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What’s wrong with this picture?

Jean-Pierre Van Roy adds hops at CantillonThe editors at Slate used this photo to illustrate a provocative story headlined “Against Hoppy Beer: The craft beer industry’s love affair with hops is alienating people who don’t like bitter brews.” 1 In the picture, Jean-Pierre Van Roy is adding hops to a brew kettle at the Cantillon brewery in Brussels. The choice is amusing because Van Roy has aged the hops so they are not bitter.2

Back to the story. It’s good to call for balance in beer, and too bitter is too bitter. Although perhaps there could have been a little more, well, balance. Maybe more about why there’s more to “hoppy” than bitterness. I suggest you go look for yourself.

And consider the nut graph.

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.

She’s not drinking with the same people I am.3

*****

1 If you email the story the recipient gets this headline: Hops Enthusiasts Are Ruining Craft Beer for the Rest of Us. And if you save it the bookmark reads says: Hoppy beer is awful — or at least, its bitterness is ruining craft beer’s reputation. Somebody just couldn’t decide which snarky headline was best.

2 There are several practical reasons for this, and a conversation about them is exactly like the others the author pleads for at the end of her story.

3 Of course, I don’t consider myself a member of the craft beer industry. Observer, yes. Member, no. But I do drink with card carrying members.

Another way to think about aroma, hops and beer

DRAFT magazine hoppy beer evaluation

Does this illustration courtesy of DRAFT magazine1 make you think about beer aroma and flavor any differently? Particularly hops? The point is not whether you find grapefruit more prominent in New Belgium’s Ranger IPA or Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA or if you agree that Anderson Valley Hop Ottin’ IPA has more bitterness than Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale but less hop punch.

I like it because the colored meters make it easy to think in terms of volume (synonym: impact) as well as the way the aroma components fit together. This is different than spider graphs (here are a couple more examples beyond the one that follows), so brilliant that I take back everything nasty I said when DRAFT used the antiquated tongue map as an illustration in its early issues.

Cascade hop, Barth Haas Hop Aroma Compendium

This spider chart appears in The Hop Aroma Compendium compiled by Joh. Barth & Sohn. The tan portion indicates how two beer sommeliers and a perfumist perceived the aroma of raw Cascade hops, while the green shows how that changed in a cold infusion (similar to dry hopping).

These work best if you are willing to accept, perhaps even embrace, a certain amount of ambiguity. Members of tasting panels at breweries are trained to identify X or Y as this or that aroma or flavor. That’s so their brewers can make beer with a certain level of consistency. (See New Beer Rule #4.) Drinking, and enjoying, beer can be altogether different, and it might be best not to get too specific when trying to pick out particular aromas or flavors. In How to Love Wine author Eric Asimov devotes an entire chapter to “The Tyranny of the Tasting Note.” It’s a topic he’s addressed before, and tends to get wine writers pretty riled up. He makes excellent points, but also some I’m not sure I agree with. Probably something better examined in a separate post (maybe even the next one). But a key takeaway is that when somebody starts describing “aromas of apricot, jam, guava, and jackfruit” that there’s little chance another drinker will get then that tasting note is not only useless, but discouraging.

These visual representations are much friendlier. Both managing editor Jessica Daynor and beer editor Chris Staten provided details via email about the illustration in DRAFT.

“. . . there’s no formal data behind the sensory ratings — just our ratings of each flavor element from 1 to 5 (that number was multiplied by 6 in design, which is how we got the final artwork you see in print),” Daynor wrote. “We feel that part of our job as editors is to present beer to readers in as many digestible ways as possible, and particularly for people new to beer, sometimes, it’s more practical to make sense of flavor elements visually, which is what we did here. It’s so easy to make generalized statements about IPAs: ‘They’re really bitter;’ ‘They’re hoppy;’ etc., but what does that actually mean? And if that’s the case, then aren’t all IPAs the same? With that piece, we’re trying to show that even among the most common IPAs on shelves, there are many flavor nuances that make each beer unique.”

Staten added: “I’ve always been intrigued with the path beer drinkers take when they’re first exploring the world of hops. Often, I run into newer drinkers who say they love IPAs but can’t figure out why particular IPAs rub them the wrong way — lot’s of the time it’s because they aren’t focusing enough on the flavor profile to discover likes and dislikes. The piece was just a casual way to let these particular readers know that there’s a wide range of hop flavors, and a wide range of flavor combinations/perceived bitterness/etc. from IPA to IPA.”

A casual way. I like that.

*****

1 The November/December issue (“Top 25 Beers of the Year” cover).

Perfect pitch and beer aroma

I love analogies to music when it comes to describing some of life’s other pleasures. This happens to come from Whiff! The Revolution of Scent Communication in the Information Age and doesn’t mention beer, but you’ll get the point:

As any wine connoisseur can attest, aromas are often described in melodic terms as three distinct notes. In making perfume, top notes, middle notes and base notes are orchestrated like a symphony to tell a specific story in three movements. Top notes are the ingredients that create the first impression of the fragrance on the nose. They are the lightest and briefest of the fragrance on the nose. They are the lightest and briefest in duration, like high notes on a musical scale. In a well-designed fragrance, as top notes evaporate they harmoniously segue into the middle notes that comprise the main body, or second movement, of the fragrance. The middle notes evaporate at an even slower rate than the top notes, and also soften the usually stronger base notes. As the middle notes dissipate, the base notes linger like the finals strains of a cello concerto.

(Additionally, in The Secret of Scent, Luca Turin explains why odor molecules — and thus aroma — arrive in waves, repeating that the lightest are the first to arrive, heavier ones later.)

Before you stick your nose deep in your next beer and decide I’m an idiot, please note I’m not saying this works for every beer. Then the special ones wouldn’t be special, would they? As a general rule, beers you’d file under “less is more” seem to be the best candidates.

Maybe we need a hop flavor/aroma wheel

It was probably a half dozen years ago and our daughter, Sierra, was maybe 8 years old when she first heard a brewer and I talk about if one of his dry hopped beers seemed a bit “catty.”

She looked puzzled. Daria explained we were talking about an aroma associated with a litter box. She giggled, clearly not understanding this was a serious discussion.

Yesterday Pete Brown wrote about “dank” — a descriptor which comes with its own interesting sidebar. But that aside, Pete’s post and the comments that followed illustrate the challenge of describing what we smell and taste.

There’s no arguing that hops such as Citra and Eldorado contribute aromas hops previously have not. But it’s not clear if some aromas considered “bad” a few years ago are now acceptable. At least for the niche within a niche that constitutes those who enjoy hop-centric beers. And descriptions of flavors not acceptable in England in the 1930s that simply refer to “rank American type” or “Manitoba” don’t provide much help. On the one hand, brewers didn’t care for American Pacific Coast hops because of their “peculiar aroma.” On the other, they found drinkers liked an “American tang” in moderation.

It would have been nice had there by a beer flavor wheel (at the top) or a beer aroma wheel (bottom – click on either to enlarge). The former is better established, but both are works in progress. Use them as you will, but feel free to digress, as @olllllo did here: “David Schollmeyer’s Bucket Hugger is on @Papagobrewing and is a licorice mule with velvet socks.”

Beer Flavor Wheel

Beer Aroma Wheel

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