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Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Changing American Palates

Our local paper, the Oregonian, has a weekly supplement called FOODday, which I read mainly for Katherine Cole's wine column. I was therefore surprised to see that she had tackled beer today. Her thesis? People are hopped-out; they want more subtlety.
The new search for subtlety is changing Portland's brewing industry, too. Where winemakers might overflavor their wines with toasty new-oak barrels, oak chips and oak extracts, many brewers overdo the hops.
Perfect! That's a topic close to my own heart. Strangely, she used Coalition as her example of non-hoppy brewing:
Coalition co-owner Elan Walsky and head brewer Bruce MacPhee both prefer to drink lower-alcohol, moderately hopped beers, up to about 50 IBUs.
Coalition is, of course, a triumph of hop-saturated brewing. Behold the stats: 55, 59, 54, 71, 70, 29, and 38. These are the IBUs of Coalition's various beers, all of which range between 4.8 and 6.8 percent alcohol (five are between 5.0-6.1%).

I don't mean to pick on Katherine, who's thesis is right on the mark. (In Portland, she might have spoken to Ron Gansberg, Alex Ganum, Ben Edmunds, or Jason McAdam for perspectives on low-hopped beer.) Rather, the article inadvertently highlights how palates change over time and how what we think of as degrees (of hoppiness, of strength, of quality) also change.

By any modern standard, 50 IBUs is a lot of hops. A dose that potent would adequately balance a barleywine, and in a beer of 5-6%, it's a mighty whallop. Among certain subcultures within craft brewing--and among most Oregon beer fans--that's merely enough to wake your tastebuds up. The Oregonian interviewed Elan Walsky for a video to accompany the piece, and he offers what I would call an accurate opinion of hop levels from a Portlander's perspective. "Right around 50 IBUs is probably a comfortable level of bittering units for somebody who doesn't like a really hoppy beer."

In India, the spiciness of the cuisine varies enormously. As a rule, the further south you are, the hotter the food, but there are regional anomalies. I lived in Varanasi for an academic year--a culinary misfortune. The city easily boasts the blandest food in the country, and I was there with a New York-born guy whose family was from Hyderabad, the city with the hottest food. Having been raised on his mother's fiery cooking, the Varanasi blandness was killing him. To impress upon cooks at restaurants that he meant business, he'd tell them to retrieve a chile from the kitchen. The common variety are slender and green (pusa jwala, I think) and are insanely hot. My friend would snatch the chile from the cook and calmly eat it, raw. To the bug-eyed cook, he'd instruct, 'make mine hot, Hyderabadi hot."

I'm not sure how a human gets to the point where he can eat a pusa jwala raw, but I know how you get to thinking 50 IBUs is modest: bit by bit. When BridgePort released IPA in 1996, it was regarded as an over-the-top hop bomb. That beer has 50 IBUs. Drink it for a few years and then 60 doesn't seem so much. And then 70. Pretty soon, you're wanting your beer Portland hoppy. Now those same 50 IBUs seem like a comfortable level.

Local tastes evolve for reasons that mystify me. Why would Hyderabadis go insane for their chillies while Benarsis prefer unspiced yellow dal? (Actually, there's half an answer to that, but it sends us down an unnecessary rabbit hole.) It just happens. It's a good thing, too--you know what they say about variety and life.


  1. I agree partly with her. I feel like a few years back beer was going down the route wine did in 2000 or so - super high tannin/undrinkable to most wines that were purely for bragging rights. A lot of brewers went down that path, of course many of us liked it! I do like the way the scene is starting to shift towards more subtleties, and the sour beer thing is interesting. I love beer.

  2. I hope she's right. I'd like that shift.

  3. the perception of bitterness has another dynamic to, the body of the beer/degree of attenuation. without this perameter, 50 IBUs are still a moving target.

  4. I certainly agree.

    As smaller, trendier shops like Ninkasi started blowing up huge through their killer marketing and on the success of Total Dom and Tricerahops, I think a lot of the more established brewers saw the trend heading that direction and we overcompensated.

    I went to dinner with my dad last night. I arrived early and ordered a Total Dom. When he was deciding which beer he wanted, he sipped mine and gasped. He ordered a Mirror Pond.

    Case in point.

  5. Would love to see this trend continue..

    Sorry to be a bit off topic..

    Vasili---love the Spine Tingler, man! Just an amazing food beer--drank it this past week with both Indian and Thai food and it was a perfect match. Thanks!

  6. Or could you have just said, "Wine Nerds Don't Know Their Ass From Their Elbow When It Comes To Beer"...

  7. I think the rise of craft beer has really fueled this trend and is why the BU levels are high. People wanted flavor so they jumped ship on Macros and started drinking Sierra Nevada Pale. It is only natural for more flavorful, in this case more bitterness, brews to continue to evolve.

    You can approach the emergence of soured beers in America in the same way. People want flavor and sour beers are/can be just as aggressive as a Double IPAs.

    Luckily we can all find a wide ranging selection of beers at our local brewpubs.

  8. Vasili, that's clearly true, although the target moves within a constrained range. Fifty IBUs in standard ales of +/- 5.5% alcohol is never going to be subtle.

  9. Also, in case I didn't make it clear, I love Coalition's line. I put the Red high on my list of hoppy ales, and the maple porter is one of my favorite beers, period.

  10. This discussion leaves me thirsty.

  11. Exactly what I was going to say Vasili.