Our “Beer 101″ session continues this week and I felt that we should address the big issues first so let’s start with hops. Hops are a critical element in what we know today as beer, but have had a difficult relationship with American beer drinkers over the decades. Now, I could wax academic about the history of hops and their cultivation and use, but I feel like we should focus on what you need to know as you enter the wild world of craft beer. Here are the basics:
1. Hops make beer bitter. Yes, hops contribute bitterness to beer. Before hop usage became commonplace in the 11th century, various herbs and spices were used in an attempt to balance the inherit sweetness in malts. Hops however proved to have the required acids to not only balance malts, but to add a refreshing backbone to beer. Hops were also found to be a natural preservative for beer; in fact, when British colonists found that their Pale Ales were dying on the long trip to India, they added extra hops to the barrels making the long trip. This stronger, more intensely hoppy style became known as India Pale Ale, or IPA (see — beer is history). Throughout the 20th century, in the Age of the American Macro Lager, the bitterness associated with hops was played up to the public at large as a flaw. This was a pure marketing move; an attempt to establish any ‘bitter’ beers as flawed and inferior to their plainer, lighter product.
The irony, of course, is that hoppy beers are what drove the great American microbrew revolution. Almost all American craft beer enthusiasts come into the fold through the discovery of intensely hoppy, flavorful Ales. I know I did. From there, there is a whole world of styles and flavors to discover, but from Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale to Sam Adams Boston Lager to Dogfish Head’s extreme IPAs, hoppy beers are the first step on the journey for beer people coast to coast.
2. “Hoppy” doesn’t necessarily mean “bitter.” Hops express themselves in beer much the same way oak usage does in wine. It’s a flavor that can be either a welcome addition or a distraction. It all comes down to the discretion of the brewer. There are just as many beers that feature hops but have great balance as there are “hop bombs” that appeal to only a small section of drinkers. Unfortunately, they rarely garner the attention they deserve. These beers don’t necessarily have to be IPAs or Pale Ales, mind you: Some of the best Lagers and Pilsners made today use hops to add a sharp streak to liven up a style that otherwise can be kind of plain.
3. You don’t have to love hops to love beer. This is something everyone needs to hear at some point as they get into beer. We all have a limit; a line we have to draw where we say “okay, that’s enough.” It’s okay to find yours. There are plenty of beers and styles where hops play a critical role without overshadowing other elements. Beer is all about finding your where your palate is, and what you like. Again, never let anyone tell you what to like or dislike.
Here are some examples of beers with varying levels of hoppiness that should give you an idea of where your palate lies:
Victory Prima Pils: For years, this has been my “gateway drug” for people who think craft beer is all about being snobby and that there’s no difference between a great artisan beer and ‘everything else.’ The key to Prima Pils is that it’s a very traditional recipe; the hop is just turned up a bit, and handled in a way such that it serves only to add a crispness lacking in most modern Pilsners. For something with a bit more bite, try Sixpoint The Crisp, which takes the idea a small step in the hoppier direction.
Bell’s Pale Ale, Two Hearted IPA: Bell’s is unique among breweries that revel in the glory of the hop: their aesthetic emphasizes balance over in-your-face extremity (that goes out the window for their yearly HopSlam Double IPA, but that’s another story). Bell’s extraordinary, clean, sharp Pale Ale and their hoppy Two Hearted IPA share the same secret — a yeast strain whose fruity character plays well with greater-than-usual amounts of hops. Bell’s Pale Ale is a revelation and Two Hearted is the most popular craft beer around; both merit a try.
Mikkeller Jackie Brown; Bell’s Best Brown Ale: Hops don’t only play a role in Pale Ales, you know. A well-thought addition of hops to a Brown Ale can balance sweet malts and make a darker brew feel more refreshing. Bell’s seasonal Best Brown and Dutch ‘gypsy brewer; Mikkeller’s Jackie Brown are standout examples of this.
Dogfish Head IPAs; West Coast Ales: If you care to take a walk on the hoppy side, avail yourself of the earthy, rich style of Dogfish Head’s famous 60 and 90 Minute IPAs. Hoppy beers from the west coast exhibit more aggressive bite and overtly piney, resiny characteristics; Green Flash West Coast
IPA, Stone Arrogant Bastard, and Avery Dugana are great examples.
Get hopping and we’ll see you next time.