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Friday, May 17, 2013

Hops Are Not a Problem

Yesterday Portlander Adrienne So penned a provocative piece in Slate called Against Hoppy Beer.  It created a predictable amount of hubbub on the intertubes and didn't seem to warrant a post from me, so I Facebooked it, whereupon a debate broke out.  The issue is nicely summed up by a slugline to the Slate piece is "the craft beer industry’s love affair with hops is alienating people who don’t like bitter brews."  Well, is it? So, arguing for the prosecution, offers this evidence:
Thanks in part to Grossman’s pioneering influence, the pale ale, and its hoppier sister, the India pale ale, grew massively in popularity. (Today they’re the third-best- and best-selling craft beer styles in the country, respectively.) This was a positive development, but some breweries went overboard. By the 1990s craft breweries like Rogue, Lagunitas, Stone, and Dogfish Head were all engaged in a hop arms race, bouncing ideas and techniques off one another to produce increasingly aggressive, hop-forward beers....
Most beer judges agree that even with an experienced palate, most human beings can’t detect any differences above 60 IBUs. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, one of the hoppiest beers of its time, clocks in at 37 IBUs. Some of today's India pale ales, like Lagunitas’ Hop Stoopid, measure around 100 IBUs. Russian River’s Pliny the Younger, one of the most sought-after beers in the world, has three times as many hops as the brewery’s standard IPA; the hops are added on eight separate occasions during the brewing process.
With respect to Adrienne (and Alan, who defended the position on Facebook): hogwash.  This is one of those cases of the beer geek mistaking the bubble for the world.  Most of the best-selling beers in the "craft" segment are all modest beers: Boston Lager, SN Pale, Fat Tire, Blue Moon (which to the average consumer is a craft brand), Widmer Hefeweizen.  Those beers alone account for something like four million barrels of production--something on the order of a fifth to a quarter of the entire segment, depending on how you characterize it.  Add to that the ton of wheats that sell like hotcakes (Oberon, Gumballhead, 312, Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat) and you're taking another big chunk of the market.  To think that the craft market is awash in only the Plinys and Lagunitases, you have to live in ... Portland.

Three other quick points and then I'll knock it off:
  • Bitterness is relative.  Adrienne begins by using mass market lagers as her baseline and notes that SN Pale was "one of the hoppiest beers of its time."  But that's only because at the time there were no other types of beer in the US.  A 37 BU beer isn't going to shock residents of Britain or even Germany.  That it shocked Americans was a testament to our debased state at the time, not Pale's hoppiness.  What humans consider normal changes over time.  Sometimes we like beers quite hoppy, sometimes we don't.  There is no Platonic ideal for the "right" amount of hoppiness, so it's impossible to norm it out.  (So's story begins with a Kentuckian shocked at 30 BU Hopworks Velvet English.  Ask yourself: who's out of step with hopping levels in this story?  If your baseline is Bud Light, 30 IBUs are shocking--but there's no world in which Bud Light should be the baseline for anything.)  Also, as a technical point, 60 BUs is nowhere near the threshold of human perception, and there's the further issue of the density of the beer.  A 60 BU barley wine is no hop titan.
  • Hoppiness isn't just bitterness.  Hop flavor and aroma can be intense, and when we say "hoppy," sometimes we don't mean bitter.  I wouldn't be surprised if the Kentuckian in the story was just shocked at the type of beer he was served.  Americans are making more richly layered, hop-forward--but not necessarily bitter--beers.  Recently I've heard young beer fans describe IPAs and pales not as bitter, but "sweet"--so rich are they in the fruit flavors of modern hops.  We have to define our terms.
  • Regions have different styles.  You could easily go to Brussels, order up that unpronounceable "gueuze" thing and declare it "too tart."  You could go to India and declare the food "too spicy."  These are preferences, not, again, some kind of measure against a Platonic ideal.  The United States appears to be developing a taste for hops, and I believe we may one day find ourselves with a hop-centric brewing tradition.  It's way too early to make that case now.  The opposite is true.  We are the most style-promiscuous country in the world, probably in the history of the world.  
 If you look around you and all you see are ultra hoppy triple IPAs and imperialized whatevers, you're very deep in the beer geek bubble.  In most of America, a surfeit of hops is not yet the central problem confronting beer culture.

23 comments:

Christopher Grzan said...

Agreed. I've heard this argument made many times and my response is always the same: "Take off the goggles."

The idea that we're inundated with Double IPAs and excessively bitter beer is totally false, and it's a conclusion that is drawn using an uncalibrated scale. This "good beer" sector is already a niche market. To argue that the niche market's niche market is somehow scaring people away is absurd. When I walk into my local beer shop, I don't see wall-to-wall beers of 100 IBUs or more, and the same goes for any bar that has a keen interest in serving good beer. If you do not enjoy Double IPAs, which I'd assume most people do not, they're easily avoided. The extreme ends of the spectrum might contain the loudest voices, but they certainly do not make up the majority of them. There's a difference between which beers get the most attention and which beers are being consumed the most.

