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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.

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16 Responses to What’s wrong with this picture?

  1. Velky Al May 16, 2013 at 7:56 am #

    when I do tours at Starr Hill, I always make a point of talking at length about hops and the difference between bitterness (IBUs) and hoppiness (flavour and aroma), as well as the fact that different hops give different flavours and aromas to the beer.

    To illustrate the point I ask the group which beer is ‘hoppier’ Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Pilsner Urquell, and then tell them that PU has more bitterness (37 to 40 IBU respectively).

    I am sure I have done this myself, but the conflation of bitterness and hoppiness in the minds of many craft beer drinkers is one thing that we need more education to counter.

    • Barm May 17, 2013 at 7:43 am #

      I have noticed that a lot of supposedly super-hoppy American beers, while heavily hop-perfumed and aromatic, are not actually all that bitter.

      • Gary Gillman May 17, 2013 at 7:58 am #

        Right. Some people don’t like bitterness; some people don’t like American and sometimes other hop aroma, and vice versa I guess; and some people don’t like any of these. When you break it down, it’s more than just “I don’t like hops”…


  2. Alan May 16, 2013 at 8:14 am #

    Well, to be fair, there are many overly hopped beers that are both off putting and squeezing other styles off shelves… for the moment. Or maybe even for 2011 as the boom has slightly bust and other styles are making a counter attack against the original onslaught. With respect, too, education is not what is needed so much as a return to ranges of beer strengths both in terms of alcohol and imbalance. I don’t need to be “trained” (to use this week’s unfortunate terminology) so much as appreciated. There is a place and time for bitterness and strong hop flavours. There is also much time that ought to be allotted to less.

    PS: to quote a craft brewer to me, you are part of the industry. Independent, well informed and critical attention to production is part of any sector of an economy.

  3. brewer a May 16, 2013 at 8:51 am #

    “Most beer judges agree that even with an experienced palate, most human beings can’t detect any differences above 60 IBUs”

    That’s a highly suspect claim.

    • Stan Hieronymus May 16, 2013 at 9:39 am #

      Andrew – German scientists have determined that’s about the threshold for the taste buds and iso-alpha acids, but of course there is more to perception of bitterness. Aroma and hop polyphenols to begin with.

      At the outset of the story, the friend calls the beer “too hoppy” and then the discussion turns to bitterness. That confused me right off the bat.

  4. ATJbeer May 16, 2013 at 9:17 am #

    Journalist talks to several people who agree with something said journalist has noticed and lo! a trend is discerned — we’ve all done it.

    Though, I also feel that any idiot can add more hops to their beer than they usually do in order to make up for their lack of inspiration (there was something similar in the 1990s when strong dark beers masked all manner of faults), but it’s the way they use them.

    It all seems that beer is becoming all a bit black and white (or maybe it will just eat itself), all when I thought that the beer scene here in the UK, Europe and the US (and actually worldwide) was the most exciting I have ever experienced.

    • Stan Hieronymus May 16, 2013 at 9:44 am #

      Adrian – Like I wrote, she’s drinking with the wrong people. I’m looking forward to Birofilia Festival 2013 next month specifically because I know I’m going to here a bunch of different beer opinions.

  5. Jez May 16, 2013 at 10:44 am #

    1) I see too many of these beer articles that make these opinions. It always draws passionate beer people out in droves. Sometimes I think it’s a ploy to get the article more views.

    2) The person writing the article makes sweeping judgments and either doesn’t appear to know what s/he is talking about, and/or makes statements that are supposed to be read as facts, but not true. Ex: I can totally tell when a beer has less than 70 IBU, around 70-80 IBU, and then when it goes beyond, and is verifiable by the producer of the beer.

    3) I don’t think that person in the article who pushed the beer away even exists.

  6. Gary Gillman May 17, 2013 at 5:28 am #

    This is nothing new, not even Hop Stoopid likely exceeds in hop content the India pale ales of the 1800’s which used upwards of 5-7 lb. leaf hops per barrel, and some strong stouts used even more. Just as now, there was a taste for these beers then. In time, hop levels started to fall (in a lll categories of beer), to the point where brewers and customers felt something was missing, so modern craft brewing put the emphasis on them again. But it’s all a question of demand, clearly people want these beers and when they don’t, the cycle will start again.

