?

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When it comes to beer, bitterness is a huge part of flavor. In fact, beer even has its own measurement for bitterness: IBU (International Bitterness Units). There is a huge range of bitterness in beer types, from fruit lambics that don’t tend to be very bitter at all, to the very bitter imperial IPA. What exactly gives beer its bitterness and why do some beers not taste bitter at all? Let’s take a look.

What Gives Beer its Bitter Flavor?

Only two things typically directly affect a beer’s bitterness: roasted grains and hops. Roasted grains provide the same type of bitterness that you might find in an espresso. These grains are typically found in porters and stouts, providing a bitterness that balances out the sweetness of these beer styles.

When it comes to IPAs and other types of extremely bitter beers, hops are usually to thank. Hops contain alpha acids, which provide most of the bitter flavor you taste in very hoppy beer. These alpha acids are released when hops are chemically altered during the boiling processed. This is why hopped up beers are typically pretty bitter.

While alpha acids provide bitter flavor, essential oils from the hops provide other flavors and aromas, like floral and grassy notes. These oils are very volatile, so they must be added late into the boil if the brewer wants to retain their flavors and aromas.

Why Does Some Beer Not Taste Bitter?

Though hops do contribute to bitterness, not all hoppy beer is bitter. Hop bitterness typically depends on three things: the alpha acid content of the hops, how long the hops were boiled and the amount of hops used. The beer’s overall flavor also depends on how well balanced the bitter hops are with the sweet malts. A beer can contain bitter hops that are subdued by sweet malt flavor.

It’s important to remember that hops are much more than just their bitterness. Some drinkers seem to want to avoid hoppy beers like the plague, but hops provide incredibly interesting and delicious flavors. They can offer refreshing fruit, pine, cedar, citrus, wine, and floral flavor that cannot be replicated through any other brewing method. Some hops aren’t very bitter at all, due to their low alpha acid content. They are just filled with delicious hop flavor.

Examples of Bitter Beers

If you’re a huge fan of bitter brews, we don’t blame you. Bitter beer provides a huge kick that keeps you interested and refreshed. Here are some beer styles that can get seriously bitter with high IBU:

Imperial IPA
American IPA
Russian Imperial Stout
American Barleywine
American Stout
English Barleywine

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Carla Lauter was the founder of The Beer Babe and has been a beer blogger and expert for several decades. She's been interviewed in beer publications and podcasts about her favorite brews and the craft brewing scene. While she's ceased her involvement with The Beer Babe, her legacy remains in the various reviews and articles she has written.