Alan said...

This is my primary position on the matter: when did craft beer become so namby pamby that it can't bear the outage of someone not singing from the hymnal? The person suggests that some folk are against hoppy beer. So what? It's true for one thing. I am married to one who detests the stuff. They are legion. Hogwash? Really?

Then, as I did also point out, why do we expect an article in a general publication to answer the question definitively?. I am just pleased it got asked. We do need to run the stats before suggesting there is no evidence. We desperately need people to ask the critical questions few ask before coming to conclusions. And, lookie, there is evidence. There's likely more if anyone was looking for it. There are likely few milds, fewer stouts, few brown ales. Less selection due to the current cult of the hop.

So, what I am left with are people who are in a minority who like the current fad for over hopping taking issue with someone saying they and another minority are put off by over hopping. Frankly, most don't care. But if this is "provocative" - and this is the real point - then craft beer is becoming a sad place where discourse gets stifled.

Alan said...

Look! This is how bad it has gotten. Jay, normal sensible Jay, is having kittens over this non-event for fear people might have an opinion the professionals of beer don't hold. Yikes. Time for a chilled chablis and a big step back.

Christopher Grzan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christopher Grzan said...

It's one thing to suggest that some folk are against hoppy beer. If that's the case, then, like you said, so what? But to suggest that "the craft beer industry’s love affair with hops is alienating people who don’t like bitter brews" just sounds like it was written by someone whose vision of the big picture is blurred.

Jim said...

It's a poorly-written, ill-informed piece that's peppered with factual inaccuracies, red herrings and assumptions, and which displays a want of good journalism on the part of the author. As such it really doesn't deserve all the attention it's been getting, but that's never the way of the interwebs, and look, here I am giving it even more of the oxygen of publicity, in a small way. I think the best way to deal with it is to look at it askance, dismiss it with a shrug and open another bottle of Hopsickle.

Alan said...

Except that the craft beer industry’s love affair with hops is alienating people who don’t like bitter brews. It is obvious that strong IPAs are the flagship of the whole US craft industry. There may be diversification and fantastic access to it but that is not the story being marketed. So, someone points that out. And everyone jumps on the person before asking whether there might be something to it. Classic circling of the wagons due to the sighting of a mouse.

Christopher Grzan said...

Not to keep harping on it (free time!) but if I were still in college, I have a feeling my Media Ethics professor would've used this story as Exhibit A in her presentation of attention-grabbing headlines and slugs that don't really match the content of the story.

J said...

Alan, I'm not even pregnant.

Alan said...

I was worried. I recommend tea. Milky tea and an anthology of Calvin and Hobbes. We can get through this crisis if we all work together. Some Kenny G might help, too. ;-)

J said...

Seriously, though, Alan, I think a discussion of balance is a worthy topic. Let's make it the topic for the next Session. If I'm having kittens — is that a Canadian expression? — it's over the way the topic was introduced. I know you keep saying you're pleased someone asked the question, but are you honestly pleased by the incendiary manner in which it was posed? Isn't it possible that Stan, Jeff and I are not being unreasonable, but wish it wasn't based on some false premises, anecdotal evidence and questionable assumptions. You can always find somebody who doesn't like something, but that doesn't make it a trend.

It's hard to refute the raw sales data that suggests that while there are undoubtedly people who don't want hoppy beers, there are enough who keep buying them so that breweries believe it's in their economic interest to keep making them. As your monoculture "evidence" suggests, "launching a non-descript Pale Ale or IPA that can’t compete against objectively better beers is more or less a recipe for bankruptcy" is no doubt true. But it's also true that many have created unique enough hoppy beers and have managed to stay in business giving the public what they want.

J said...

Alan, I take my tea black, as bitter as possible, and drink at least a liter a day. And I loves me some Calvin & Hobbes, but keep that Kenny G away from me. As a former saxophone player, Kenny G's music is every bit the abomination that low-calorie light diet beer is. ;-)

Jeff Alworth said...

Alan, I think this is the point on which we disagree: "ple who don’t like bitter brews. It is obvious that strong IPAs are the flagship of the whole US craft industry." I just don't see how the numbers bear that out.

Alan said...

I simply do not see in any way that article can be described as incendiary or that it is based on falsehoods. Those sorts of absolutes just aren't ion the text. I thin they are being read in or are being drawn from that metadata header that shows up in the browser. Who writes the headlines? The author or Slate?

For me, it is a strong invitation for a broadening of the discourse which should invite more discourse in response not castigation. But let me have a proper think later today.

Alan said...

