Tuesday, January 18, 2011

In Defense of Hops part 2

This week I'm responding to Lizzie Buchen's response to my response on her article from last week.  Her original response is at the end of this post.

Hi Lizzie, first of all, thanks so much for taking the time to read my blog and write such a coherent response.

I'm glad to hear you like hoppy beers and I hope no offense was taken by my response. I realize your article was much more about the science and origins of our (in)tolerance for bitterness and I thought your research was very interesting.

From a beer drinker and brewer's perspective, it triggered a familiar though slightly tangential complaint I hear a lot about hops.  Whether it's novice drinkers or beer traditionalists, they all seem to have something negative to say about the over hopping trend.  I have a fairly defensive attitude towards these folks, not only because I love these beers, but because I believe American hops have had a transformative effect on the creativity that has defined and caused a resurgence of American beer.  So I'm glad to hear that you actually like hoppy beers and that's a lovely reference you make to the relative newcomer Ninkasi.  But for the purposes of furthering general discussion between the unlikely candidates of a beer blogger and a science writer, here's a few things I wondered about.

Your question whether I would drink Pliny if it didn't have any alcohol is a great one.  It goes without saying that removing alcohol from the beer would alter the balance of flavors and the consistency of the beer.  You would end up with a liquid that bears little resemblance to Pliny at all (I shudder at the thought).  So yeah, chances are I wouldn't want to drink that strange brew.

But I assume you mean in the hypothetical that the flavor was unaltered and it magically had no alcohol content?  Well sure, why not? I'd be drinking Pliny right? The same taste I've grown to know and love?  The fact that I'm not getting drunk isn't really a big issue if the flavors are the same, it's the taste that I think is amazing. I probably wouldn't drink it in the same locale and chances are they wouldn't have it at my favorite bar. When I order a beer, high or low alcohol content, I'm thinking about what flavors I would enjoy, what styles I like, not how drunk it will get me.  If I was concerned primarily with sobriety, why spend all this extra money on beers for my beer fridge and travel to far off specialty beer bars?  I could just sit at home with a 40 oz of Steel Reserve.  Now that being said, the associated effects of alcohol are certainly welcome participants in the drinking process, but it's always flavor first.

Take a real world example of this point with something like Yerba Mate.  It has an incredibly bitter taste with no alcohol content and yet is enjoyed all over South America and now in certain areas of the Middle East.  Here's an extremely bitter drink that has become quite infused with Argentinean culture.  Now you could make a similar argument replacing alcohol with its stimulative effects.  But I think heavy Mate drinkers would say something similar.  Perhaps the stimulative qualities are why they tried it for the first time, but the taste they have grown to love.

I'd be interested to know if there has been research done in similar areas regarding other cultures' where bitter foods are more prevalent.  Food items like arugula, raddichio, bitter melon, dark chocolate, just to name a few.  I don't know the research, but I wonder what prompted their infusion into the cultural cuisine?

Lastly, I like to remind people that America's brewing roots are as much Germanic as they are British and up until the advent of mass market beer, we actually had a rich and vibrant beer culture here in the US, complete with our own Oktoberfest.  Of course the hop varieties back then were nothing like the super alpha strains we have now, but when we talk about acquiring a taste for hops, it's important to remember that we're actually re-acquiring those tastes.

Regarding Toronado's fullness factor, I absolutely agree: people generally don't like to hang out in empty bars drinking by themselves... unless maybe it's a pub in Lancashire.  However, to reduce the popularity of said bar, or any of my favorite beer bars really, to a crowded room, might be an oversimplification.

First of all, there's clientele and atmosphere.  It's not just that it's crowded when I go to a beer bar, it's crowded with people that generally I'm more interested in.  We both made the choice to come to this establishment for better beer than they're serving down the street.  I respect that choice.  There's also whatever the purveyor puts into the place that maybe can't be conveyed with simple descriptions.  Creating a space where people can happily socialize isn't easy, just ask the hundreds of restaurant and bar owners that close up shop every year.

However, diving into the social psychology of what makes people choose particular bars might be opening up too large a can of worms to tackle and I certainly feel like I'm at the limit of my expertise.  So let me return to a factor that I know more about and is not to be overlooked: selection.  I'd argue that the number one factor behind a bar like Toronado's success is the amount of taps and the fantastic selection in their choices of what to pour.

