As a beer writer, I often find myself preaching the word about craft beer to people who don’t want to hear it. There are a lot of Bud Light fans and people who’d rather sip a zinfandel, even in the craft beer capital of the world, Portland, Ore., where I live. So when a homebrewer friend recently decided to visit my husband and me from Tennessee, I was excited to spend time with a kindred spirit, someone with whom I could share my favorite brews without having to make a hard sell. The first brewery I took him to was Hopworks Urban Brewery, where I ordered us a pitcher of the Velvet English session beer.
After a few sips, I noticed that he had pushed away his glass. “I’m sorry, guys,” he said when he noticed our puzzled expressions. “This is just way too hoppy for me.”
I was floored. Session beer is light and drinkable—it’s called session beer because you’re supposed to be able to drink several over the course of a drinking session without ruining your palate. If one of my favorite session beers was too hoppy and bitter for an avid beer drinker—for a homebrewer who is currently brewing beer to serve at his own wedding—what would he think of the famed Pacific Northwest IPAs? Do friends let friends drink only pilsners?
That’s when I realized that I had a problem. In fact, everyone I know in the craft beer industry has a problem: We’re so addicted to hops that we don’t even notice them anymore.
Hops are the flowers of the climbing plant Humulus lupulus, a member of the family Cannabaceae (which also includes, yes, cannabis), and they’re a critical ingredient in beer. Beer is made by steeping grain in hot water to turn its starches into sugar (which is later converted to alcohol by yeast). While the resulting liquid, called wort, is boiling, brewers add hops to tone down the mixture’s sweetness—without hops, beer would taste like Coke.* Recipes usually call for only a few grams of hops per gallon of beer produced, but those little flowers pack a big punch. In addition to their bittering properties, hops impart strong piney, spicy, or fruity flavors and aromas. They also contain antimicrobial agents that act as natural preservatives.
Although they make up a small proportion of the ingredients used in beer, hops command the vast majority of the industry’s passion. Beer geeks have an intensely emotional relationship to hops. We wax poetic about the differences among varieties: the mildness of the Saaz, the bright tang of the exotic Sorachi Ace. In my wanderings through bottle shops, breweries, and beer conferences, I’ve seen hop cufflinks, hop bracelets, hop tattoos. I’m a party to the hop mania: I have hop-scented soap in my shower and hop-and-peppermint foot cream by my bed. I love everything about hops—everything, that is, except for the way that a lot of people conflate hops’ bitter aftertaste with the taste of craft beer itself.
Let’s be clear: Not all craft beer is hoppy. There are many craft breweries that seek to create balanced, drinkable beers that aren’t very bitter at all, like Patrick Rue’s the Bruery in Placentia, Calif., and the Commons Brewery in Portland, Ore. Among the non-hoppy yet complex and delicious American craft beers available are Widmer’s hefeweizen, New Glarus’ cherry and raspberry beers, and Full Sail Brewing’s Session Lager (a beer specifically developed to serve as a refreshing counterpoint to overhopped beers). America’s independent breweries make beers to suit every palate, not just the ones that revel in bitterness.
That said, there is some truth in the stereotype that craft beer is hoppy. The beer that more or less launched the contemporary craft beer movement, Sierra Nevada’s flagship pale ale, was, for its time, a supremely hoppy beer. In 1980, when most of the nation’s beers were produced by Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Schlitz, Pabst, and Coors, Sierra Nevada’s pale ale was a revelation. Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman added way more hops than most brewers at the time would ever consider using. But he used a recently discovered American variety called the Cascade, a hop whose big, bitter bite was counterbalanced by a sweet grapefruit scent and a spicy aftertaste. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a beautiful beer with an aggressive edge, and it’s the beer that put me, and so many others, on the path to craft beer enthusiasm.
Thanks in part to Grossman’s pioneering influence, the pale ale, and its hoppier sister, the India pale ale, grew massively in popularity. (Today they’re the third-best- and best-selling craft beer styles in the country, respectively.) This was a positive development, but some breweries went overboard. By the 1990s craft breweries like Rogue, Lagunitas, Stone, and Dogfish Head were all engaged in a hop arms race, bouncing ideas and techniques off one another to produce increasingly aggressive, hop-forward beers.
There are a few obvious reasons for hops’ status as the darling of craft brewers. Hops’ strong flavors present a stark contrast to watered-down horse piss, which is how I believe one refers to Bud Light in the common parlance. Maximizing hops is a good way for craft brewers to distinguish their creations from mass-market brands.
Hops are also appealing because they give brewers an easy creative outlet. There are lots of choices to be made when it comes to hops: You can select different varieties, whether you want the big, piney flavor of the Chinook or the mild earthiness of the traditional English Fuggle. You can decide whether you’ll add them fresh, dried, or pulverized and compacted into tiny pellets for greater consistency. Maybe you’ll give your beer a big burst of hoppy aromatic oils by adding them after fermentation, in a process known as “dry hopping.” If you’re mechanically inclined, you can even jury-rig devices like Dogfish Head’s foosball player-cum-engineering mechanism “Sir Hops Alot,” which feeds a steady stream of hops into the boil for a solid 90, or 120, minutes.
And unfortunately hops are a quick way for beginning brewers to disguise flaws in their beer, by using the hops’ strong flavor to overcome any possible off tastes. Do you regret throwing those juniper twigs in the boil? Did you forget to sterilize a piece of equipment and are now fretting about bacteria? Quick! Hops to the rescue!
From a consumer’s standpoint, though, beers overloaded with hops are a pointless gimmick. That’s because we can’t even taste hops’ nuances above a certain point. Hoppiness is measured in IBUs (International Bitterness Units), which indicate the concentration of isomerized alpha acid—the compound that makes hops taste bitter. Most beer judges agree that even with an experienced palate, most human beings can’t detect any differences above 60 IBUs. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, one of the hoppiest beers of its time, clocks in at 37 IBUs. Some of today's India pale ales, like Lagunitas’ Hop Stoopid, measure around 100 IBUs. Russian River’s Pliny the Younger, one of the most sought-after beers in the world, has three times as many hops as the brewery’s standard IPA; the hops are added on eight separate occasions during the brewing process.
Craft brewers’ obsession with hops has overshadowed so many other wonderful aspects of beer. So here’s my plea to my fellow craft beer enthusiasts: Give it a rest. Let’s talk about the differences between wild and cultivated lab yeast, and the weird and wonderful flavors that are created when brewers start scouring nearby trees or flowers or even their own beards for new strains. Let’s geek out about local, craft-malted barley and how it compares to traditional imported European malts. And let’s start preaching a new word: Craft beer isn’t always bitter. Who knows? Maybe we’ll finally win over some of those Bud Light fans.
*Correction, May 16, 2013: Due to an editing error, this article originally said that grain is boiled to make beer. Actually, grain is steeped in hot water; it’s the resulting liquid, called wort, that is boiled.