Adrienne So, writing for Slate magazine seems to think the craft brew culture’s obsession with hops is ruining craft beer for everyone. The question whether this is reality and the answer is a resounding, “No!”
Case closed, nothing more to see here, move along.
Well I guess since I am taking the time and effort to write an entry on this I should offer a bit of a proper refutation.
In short no one fad is or will ever ruin the craft beer scene. The breadth and depth of the craft brewing universe is so vast that no single obsession will be able to topple the growing giant that is craft beer. Like all markets though, if pushed too strongly in one direction that is outside the novice’s immediate acceptance you can alienate an audience that might otherwise become fans.
Adrienne introduces her article with an anecdote about taking a home brewer friend from Tennessee to Hopworks Urban Brewery for a taste of her local beers. After sampling their Velvet ESB her southern sommelier refused to have another swill after sipping the 30 IBUs. Apparently the savvy home brewer couldn’t stand the number of bitter hops contained in the organic English session beer. Adrienne was shocked that something as seemingly mild as a session beer could overwhelm the palate of an avid drinker. This solidified her objections to the growing hoppy culture within craft beers.
Mike and I have discussed the difference in beer/hop culture between the two American coasts previously on the podcast. Due to the abundance of hops in the Pacific Northwest and west coast breweries easy access to these hops west coast breweries, in general, tend to feature a stronger hop signature in their beers. Conversely east coast breweries have a harder time getting their hands on cheap hops due to shipping and thus, in general, tend to have beers that balance hops the malts for a more balanced flavor. It should be pointed out that Adrienne took a friend most likely familiar with east coast style brewing to a west coast brewery named Hopworks with beers that range from 30 to over 100 IBUs. If the objection is that craft beers are over all too hoppy perhaps she could have chosen a better venue.
Most importantly though her complaint is with an abundance of bittering hops. Even wikipedia mentions that beers with a stronger malt flavor need an increase in IBUs to better balance the malt derived sweetness. While Adrienne admits in her article that there are aroma and flavor hops that are added to beers that inflate the IBU’s without really influencing taste she seems to ignore this objection to her criticism.
I think in general that Adrienne’s complaint isn’t so much that an enthusiasm for hops is ruining craft beer. I think her complaint is that the current hop fetish in craft brewing makes it harder for the uninitiated to navigate the labyrinthian waters of craft beers.
In the last Craft Brew Criticism article I wrote about how popular rating sites are creating a homogenization of taste. I think this is Adrienne’s real complaint. There does seem to be an emphasis on IPAs over other style of beers with breweries like Stone that seems to make only IPA. But the reality is that most breweries are constantly experimenting with all sorts of style. From returning styles like wieß and saisons to kristallweizen to maibocks to flanders red ales and sours there is a daunting number of great styles for every preference. Some with an unreasonable number of hops to others with barely any hops at all.
I think the complaint is that due to market demand it is hard to avoid hops without an effort. This is of course a problem only if you don’t enjoy hops. But with a little knowledge, some research, and a good bit of common sense there are almost literally countless beers without a lot of IBUs to damage the palate of the uninitiated to the cult of hops.
All that said I do want to support a few of Adrienne’s points that I think are solid.
I do think that there is a diminishing return on the addition of hops over a high level of IBUs. As you approach the triple digits in IBUs the more bittering hops you add the less the result is on flavor. Once you reach a critical mass of bitter it becomes overwhelming to palate and thus the rating is more for reputation and advertising and no longer about flavor. The difference between 10 and 20 IBUs is distinguishable to a barely knowledgable palate. The different between 110 and 120 IBUs is indistinguishable to all be the most masterful of palates. Thus why make a beer with 120 IBUs when 70 IBUs will serve adequately? Reputation is my guess.
This relates well to what Adrienne calls a hops arms race where competing breweries, wanting to capture to extreme hop end of the market keep pushing the upper limit of sensible IBU levels. I am in agreement that this has little to do with an actual complexly honed beer flavor that incidentally happens to be hoppy but instead is more about pushing the boundaries of hoppy bitterness for the illogical hopped obsessed consumer. I don’t see this as a huge problem as it only effects the similarly hop-minded it is a criticism of the consumer who is mindless chasing a hop high that will never end.
Finally I do agree that blasting hop flavors as a replacement of a finely crafted beer or a mask for production errors is unforgivable. Bittering hops are not to be the equivalent of salt or ketchup. A catch-all to improve what would otherwise be a lack luster offering. This is just an inexcusable practice and should not be tolerated.
In the end though I love hops and have no objection to an increase of hoppy offerings to consumers who want it. But I do see the risk in attempting to introduce the uninitiated to craft beer by way of insanely bitter beers. It will turn away potential members to the cult of craft beer.
I think it is in jeopardy of really effecting the world of craft brewing, especially since the next trend is quickly approaching; barrel aging!