Monday, January 2, 2017

Attention beer drinkers: Hops are not just about bitterness

After some recent Facebook chatter about craft beers getting too hoppy, I decided I needed to brew something that would show that hoppy beers are not all about bitterness - and then write a blog post about. Oddly enough, about an hour later I popped open something in my fridge that turned out to be exactly this. In a rare instance of social media inspiring me to write something, I've suddenly been handed an opportunity to talk about hops.

The article in question was a recently-resurfaced 2013 Slate column about how craft brewers are alienating beer drinkers by flooding beer with hops. I thought the writer was cutting some corners and was confused on some of the details, but overall I think she correctly identified the arms race of hopping in modern brewing. The problem is that I’m not sure folks really distinguish between beers being too bitter and being too hoppy, which is not necessarily an easy distinction to make.

So here’s an example of a beer that’s hoppy but not particularly bitter:

Expert photography taken from my fake Samsung
I brewed this a few months back. The aroma is heavy of citrus, which is typical of American hops and the common thread among most American IPAs and Pale Ales these days. (Pretty nice head retention, huh? Thanks for noticing.) You can feel the hops on the tongue and into the back of the mouth, but you don’t get the charge of bitterness into the back of the throat that people usually associate with craft beer. This to me is a hoppy beer that’s not too bitter. I actually brewed it as a clone of Day Tripper Pale Ale, which is pretty high on the bitterness scale, but hop bitterness often fades over time. Perhaps my only minor gripe is that it comes off a shade sweet – an obvious hazard of cutting down bitterness.

That’s because hops have historically been used to offset the natural sweetness of malt in order to keep beers from tasting like cloying desert beverages. Boiling the hops in malt solution allowed brewers to extract bitterness while also reducing the risk of bacterial contamination during storage. Around 40 years ago, craft brewers started experimented with jacking up the bitterness by adding more hops during the boil, creating brews such as the now ubiquitous Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Then about 15 years ago, folks began experimenting with adding hops just as the boil was finishing (adding flavor), or soaking hops in the beer after it had fermented (adding aroma). This added noticeable citrus, pine, herb or spice qualities without bitterness per se.

But now for some full disclosure – I’m one of those craft beer snobs who can’t get enough lupulin oil in my diet. A little over a year ago, I drank up my brother’s bottles of Night of the Living Stout that he had shunted to his basement because he couldn’t deal with the hemlock-esque flavor (I opened one prepared to make jokes about overhopping by craft brewers, and instead ended up saying “Actually, I kinda like that …”)

I’ll admit I might be entirely wrong about this – perhaps the people who don’t like hops really don’t want to have anything do with them. A lightly bittered but heavily hopped beer may produce the same god-what’s-wrong-with-you-craft-beer-people glares as hop bombs like Pliny the Elder or Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA. (“You sure you’re 21?” God that’s annoying.) When you maximize hops while minimizing bitterness, it can leave something of a resinous quality to the beer. I actually like it (no surprise there). Hell, in Greece they intentionally add pine resin to wine and people drink the stuff up.
So where would you get an example of heavy-hops with easy bitterness? I’m not sure I know a commercial example of such a thing, which means someone will have to talk me into making some. In the meantime, the following could serve as “People Opposed to Excess Hopping Are Beer Drinkers Too” if you find yourself trying to pick something to drink in brewpub tap room:

In bounds:
  • Brown Ales - You generally don’t find a lot of hoppy brown ales unless they usually specifically advertise themselves as such
  • Pilsners and German lagers - This includes styles like Kolsch, Helles and Octoberfest 
  • Hefeweizen - Wheat beer with minimal hopping and a somewhat fruity character
  • Scottish Ales – The Scots brewed for centuries before hops reached Scotland, so their traditional ales were brewed without them.
  • Irish Reds – Generally limited hopping with characteristics similar to Amber Ales, but without the caveats you’ll see below
  • Belgian Dubbels or Tripels – Very little in the way hops, though careful with the alcohol content (which rarely drops below 8 pct)
Out of bounds:
  • IPAs – You’ve been advised that this is not your thing. That’s OK.
  • Imperial IPAs – This is really not your thing. You'll want to feed it to the fish.
  • Pale Ales – These can be even harder on a hop skeptic. They generally have lower alcohol content, which means less malt flavor in the background, which in turn means the hops are more present.
  • American or “West Coast” Amber Ales – Through the essence of an amber ale is that it’s tilted toward malt, American brewers a decade or so ago started slamming them with hops, particularly in California. Thus West Coast ambers can easily be confused with malty IPAs.
Read the fine print:
  • Stouts and porters – These dark beers can range from heavily hopped, like my brother’s zombie beer, to smooth, chocolaty dessert type beers. But even the ones with less hops may have a lot of black coffee or espresso type flavors that could leave you with the same flavors you're trying to avoid.
  • American Wheat - This is America's version of the hefeweizen, which often steps up the hops.
  • Saisons – These are fantastic Belgian beers that generally derive flavor from the strain of yeast, which creates fruit-like flavors during fermentation. But saisons do have a historic tradition of hoppiness, and lot of brewers have stepped up hop additions - a bit of a downer because subtle saison flavors are pretty easily washed out by hops. Saisons not explicitly labeled "hoppy" are probably in bounds for you.

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