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New Beer Rule #2: IBUs and IQs

NEW BEER RULE #2: A beer consumer should not be allowed to drink a beer with IBU higher than her or his IQ.

HopsI like – OK, love – hops more than most people you know. But I understand the frustration expressed by some brewers about the attention that highly hopped high alcohol beers (sometimes called extreme) receive.

The 25th highest-rated Imperial/Double IPA at gets a 3.96. The top-rated Dortmunder/Helles gets a 3.71.

I happen to think that 25th-rated Double IPA, Pizza Port’s Hop Suey, is a great beer, so please don’t consider this an attack on beer ratings sites or hoppy beers.

In fact what should really rile sensible brewers is high scores given even the 100th or 200th ranked Double IPA (whatever that might be). MORE does not automatically make a beer better. It often produces an out of balance, lousy tasting beer. This isn’t really about IQ; it’s about common sense.

For reference
New Beer Rule #1.
– Wikipedia on International Bitterness Units (IBU) and Intelligent Quotient (IQ).

Why bitter may be good for you

The other day, Lew Bryson repeated a quote from New Belgium brewer Matt Gilliland from his story in Beer Advocate magazine headlined: “Extremely Boring.”

It sounds a little like science, the sort of thing people will start repeating, and we’ll end up stuck with a slightly cock-eyed idea. Let’s not.

Gilliland said:

“From an evolutionary perspective, people are predisposed to not like bitter flavors because it means poison, sick, bad. What percentage of people in the U.S. do you think have overcome that genetic hard-wiring and really like 100 IBU beer? There you go, that’s your market.”

Yes, if you feed a baby something bitter he or she will reflexively recoil. Bitterness is an acquired taste. We can “overcome the hard-wiring,” and there’s a lot better chance those of us you do will enjoy a healthy, balanced diet.

In moving on from the bland food of the mid-twentieth century, Americans more recently have begun eating like the rest of the world. (And some would argue the rest of the world, unfortunately, is eating more like 1970s Americans). Bitter is making a comeback, although salty, sweet and fatty foods dominate about as much as mainstream lagers.

When you can't get hopsAnd if bitter signals danger then maybe it works in the brain a little like capsaicin, the chemical component that gives chiles their heat. A variety of studies in the last 20-some years hypothesized that capsaicin releases endorphins in your brain. These create something akin to a “runner’s high” or the rush you get when riding a roller coaster.

At the extreme this is because of the pain you inflict on yourself by eating hot, spicy food. But there’s also a learned component – you figure out how to enjoy a level of heat that doesn’t (physically) injure your taste buds. Similarly, we learn that some medicine is bitter and it is good for us. Another example: the flavors of chocolate do cause your brain to release endorphins – and Americans are learning to appreciate more bitter chocolate.

OK, here’s the leap of faith, the stuff I’m making up without any scientific backing. Let’s say you drink a beer with a solid dose of hops. The little danger alarms go off you in brain (“Bitter! Bitter!”) for a moment. Then there’s a rush – from endorphins or not – when you realize this tastes good and you haven’t keeled over dead.

Or there’s an actual trigger, like from casaicins, and endorphins are released.

Either way you feel a little more euphoric – but without increasing your alcohol blood level (than you already have by drinking that beer). Just a thought.

Back to the top. This isn’t presented as a defense of 100 IBU beer (Gilliland’s number – one more brewers claim than achieve). Those beers succeed or fail, and since I’m a hophead many succeed, on their own merits.

Let’s not blame hard-wiring.

Added March 18: It has been pointed out to me in a polite e-mail that my silly bit of “bitter science” quite contradicts my complaint at the top about statements that “sound a little like science.”

Yep, I was dead wrong. I should have left the chiles, casaicins and endorphins out of the discussion. There is a reason to embrace (reasonably) bitter flavors. As we grow older our taste buds die (and our sense of smell begins to be diminished). A particularly noticeable drop off occurs at about 60.

This particularly concerns nutritionists. Tossing more salt and sugar on food for “more flavor” isn’t particularly healthy. Spicy (OK, I had to worked green chiles, rich in vitamins in there somewhere) may be better. Bitterness – which might come from fruits, vegetables or herbs – may add flavor without shortening your lifespan.

The level of bitterness, of course, depends on individual tastes.

Beer naturally

Real aleFirst, beer. Tomorrow a New York Times tasting panel will report back on porters. Eric Asimov writes in advance he “was impressed with the high quality of porters available today.”

Second, wine. In his blog, The Pour, Asimov writes today about what winemakers are really saying when they describe themselves as “non-interventionist” – pretty important if we are to accept the concept of terroir. The post was provoked by an interview he did with the Michael Rolland, the flying winemaker villified in the movie “Mondovino.”

In it Asimov mentioned the names of some California winemakers who favor moderation when it comes to the balance between restraint and fruit bomb. Rolland replied:

“Are they as successful in the marketplace? No,” he said, warming to the subject. “Wine is done for what? The public! Wine is a business. They want to make wine to sell wine. In the U.S. they are honest enough to tell you they want good ratings. They don’t want loser wines.”

Now, back to beer. Asimov’s post could lead to a discussion of why bigger, bolder beers get so much more attention than classically restrained beers (Double IPAs vs. a German hell from a countryside brewer, but not here, not today.

Instead, consider the statement “Wine is a business.” Now replace the word “wine” with “beer.” We simply have to accept that. Beer is business, but – here’s the good part – it can be more.