Jeff: flagships are not the majority of the fleet. They are where the orders come from, they set the tone. But I see where I may have been using the word differently than, say, Boston Lager is the flagship of Boston Beer. So, strong IPA is the flag bearer for US craft beer. I need to keep the vexiollogical reference. It's vital.

Ian said...

Jeff, I think your comments here run a similar course to a reaction I posted on Reddit yesterday:

"I'm assuming the premise of this article is that hoppy beers are turning craft beer neophytes off of craft beer. After all, the homebrewing friend from Tennessee isn't going to give up on craft beer because of one Hopworks beer he didn't like.

With that in mind, what craft beers at non-craft-beer-centric bars/package stores (where people who don't drink craft beer tend to drink/shop) are doing the dirty work of convincing people they won't like craft beer?

Where I live, if I walk into a bar/store that doesn't care about craft beer, it's most probable that I'll see Widmer Hefeweizen, Fat Tire, Sam Adams, and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Hops are only truly noticeable in two of those beers. I'm not likely to see Mikkeller's 1000 IBU.

Conversely, if I walk into a bar/store that does care about craft beer, I will see a lot of IPA's and otherwise hoppy beers but that's because those establishments appeal to existing craft beer drinkers and those beers sell for them.

So, the author has either (1) put the cart before the horse in assuming that hoppy beers are turning off prospective craft beer drinkers even though they aren't readily available to non-craft-beer drinkers or (2) created a very niche situation in which these people magically find themselves in an environment dedicated to craft beer and are faced with a selection limited to hop-forward beers.

I tend to think the latter option is what frames the argument as, like I mentioned above, the anecdote that begins the story refers to an existing craft beer drinker rather than someone who has yet to make a decision about craft beer."

Based on some of the comments here, I think the two summations I theorized, which are based on unrealistic fact patterns, are framing support of the article. The craft beer industry is only alienating people with bitter beers if those are the craft beers initially presented to non-craft-beer drinkers. In 99% of American cities, though, that's not the case.

Craig said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alan said...

I hope you are satisfied, young man. This adds up to a full 14 minutes of my life I can't get back.

Craig said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Craig said...

Let's try this again...

Alan, I've got to say your namby-pamby argument seems to be a bit of a strawman. I think the craft beer industry has been challenged on all fronts, and on many issues far earlier than this—some times they win sometimes not. This isn't a question if craft beer can take criticism.

The argument seems a bit more self-serving. So isn't simply saying "some people don't like hoppy beer" She's arguing for the elimination of heavily hopped beer, all together because she doesn't like hoppy beer. She might as well be arguing that sports cars are unnecessary because they're fast—and Ferrari and Porsche should stop making them.

Mind you, it doesn't seem like she's arguing for balanced beer, either. She seems to be perfectly fine canonizing malt or yeast, just not the not hops. To me, it seems like she's just jumped on the "hops are overused" bandwagon. To which I say, "Fine, I'll drink yours."

Ken said...

JA > My (primary) problem w/ the article / assumption(s) drawn from it was that the 'genesis' of the piece was keying on the reaction of one reb homebrewer to one PDX brew. Hanging your hat on a premise born of 'data' based an anecdotal, unscientific, sample size of ONE is GR8 for specious arguments, pretty GD lame as the basis for an article castigating craft brewing in general. #justsayin

Gary Gillman said...

To my taste, most beer I try day in day out, craft not to mention non-, is under-hopped. I can accept that some people don't like a huge burst of bittery grapefruit-pine - signature of the new (U.S.) IPA style - but all in all, I'd rather more beer was hopped more, in aroma and bitterness on the tongue. Hops in the right amount "make" a beer usually, and generally they are underemphasized, IMO.

So the thesis of the article doesn't resonate, added to which in the heyday of English top-fermented beers, the ales and porters were significantly more hopped than what most craft producers aim for today. This is not significant in and of itself (e.g. maybe refrigeration has made beer more palatable today) but it does show there is a historical precedent, one which sold big-hopped beer to millions for generations. So the over-hopped segment, to the extent it exists, is part of an old tradition, which makes it valid unto itself. People who don't fancy it - and I can fully accept that and indeed partly share it for the extreme American hop taste - have many other choices. So I think there was some overkill in the article under discussion although certainly as an opinion it deserves to be out there and considered seriously as indeed as occurred.

Gary

Jeff Linkous said...

My complaint about that Slate piece was it hovered around the ideas that it was a dumbed-down premise posited a couple of years (or more) too late, and smacked of being an item the author originally wrote for a local (if not hyper local, like Patch or something) and shopped around and Slate bit on it. Harsh to say all that, but it really stepped into the tiger trap, in an unbelievable way, when you consider the author said her friends from Tennessee homebrewed. If that's the case, they must still be doing Mr Beer and haven't dug the earth to set some rhizomes and --like sea monkeys -- add water and watch 'em come to life.

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