Pastoral Counseling (Q&A): Why do you guys use the word “hoppy” instead of “bitter”

Hello, Congregants.  Welcome to the Pastoral Counseling feature of Ale Evangelism. In this feature, we will attempt to answer the questions asked by friends and readers to bring us all to a better understanding of beer appreciation.

Today’s question comes from several people over the years who wonder if the substitution of the word “hoppy” for “bitter” is just an attempt to make beer consumption seem more pretentious, or whether there’s a good reason for this word choice.

The short answer is that the words “hoppy” and “bitter” are not necessarily synonyms, and should not necessarily be used interchangeably.  After the jump is a bit more of an explanation. 

Bitter Beer Face

I made that face just LOOKING at that bottle.

Bitter – Bitterness is one of only five tastes that your tongue can recognize, and it is an important component in appreciating beer, mixed drinks, and even some foods. The bitterness in beer is intentional, and is caused by the addition of flower cones from different varieties of the hop plant. The compounds in hops that provide bitterness are called alpha acids, and are measured as a percentage of the weight of a hop cone. So if we say a particular variety has an average of 4.5% alpha acid, we are saying that 4.5% of this variety of hops is alpha acids. The more alpha acids a hop variety has, the more bitterness it can contribute to a beer. Being able to quantify the amount of alpha acids in a hop allows us to come up with ratings for the finished beer.  The two most common of these ratings are the Alpha Acid Units (AAU’s), and International Bittering Units (IBU’s).  Generally speaking, the more IBU’s a beer has, the more hops with high alpha acids were used in the production of that beer. There are other factors such as the amount of malt used and the amount of alcohol in a beer that can influence how you taste bitterness in a beer, so it’s not as simple as saying that a high-IBU beer will be more bitter, but as a general rule, this will be the case.

However, it’s important to know that the bitterness of a beer is not the only component added by hops, and this is why we use the term “hoppy” when describing more bitter beers.

Hops on the vine.

Hops still on the vine.

Hoppy – Hops are also added for the various positive flavors they can add. Words often used to describe the hoppiness of a beer are as follows: pine, resin, herbal, woody, floral, citrus, cut grass or grassy, etc. The addition of different varieties of hops can to one degree or another add these flavors to a beer. In a Pale Ale, it’s often common to add aromatic hops to give a pinecone or resin aroma to the beer, but to go relatively light on bittering hops.  On the other hand, an IPA (especially the west coast variety) will be heavy on both kinds of hopping (aromatic and bittering). Whereas other styles like Scotch Ales or Bocks will be light on all kinds of hopping, as it’s not a desirable characteristic of these styles.

We use the word hoppy to describe more than just bitterness.  When discussing only the bitterness of a beer, we may qualify the word hoppy with the word “bittering”, to distinguish these bittering hops from the more aromatic or flavorful hops. In addition, the point in time at which they are added to the beer in the brewing process often defines the flavor characteristics they’ll be adding, whether the hops will be more aromatic or more bittering.

Here’s a practical example. Broken Halo IPA is an India Pale Ale from Widmer Bros. Brewing Company.  It’s a hoppy beer. Stone Brewing Company’s Ruination IPA is also a hoppy beer.  Broken Halo’s IPA is very aromatic, presenting a smattering of aromatic Pacific Northwest hops in all of their olfactory glory.  Stone’s Ruination is also aromatic.  However…Stone LOVES the bittering hops, and they don’t spare them in the Ruination.  Both styles are hoppy, but describe different aspects of hops. The Broken Halo IPA is more aromatic, and less bitter.  The Ruination is Aromatic, but also hugely bitter. Both are hoppy.

Finally, can you use the word “bitter” to describe a hoppy beer? Sure. It’s a word that has a common meaning upon many people, so it is effective for communication. Most of the time, people who use the word “bitter” do so in a negative sense. The unspoken “TOO bitter” is the concept they are attempting to communicate. And that’s ok. Everyone drinks the beer they like for the reasons they like it.  Some people like the extremely hoppy “West Coast” styles, and others prefer the more malty, rich, heavy styles of beer. Just know that over time, our tastes in beer change, and you may one day find yourself really enjoying a hoppy beer that you once would have found entirely too bitter.

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