Having this kind of selection not only requires having  knowledge of and access to these beers, but having enough space in which to keep them fresh, which is no easy task.  If Toronado was known to serve funky beer, undoubtedly their attendance would suffer.  At least among beer geeks like me it would.

Thanks again for writing, reading, writing again, and reading again.  It's great to have these kinds of dialogues.

Cheers! (Written while drinking a Mikkeller Tomahawk Single Hop IPA, very grassy, a bit too earthy with a nice bright finish)

Original comment from Lizzie Buchen:

Hi, thanks for posting about my article. I was inspired to write this article because I absolutely love hoppy beers -- but I know that wasn't always the case. I certainly remember when Sierra Nevada Pale was the hoppiest and most bitter beer I could handle. But then I started drinking other IPAs (Racer 5, Lagunitas), and suddenly, I found Sierra Nevada somewhat boring. And the trend continued -- I started drinking Pliny, Torpedo, Tricerahops etc., and suddenly, even Lagunitas had lost its bite.

This fascinated me. Bitterness is a sensation that we evolved to dislike because it often indicates poison. Yet I found myself craving increasing levels of it. (I know hoppiness isn't all about bitter--I love the aroma as well--but it's the overwhelming sensation). I started wondering -- are my taste buds adapting? Are my expectations changing? I even spent a while looking into whether Sierra Nevada had changed its recipe to decrease the hops! And the most interesting aspect is I'm not just "getting used to" the hoppiness; rather, I actually *like* it. How would humans evolve to enjoy something they're supposed to spit out?

I list a number of theories in the article. I certainly never connected drinkers of craft beer to addicts of any sort, but I do think alcohol plays a role. (The link to caffeine was that perhaps it helps people come to like the bitterness in coffee. I assume you drew the marijuana link from my reference to its aroma, which I think is quite pleasant, even though I'm not addicted to marijuana). Would you drink a non-alcoholic beverage that smelled, looked, felt and tasted exactly like the true Pliny the Elder? I certainly wouldn't.

As for the wealth/popularity/wealth view, I think this is a really interesting area of consumer psychology. A number of tests have shown that humans are influenced by price tags, such as the psych experiment I referenced where people judged "$90" wine as better than "$10" wine, even though, in reality, they were the same exact wine.

As for popularity -- don't you think one reason The Toronado is always so crowded is that, well, because it's always so crowded? People like being with other people, and sharing in the same activities as their neighbors. People try new beers all the time at the recommendation of friends. If they don't love it the first time, they might keep drinking it because they trust their friends' judgement. It doesn't mean they're "followers". It's another interesting part of our evolutionary history -- we are social animals.

And then, of course, there is the taste and the aroma, which people genuinely come to enjoy. Perhaps we get used to the bitterness, and come to appreciate these lovely, subtle notes.

These are all theories, and I'm not saying they all apply to everyone in every situation. But I think some of them apply most of the time. They were all fascinating for me to learn about, so I thought my readers would be interested to learn about them too. I hope so!

January 17, 2011 2:54 PM


Lizzie Buchen said...

(Pt 2) Now for some specifics:
In my opinion, Toronado is the best beer bar in the world -- at least when it comes to beer (selection, quality, price, CO2 content). But I still think there's some circularity in the motivation to go there -- beer geeks like being around other beer geeks. Otherwise, why wouldn't they just raid City Beer or Whole Foods and hang out at home? I think we agree on this -- it is just ONE factor.

As for alcoholic Pliny versus mythical non-alcoholic Pliny, I guess we just differ on that. Honestly, the buzz is part of why I drink it. But that doesn't mean I'd drink something with the same ABV that doesn't taste as good. It is just ONE reason. I also love coffee but would never drink decaf. That doesn't mean I'm going to drink Red Bull for the caffeine.

Your point about other cultures is a great one. Unfortunately I didn't have room dive into this in my piece, although I did mention that a certain demographic in America is getting used to natural (unprocessed, unsweetened) foods, so are more accustomed to bitterness. And what do you know -- it's the same demographic that buys (and can afford) craft beer.

There was a fascinating study done in northern India back in the 70s. In general, people don't like extremely sour or bitter substances. But in a small region in India, laborers regularly snack on sour and bitter fruits. When the researchers tested them with a sour and bitter substances, they actually liked them. The same substances caused disgust in other Indians living in the same region who did not snack on the fruits.