    Another point is that when people speak of “hoppy”, they mean, not just a lot of hops, but the piney, citric, American taste that has become associated with IPA. You can “like” hops without necessarily being enamoured of that taste.

    Finally, I wouldn’t call the Saaz taste mild.


    • diamondtreacle May 17, 2013 at 11:51 pm #

      the main difference between IPA of the 1800’s and the modern, American-redefined style is the hops themselves. Breeding, measurement tools(gas spectrometers for example), and knowledge of the chemical compounds in hops and their roles in flavor/preservation have increased efficiency and allowed for changes in what kinds of character we expect from the hops. The varieties used in those Victorian beers, with low bittering/anti-microbial potential, had to be thrown in with abandon to reduce spoilage which was the brewers’ main concern.
      but imagine how vegetal those beers tasted sitting on all that leaf matter?

      • Gary Gillman May 18, 2013 at 12:14 am #

        I guess we’ll never really know for sure (1800’s vs. now), but some modern varieties have AAs similar in range to classic English varieties, Cascade itself, or Liberty are examples. No question that Magnum, say, or Target, is a different story. Hop Stoopid may avoid the vegetal base of whole flower beers with its extracts and oils, but still, its 100+ IBUs seems similar or lower to the calculated IBUs I’ve read about in recreated 1800’s beers where you often read the brewers saying that’s insane, I can’t get that much hops into the kettle, etc. In Burton too they used to add them at the beginning of the boil and run it straight through (no timed additions). They did use older hops sometimes too then, which may have lost AA content due to storage, but the top qualities (the best stout, the best pale ales) were often brewed with new hops.

        Certainly American hop flavour as a defining characteristic seems new, in that British brewers generally eschewed American hops in the 1800’s for aroma purposes (they might use some especially in porter but as a minority in the hop bill). Still, all in all, based on many reading sensory descriptions of beer flavour in the 1800’s, I don’t think that much has changed really, it is more that the market itself for very bitter and aromatic beers seems to shrink and then expand over time.


  7. Chas. E. May 17, 2013 at 10:36 am #

    Having been a fan of bitter, hoppy beers for five decades, I found myself enduring increasing allergy symptoms as I drank IPA’s and other bitter brews. It led me to taste more less bitter beers and to enjoy more favors than I had previously. Of course, my timing parallels the diversification of domestic craft beers and the influx of imports from countries other than England, Holland and Germany. I hardly ever buy an ESB or IPA or other bitter beer any more unless it is some type of Imperial or Multi-brewed style. I enjoy the very smooth , usually higher alcoholic beers that are more like sipping beers rather than rehydrating brews. They also seem to have more flavorful aromas that fill the nose and last well after the liquid has has gone down the throat. They are more like a fine wine, brandy or good whiskey in the wide-ranging taste ticklers they exude. But, then, I still enjoy a good bock and the latest round of lagers available.

  8. Jae E May 18, 2013 at 7:15 am #

    I liked the original article and related to it, not from any expert point of view but because, as a very “enthusiastic” craft beer drinker, I was already becoming quite frustrated at finding tap lineups that were mostly IPA’s.

    I have nothing against a good IPA (and some of the best ones are NOT bitter!) but hops for hops sake seems to be a growing trend and I especially hate it when I go to bar or restaurant that supposedly offers craft beer and has little to choose from except a lineup of IPA’s, one porter and one pilsner or pale ale. Of course, at a great craft bar this is really never an issue, but I do see it as a huge trend among budding/transitioning craft bars and restaurants, which are popping up all over the place.

    Having said that, the original article was an opinion, and from that point of view, it really resonated with me. I am no expert… just a very enthusiastic craft beer drinker who likes different, creative, flavorful beers regardless of hop content.

    • Stan Hieronymus May 18, 2013 at 8:19 am #

      Jae – I don’t think it should be overlooked that the original story resonated with you. And IPA sales certainly are growing faster (40% per year the last three years) than overall beer sales. It is a topic worth examining.

      What frustrated me is that it certainly didn’t reflect the beer world I drink in and that (and part of this was because of the headline) it implied that “hoppy” and “bitter” should be considered synonyms.

  9. Michael May 18, 2013 at 7:26 am #

    I LOVE IPA. Not so much the double or quadruples but to me IPA ia a revelation. The world is flooded with non-hoppy beers! How could anyone complain about a lack of non-hoppy beers?! This is nuts.

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