Recently, I have been working with a friend who has been getting accustomed to craft beer. This person is not a hoppist, I don’t believe, but his first experience has been with malty, rich beers like stouts, and sweet porters. Only recently have I been recommending hoppy beers, and this is probably because of my experience with hops when I was learning to love craft beer. This post is for those who hate the hops…who can’t get with styles like IPA’s, Pale Ales, and Imperial versions of many other well-loved styles of beer. As I said before, there is hope for you…you don’t have to live in fear. It will take work, and you will likely have to consume beers that you don’t really favor. However, once you turn the corner, rest assured that your beer horizons will be well-expanded, and you will be amazed at the flavors you once eschewed.
To begin, the hop is the flower cone from a vine which typically likes cool, well-watered climates. The Pacific Northwest of the United States is a prime hop-growing region, though there are hardier versions of the vine. Hops are used in beer for a couple reasons, and I’d like to talk about each of them separately.
One use of hops is as a preservative. Beer does not keep particularly well without hops, as British brewers learned to their dismay when they began exporting their fine, in-demand pale ales to the india trading colonies. The sea journey to the east indies was a hot, humid, and uncomfortable one. The beers they sent there went sour long before they reached their destination. Hops were not unknown before this time, but such a long transit time for a beer was. Brewers knew that increasing hops would increase bitterness, so they increased malt to offset this flavor aspect (I discussed this dichotomy of flavors in this article not long ago) creating a new style of beer known as the India Pale Ale, or IPA. Hops also protect against bacterial infections, making homebrewing high-alpha-acid styles much easier than low IBU styles.
Another use of hops is to “cut” the sweetness of beer. If you have ever brewed your own beer or been around beer when it was being brewed, you likely know how sticky sweet unfermented beer is. When you add unfermentable sugars which remain in beer after fermentation, the finished product can be just as sweet. The right balance of hops will serve to thin out this sweetness a bit, so it is not so cloying in the mouth. Alcohol serves this purpose as well, which is why high-gravity, low-hop styles like Scotch Ale or Old Ales are as drinkable as they are.
Finally, hops act as the spice of life for beer. This is coming from a reformed hoppist, remember. I did not always feel this way. At one time, I thought people who liked hoppy beers were insane. I thought they liked punishing themselves for some reason. In a world containing high-malt styles like Imperial Stouts, Scotch Ales, Old Ales, Strong Ales, etc., why would you punish your taste buds with hops? The answer, my hoppist readers, is that there are a limited number of flavor compounds that malt can provide. When you consume beers of a certain style, say Scotch Ales, you hear frequent flavors mentioned: Butterscotch, Caramel, Toffee. If fermentation was too vigorous, you’ll hear banana, fruit, etc. Aside from that, malt is only able to provide varying degrees of mouthfeel or viscosity to a beer. The real spice, where one beer of a given style will be differentiated from another, is when it comes to hops.
Hops provide both flavor and aroma to beer. Aromas can be floral, spice, resin, citrus, or vegetal (such as cut grass). Flavors are similar, with the addition of bitterness to add to the mix. A hop variety can add many flavors or few, and can add varying degrees of flavors to create unique flavor fingerprints, if you will, to the point where some experienced tasters can actually deduce which variety of hops were used in a beer. This, dear readers, is what gives us the wide varieties of beer, even within a single style, which we can enjoy today.
So how does one go about acquiring an appreciation of hops? It’s really the same manner in which one becomes accustomed to anything: diligence, patience, and persistence. You need to try hoppy beers. You don’t need to hammer your taste buds with the hoppiest beers you can find, but at least one in every 3 beers should be one that is hoppier than you like. Start with aromatic hop beers like Widmer’s Drifter Pale Ale, Red Hook’s Longhammer IPA, and slowly move to the beers making use of bittering hops. Well balanced IPA’s like Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo are good well-balanced beers to move to. Dust Bowl Brewing Co’s Hops of Wrath is another fantastically balanced IPA. Start to look at what beer connoisseurs think about some of these beers. You’ll notice beers like Pliny the Elder start to show up on people’s radars. Stone’s Ruination IPA is another one you’ll see. Start to think about what is present in these beers other than bitterness. Notice some of the aroma and flavor notes I mentioned above like resin in the Pliny, etc. Start drinking some more heavily hopped versions of normally-malty styles like Rogue’s Mocha Porter. Notice the differences in these beers from the beers you’re used to, and start paying close attention to what it does to the beer.
After some encouragement, it’s important for me to present a caveat, here. One of the biggest disservices you can do to a hoppy beer is serve it too cold. That is NOT the way to bring yourself around to the hop-tolerant side of the playground. It is a scientific fact that the colder something is, the less you can taste of it. Specifically, one of the few things to survive in a beer served too cold is bitterness, and a lot of it. You won’t get hardly any of the aromatic greatness of hops, or even the plethora of flavors that hops can bring to the party. You won’t get the balancing nature of malt, either. None of the sweetness you love…just bitter, thin beer. Let that beer warm in the glass. You’ll start to notice the bitterness playing second fiddle to a whole HOST of new flavors. The ones I mentioned above will make an appearance, and the rich mouthfeel and flavors of the malt will step up to the plate and help to balance the bitterness. The only beers that ought to be served ice cold are beers which ought not be tasted in the first place; mass-produced, relatively flavorless, fizzy yellow beer. You definitely don’t want that Pliny the Elder served as cold as the Rockies. If you’re going to do that to the poor thing, you might as well give up and go home. Listen to what connoisseurs say about the serving temps of these fine beers, and take their advice.
Really, as the Deacon of Drink said, “Life begins at hops.” While I can certainly appreciate the fine qualities in a rich, malty beer, the bright, sparkly things that hops provide to beer are worth developing an appreciation for. And even though it’s a great deal of work, your beer horizons will expand in ways that you would never have believed.