Asimov’s post sent me to the bookcase to pull out a copy of Beer Naturally, co-produced by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) in 1976. Primarily a book of loving, mostly black-and-white, photos – hops twine being strung, vines, harvesting of barley, floor maltings, well-worn kettles – the book illustrates how beer can be brewed naturally while also acknowledging the ways brewers break with tradition.

But the strongest message is the photos and the first words of the book:

“Beer at its best is a reflection of a golden field of barley, a reminder of the rich aroma of a hop garden. Scientists can argue endlessly about the merits of the man-made concoctions which go into much of today’s beer but the proof of the pint is in the drinking … the best of British beer is produced from the gifts that nature gave us and by methods which have been proudly handed down over the centuries. The story of beer is a story of nature and of craftmanship; a story of farmer and brewers who join forces to greate beer naturally.”

Speaking of hops

HopsThe Wall Street Journal has a feature today on fresh hop beers. (it’s a subscription site, but the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a version of the story that works in a pinch).

The story alone is good enough reason to pick up WSJ if you don’t subscribe. One highlight:

The hop infatuation has resulted in a game of chicken among brewers, who have continued their effort to out-bitter the next guy – as evidenced by beer labels that boast mixed hops, extra hops or triple hops. Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, Calif., calls its Stone Ruination India Pale Ale “a liquid poem to the glory of the hop!” Delaware’s Dogfish Head has pioneered a pair of hop-enhancing technologies, including a “continuous hopping machine” that adds hops gradually over up to two hours of brewing instead of throwing some in at the beginning, middle and end, as is customary. The brewery also invented a method for delivering a final hoppy hit to kegged beer by running it through a hop-stuffed chamber before it hits the pint glass. Dogfish Head calls the device Randall the Enamel Animal, and some bars and beer stores have also started serving “Randalled” beers.

As much as I enjoy geeky hop talk – let’s argue for a moment about if the importance of co-humulone level is overrated – this is a terrific story because it gives the average person an idea of why the flavors are different in such beers.

Randy Mosher, a beer author and instructor at Siebel Institute of Technology, a Chicago brewing school, says there’s little historical precedent for using hops within a few hours of picking. “What people are trying to do with craft beer is put people in touch with their food again, and remind them that they’re drinking an agricultural product,” he says.

Since it is popular sport in the beer press to pick on factual problems with stories from the non-beer press, kudos to this story for reaching out to both the hop experienced and beer novice.

A fresh-hop beer can often, in fact, be less bitter than a corresponding version with dried hops, and instead is powered by floral, citrus tastes. The retained oils line the inside of the mouth and have a tinge of greenish, vegetal flavors. (Many brewers recommend drinking their wet hops with a glass of water.) It’s easy to taste the difference between a normal brew and a fresh-hop version — though that isn’t always a good thing. “If you’re not careful you can end up with a beer that tastes like lawn clippings,” says Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery.

At the end it notes Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher’s Tastings column will return to this space on Sept. 8, indicating this story ran in place of one of the best – and best-read – wine columns in the country. It was written with similar sophistication, the sort of approach that wine afficiandos who talk about “hang time” expect.

Pete Brown’s Top 10 beers

Why should you care about a list from Pete Brown headlined The Ten Best World beers? (Since you might be asking yourself, who is Pete Brown?)

Maybe because he’s written two beer related books – Man Walks into a Pub: A Sociable History of Beer and Three Sheets to the Wind: One Man’s Quest for the Meaning of Beer – that are just plain good reading.

Or because his list, obviously intended for the UK audience, appeared in the The Independent. You’d want to read a similar list if it appeared in the New York Times. (Quick aside, it appears the Times’ next beer feature will be about wheat beers.)

The article isn’t available online, but Glenn Payne of Meantime Brewing was nice enough to send along a copy (I asked him; he wasn’t promoting Meantime, which made the list).

The 10:
– Budweiser Budvar (Czech Republic)
– Badger Golden Champion Ale (UK)
– Brooklyn Lager (USA)
– Gonzo Imperial Porter (USA)
– Meantime Grand Cru wheat beer (UK)
– Asahi Black Lager (Japan)
– Cooper Extra Strong Vintage Ale (Australia)
– Goose Island IPA (USA)
– Deus (Belgium)
– Duvel (Belgium)

Of the Badger Golden he writes: “This is the taste of summer evenings captured in a bottle.” And of Duvel: “Let it rest on your tongue for a while and the citrus flavours come out from behind the alcohol like a lover re-entering the room after slipping into something a little more comfortable.”

Kind of a new way to think about Duvel, eh?

Goose Island IPA is on a bit of a tear in the UK. Jeff Evans gave the IPA his only “9” (Editor’s Choice) in the April/May edition of Beers of the World. Evans wrote: “One of the world’s great beer aromas, with big, juicy, fruity hops leaping out of the glass. Earthy resins; deep citrus and pineapple notes” and “Astonishingly fresh tasting, outstanding pale beer. Will a UK supermarket please put it back on the shelves?”

Brown described the IPA this way in The Independent:

It can be confusing when beer is described as “hoppy” if you don’t know what hops are like, so this beer is an object lesson in the delights of the multi-talented little plant. The depth of its piney, grassy, citrussy bouquet rivals any sauvignon blanc. That, plus the zingy bitterness that follows on the tongue, is what hops are like.

An object lesson in the delights of the multi-talented little plant. Indeed.

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