spirit possession

Questing the Ununhexium of Beers.

(image forthcoming, i promise)


for those of you who are interested in stout, i suggest (should you be in montréal) you amble your way down to Cheval Blanc and try their INDIA NOIR HARVEST while it lasts. the name is a little unwieldy, but only just so much that it makes me quite seriously want to name a goth band after it (alternately, an ambient drum-machine black metal band), and i would say that the beer is worthy of the honour. i have to give it another shot to make any final judgement, but i was quite pleased with it at first taste.

as the name implies, it is an IPA-inspired stout (or, to complicate things, a porter/black IPA/harvest stout), which basically just means a rich, bitter, stout; but i appreciate that what they have produced here is effectively the inverse of an Imperial IPA, a beer that i also appreciate, but have a bit of a hard time with. see, the latter is effectively a darker, maltier IPA, but in its magisterial aspect entails a higher ABV (usually something like 9 or 10%. a dark potency much favoured, apparently, by Catherine the Great, to whose honour the name supposedly refers*). as i already avoid high-alcohol IPAs because they tend toward an either harsh or cloying sweetness, the Imperial IPA often takes me to a tarry place for which i’m not altogether prepared. the India Noir Harvest, in by contrast, maintains a quite respectable 5.5% ABV, while boasting a “theoretical 100+ IBU”, which is as hilariously cryptic a thing to find on a beer menu as one could imagine, but immediately caught my attention because a) j’adore l’amertume, and b) what the hell does that even mean?

International Bittering Units are a bit of a mystery to most, and beyond the wikipedia entry, clarification is not readily forthcoming. one useful thing i learned, however, is that despite being ostensibly a measure of perceived bitterness, the extent to which one will actually perceive the bitterness is dependent on the style of beer – heavier beers with more malt, such as stouts, often have higher IBUs, despite tasting milder, because it requires a higher by-volume concentration of the bittering agent in order for one to be able to discern the bitterness through the obscuring murk of toasty malt.

consequently, a stout may have a higher IBUs than an IPA, while not tasting nearly so bitter and astringent, so if you are scanning a beer menu that lists IBUs, you must tailor your interpretation of the numbers to the styles of beer they are associated with.

the India Noire Harvest, then, with it’s 100+ IBU, is impressive sounding, but is no ruine papilles; it is however an admirably bitter yet well-balanced stout, which can be a hard thing to find, especially without ramping up the alcohol content. the “theoretical” aspect of the measurement derives from the fact that the scale tops out around 100 IBU. it ceases to be meaningful not because of the scale itself, but because of the human palate’s capacity to distinguish increments of bitterness beyond this level, and it is this paradox that makes the whole affair interesting to me.

i mean, it is difficult to say too much about it without having access to the history of the metric – how did the American Society of Brewing Chemists arrive at this system of measurement? was it derived from some pre-established chemical understanding of what compounds produced the sensation of bitterness that hops lend to beer, or some inductive process of tasting beers of various bitterness and then mining their chemical composition to see what standardized unit could be adapted to account for the sensation? nonetheless, what we have is a metric that is designed as a sort of proxy for taste – it is meant, on some level, to correspond to the experience of drinking the beer. however, in order to anchor this to something measurable, something in the beer, it must be be made objective, abstracted from the drinker – in this flight from perspective the bittering unit comes to stand in for the thing that it is supposed to represent. it becomes a black box that if we choose to open it contains a confusing array of molecules (isomerized α acids, hydrochloric acid, iso-octane, ), mathematical equations, instruments (centrifuge, spectrophotometer) and skilled procedures. all of which work together to produce the metric, but what does the metric produce?

strangely, it produces an idea of how much of what makes beer bitter there is in the beer, that is ultimately not equivalent to how bitter the beer tastes, because that is dependent upon other factors. this should not be taken as a declaiming of the legitimacy of the IBU – it is nonetheless a helpful measure that, like most formal systems, must be fine-tuned by our localized understandings of its application in order to become actually useful. personally, i think it’s kind of cute, a measurement that spirals into meaninglessness at the point where it outstrips the flesh. or perhaps not meaninglessness, but irrelevance, leaving its representational capacity behind entirely to go signifying taste off into the ether of human imperceptibility, seeking the tongue that can accommodate its excesses.

it’s beer for aliens, beer for robots, maybe.
(disclaimer: shortly after writing this, i had the opportunity to talk to a brewer friend of mine who cleared up the common misunderstanding upon which most of the above rests:

an actual IBU is strictly a quantitative lab measurement: 1 mg of isomerized alpha acid / ml of beer. isomerization is the process by which the hops’ alpha acids (bittering component) are made soluble by boiling them. otherwise they don’t tend to stay in the beer (settle out, stick to tanks walls, beer foam,etc.).

the part about it representing perceived bitterness is basically wrong, except maybe in the sense that since bitterness is a taste, it “has” to be perceived to… exist? a certain measurable BU will definitely appear more or less bitter depending on the balance of the beer. [an oatmeal stout could be] 45 BU, but isn’t obviously more bitter than [a pale ale] at 35 because it’s got a lot of sugar/body to hide it. another example is when a lot of late-added aroma hops highlight the bitterness, rather than let it be subdued by malt.

all that being said, an IBU measurement is a pretty good first indication of what bitterness you can expect from a beer. the difference in perception would probably only vary by 10-15 BUs. by that I mean you wouldn’t drink a 25 BU beer and say, ‘whoa it’s so dry
it tastes like 70!’ the difference in perception would never be that drastic.

so yeah, i flew off the handle a little in my speculative theorizing, but it would be more accurate to say that IBU is a technical metric that has migrated out of the lab and onto the menus, and is still in the complicated process of being translated back into something meaningful for the sensory experience that it is indirectly intended to represent. what we usually mean by “representation” is in this case problematized, because as my friend pointed out, the IBU was never meant to truly capture the taste, or speak the truth of, bitterness – but to provide a practical metric for the esoteric work of the brewers in an increasingly mechanized, standardized industry (regulatory objectivity, anyone?). the question still remains though, whether the IBU is given an ontological priority by brewers and beer aficianados – how bitter is this beer? where is the truth of the bitterness of the beer seen to reside, in the measurement or on the tongue?)

anyway, also on the topic of dark beers and me putting my foot in my mouth, apparently it is the 10 YEAR ANNIVERSARY of Dieu du Ciel‘s Péché Mortel Imperial Coffee Stout, and to celebrate this friday they’re having a special event where they’ll be featuring eight different permutations of the beer on tap, so if you feel like getting throned by blackstorms, this is the time and place for it. if you’ve never been to Dieu du Ciel, i recommend you go early, because the place is generally packed on the most innocuous of nights. bar opens at 3pm. consider it.


* side note: whenever i think of Imperial Stouts now, i immediately get an image of Charlotte Valandrey in Orlando, and the urge to raise a glass in quiethomage. or, as it were, femage.

oh, the treachery of women.


2 thoughts on “Questing the Ununhexium of Beers.

  1. blue eyes says:

    i think you may be a little mixed up about “imperial” beers and IPA’s. as far as i’m aware, the higher alcohol content of imperial stouts doesn’t go very far to the end of actually preserving the beer. my memory is a bit cloudy, but i believe imperial stouts sort of came to be as they were preferred by some kind of royaly in… russia, maybe?

    hops however, are an excellent preservative, and were added in copious amounts to the pale ales being shipped to british soldiers stationed in india during it’s colonisation, thus was the IPA born.

    the process of adding extra hops to the wort after the boil is called dry hopping, which is fun to say…

  2. Pingback: Still Questing the Ununhexium After All These Years… « still crapulent

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