Top Menu

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.

7 Responses to Why bitter may be good for you

  1. Lew Bryson February 5, 2007 at 3:19 am # for your pseudoscience.

    Stan…neither of us is scientists. My wife is, and she usually laughs at me when I verge into that arena.

    But come on. There’s a huge difference between a hoppy Sierra Nevada Pale at 34-36 BU and an outrageously bitter DIPA at 100 BU. Right? Bitter’s one thing, punishment’s another. Fergodssake, coffee is bitter, and plenty of Americans drink it without sugar; I do, for instance. But as with hot foods, there’s a diff twixt sufficient and ridiculous; a broad, ill-defined difference, but it’s there. You’re talking about folks that are way out on the wings of the bell curve.

    Now, as Science fiction fans say, tis a proud and lonely thing to be a fan. But you have to acknowledge, as a fan, that you are out there on that proud and lonely edge. Otherwise…if where you are is normal, or becoming more normal, you gotta go further out. Don’t deny this, you know it’s true! The Edge is it for some folks. And 100 BU is still The Edge.

  2. Loren February 5, 2007 at 12:10 pm #

    Many “non-geeks” see the word as “bitter” and it triggers an automatic “I’m going to hate this beer…” response in their brain as well. Don’t you think?

    Didn’t A-B want to re-name Redhook ESB to remove “bitter” so sales with regular folk would increase?


  3. Stan Hieronymus February 5, 2007 at 1:26 pm #

    Lew – The role of capsaicin is fact, and why people get addicted to hot food. A trip to the Fiery Food Festival (here in four weeks) is a little like going to a Double IPA festival …

    I shouldn’t have muddied the discussion with the bitter/heat discussion (because it hasn’t been proven by science – yet).

    My point was that we should consider highly hopped beers based on what they taste like, not hard-wiring. Humans get over the hard-wiring, which is why bitter is “in” with foodies.

    It’s not the “danger” trigger that makes badly hopped beers taste bad. Part of it is too much bitterness – and (before this turns into the length of a post) that can mask flavor just as too much alcohol will mask flavor – and part of it is lousy hop flavor.

    I do find it exhilarating to drink a well-made beer with a ton of hop flavor, and it probably gives me a high beyond the alcohol delivery. In that way it would be analogous to capsaicin, but rather than being triggered by chemistry it happens because I appreciate things well made.

    Like sausage.

  4. Lew Bryson February 5, 2007 at 2:47 pm #

    Oh, I don’t deny that there are people who get over the hard-wiring — I have — and neither did Matt. He just said there aren’t many of them, and he’s right. But I think he’s right; that there is a certain amount of hard-wiring on bitterness that we all get over to drink coffee, dark chocolate, etc.

    Meanwhile…what do you think about The Edge? Are there some beer drinkers — not really saying that you’re one of them, I think I know you well enough to count you out — who do just keep looking for The Edge, because they want to be drinking the stuff “lesser” people can’t handle? I believe so, strongly.

  5. Stan Hieronymus February 5, 2007 at 2:58 pm #

    Loren – I suspect those are the same people who also think that a stout will taste “heavy” because it is dark. It is surprising that craft brewers are still explaining many of the beer basics they were explaining 15, even 20, years ago.

  6. Loren February 5, 2007 at 3:26 pm #

    Maybe if Bud, Miller & Coors spent their ad $ on explaining beer basics, in lieu of rock, paper – scissors, more of the general public would drink beer and not wine, alco-pops, etc..

    Look at the wine world educating their fans that darker is better. Why can’t beer eduation be as widespread?


  7. Stan Hieronymus February 5, 2007 at 4:17 pm #


    I certainly agree with you on The Edge and those who worship it. They think more (hops, alcohol, bugs) is automatically better. Which is really stupid.

    And I appreciate how this frustrates brewers who understand that “less can be more” (which is exactly what Hedwig Neven said in the panel discussion Todd Ashman referred to in your BA story).

Powered by WordPress