The beer wars are nothing new. Long before craft beer came along, the large macro breweries engaged in back-and-forth barbs, jockeying for position in the market. Usually carried out via marketing and commercial sniping, the battles all but amounted to multimillion-dollar re-enactments of schoolyard taunts.
In the modern craft beer industry, where advertising dollars are scarce and friendly rivalry takes the place of corporate espionage, the war is being waged using far more novel ammunition: the beer itself.
With pride, bragging rights and sales dollars at stake, small breweries engage in shows of oneupsmanship, offering up bigger, bolder and better brews.
Out of this competitive spirit, entire styles of beer can often grow. For example, the industry's naming debate alone has helped give rise to styles such as "Black IPAs" or "Cascadian Dark Ales" as brewers rush to showcase their take on this relatively new type of beer.
The ABV War
No strangers to controversy and ever willing to push people's buttons along with the brewing envelope, Scotland-based craft brewery Brewdog spent the better part of two years involved in a tongue-in-cheek battle over who could produce the world's strongest beer.
Brewdog's initial offering -- "Tactical Nuclear Penguin," so named for the freezing method used to produce a whopping 32 percent alcohol by volume beer -- led to a flurry of increasingly stronger beers produced by brewers around the world. Giving their beers pointed names like Sink the Bismarck, End of History and Start the Future, these breweries traded lighthearted jabs in a race to what seems to have culminated, for now, with a 60 percent ABV beer.
Now, however, the next beer war may be afoot. And it too is rooted in how the beer is measured.
The IBU War
IBU, or International Bittering Units, provides a measure of just how much bitterness the hops in the recipe have imparted on a beer. For example, a relatively mild beer like Saint Arnold's Fancy Lawnmower clocks in at 20 IBU, while a traditional IPA like their Elissa clocks in at over 60 IBU. How bitter a beer is perceived can also be mitigated by the amount of malt in a beer as well -- so not all beers with an IBU of 50 will taste bitter. Stone Imperial Russian Stout, for instance, clocks in at nearly 60 IBU. But because it is a far darker and maltier beer, its bitterness is not nearly as pronounced as in Elissa.
Chasing high IBU ratings is nothing new. Beers like Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA, Green Flash Palette Wrecker and Stone Ruination IPA have been sating the thirst of so-called "hopheads" for years now.
The change, however, comes courtesy of Danish "Gypsy Brewer" Mikkel Borg Bjergsø of Mikkeller Brewing. Recently released in the U.S., Hop Burn Low Imperial Pilsner has a claimed 300 IBU, some 150 to 200 IBU higher than the stated IBU ratings of some of the hoppiest and most bitter beers in the world.
To be clear, that is not to say that Hop Burn Low is actually twice as bitter. In fact, most brewers and industry professionals agree that the human palate cannot perceive much over 120 IBU. This is also not Mikkel's first foray into the territory of the absurdly hopped. His "1000 IBU" brew packs exactly that: a purported 1000 IBU rating.
So if we can't taste it, why would brewers bother packing their beers with such absurd IBU ratings?
The cynical craft beer drinker has a quick answer, one that goes back to big brewers' scuffles: marketing. While it is inarguable that beers like Hop Burn Low and Tactical Nuclear Penguin do offer their brewers an elevated notoriety in the market (and with that, the possibility of increased sales in a crowded and ever more competitive market), there is another answer.
Having met both Mikkel and Brewdog owner James Watt on their respective visits to Houston (Mikkel during Houston Beer Week in 2011, and a penguin suit-clad Watt during a Saint Patrick's Day visit to Petrol Station back in 2010), their forays into the absurd seem to me to be more firmly rooted in a mutual, lighthearted desire to push the boundaries of what exactly is possible in the art of brewing beer.
300 IBU Tastes Like Burning
I stopped in to The Hay Merchant recently to see exactly what a 300 IBU punch in the face tasted like in the form of Mikkeller Hop Burn Low.
Poured into an eight-ounce snifter, the beer also packs a hefty 10 percent ABV, making the smaller serving size more than plenty. Upon raising the glass, it's a complete toss-up as to what assaults me first: the familiar nose hair-singeing burn of alcohol or the white-hot citrus-and-oil aroma of the hops. The point, however, soon becomes moot as it's not long before I won't be smelling -- or tasting, for that matter -- much of anything.
The amber pilsner (yes, you read that correctly; this beer is a lager-style beer, not the far more common ale) does offer some respite from the sensory assault in its warm, soft, almost gingerbread-esque malt profile. That's gone quickly, though, and I have discovered that Ralph Wiggum was right: Something can indeed taste like burning.
After all this, we haven't even gotten to the cruelest and certainly the most clever aspect of Hop Burn Low. Mikkeller has managed here something most hoppy beers cannot: The beer finishes very clean. In fact, it doesn't build up on your palate at all.
Where most beers of this nature would have built up on the tongue and lost most of their bitter punch, Hop Burn Low begins its assault anew with every swig. It's a true hop lover's dream come true. I did order another beer after I finished, but all I can really tell you about it is that it was brown, and was served in a glass. I certainly have no recollection as to what it tasted like. My girlfriend was nice enough to cook a lovely lamb burger for dinner that evening as well. I'm sure it was wonderful, so I assured her as much. Again, she could've been feeding me week-old Whataburger she fished out of a Dumpster for all I know; I couldn't taste much after those 300 IBUs.
Upon reading this review, one might get the impression that I disliked Hop Burn Low. That couldn't be further from the truth; I loved every last drop. From the style to the aromas and right down to the finish, Hop Burn Low is one of the very best beers Mikkeller makes.
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And make no mistake: Mikkeller makes some of the best beers in the world.
Mikkeller Hop Burn Low is on tap now at Hay Merchant along with a selection of other Mikkeller beers.