Re your point about Yerba Mate -- I think this is the same as what I pointed out about tea and coffee. Yes, they're bitter, but they're stimulants. Coffee drinkers love the taste and aroma of coffee, but again, they have to get used to it first. Same goes with hoppy beers.

It all goes back to the same root: there are many psychological and physiological factors that contribute to liking any taste. Who knows which ones are most important for certain individuals in certain situations? I enjoy pondering this re my own liking of hoppy beers, and I wanted to lay out all of the possibilities so that others could ask themselves the same things.

Lizzie Buchen said...

(Pt 1) Thanks for your response. I think the overarching point is that there is no simple reason that anyone likes anything, and that this gets even more complicated when that thing is innately aversive. There is a multiplicity of factors, and I think it's important to acknowledge that they could all play a role, at least in some situations.

You acknowledged in your first post that you weren't "charmed" by extreme hops. So why did you keep drinking it? Why not just toss it out (or at least not buy another) and go drink something you know you like? Some factor other than taste was clearly playing a role. What was it? I think it's fascinating to think about.

It's difficult to disentangle all the factors that go into "liking" something -- taste, reward (pharmacological as well as social), self-representation, culture. That's why these are all just theories, and it's unclear which play more of a role in various situations. While researching this article, I was amazed by how little the experts in psychology knew about why we like anything.

I think it all boils down to this: why do you (general you) drink beer? Is it really just taste and aroma? Or are there other contributing factors? Does the buzz contribute? Maybe just a little bit? Does it help that you can do it with friends, and all rise together on the same buzz, and perhaps even discuss the lovely hints of grapefruit wafting from the glass? What about the excitement of trying Vinnie Cilurzo's latest invention?

The point is there are a number of factors, and I think all of them contribute to a person's ability to "overcome" an innate aversion to bitterness.

Sean Inman said...

Thanks for the intelligent conversation about beer. If only more were like this.

My wacky take on this is that the big macro brewers should claim they started this whole hop race and ABV race and weird ingredient race.

By dumbing down the flavor of their products they created a vast market for people who wanted something (anything) different.

Starting with Anchor Steam beer, Sierra Nevada Pale and Widmer Hefeweizen (to name three) the American palate was forced to adapt to flavors untasted for such a long time as to be thought extinct.

Every time that a brewery created a new product that was "extreme" they probably thought that the wall had been reached. But each time it seems that the customer is willing to keep trying because the default choice of a watery lager just doesn't seem to be an option.

All of this is totally unscientific with no facts behind it at all but I think that faced with the monolithic option or learning to love hops that people will choose to experiment.

microbrewster said...

Sorry for the late replies on this and thank you both for your thoughts and arguments.

Sean, I'm not sure it really matters who started it as much as it being a success. And as far as that goes the proof is in the pudding. Craft beer, although still a fraction of the marketplace, has been growing by leaps and bounds. I don't have the numbers, but it's one of the few consumer goods that's been recession proof, and dare I say, would most likely not be on the mind of the New Scientist folks if they didn't see it gaining traction.

Lizzie, first, I think we both agree about the cultural argument to be made in regards to taste. I am curious if there have been studies done to that effect? If not... maybe you can convince some of your science friends to do some... that's probably a whole other can of worms. Sadly, I am one of those Americans who is slowly becoming more accustomed to local and organic foods. So my CSA membership, would be in strong proof of your theory.

Second, I like the coffee example, cause I'm also quite a coffee fiend. To this day I drink my coffee black, and for years I have sworn off decaf; not because I don't like the taste, but I often thought of it as the drink of some lesser species. Not too long ago, I was at a dinner party and was offered some coffee after the meal. My first instinct was excitement and enjoyment, but then I realized it was already pretty late and I would most likely be up for hours if I had a cup. However, the desire for the flavor and the psychological attachments that I had previously created for an after dinner espresso were too much. So I gave in to decaf. Maybe it's just a sign of my age, but I think that makes a strong point for drink preference originating with purpose, but developing with taste.

quetzpalin said...

This whole discussion is fascinating. My wife is British, and we spend a month or so in small town England every other year. Last year, after a month of drinking English beers, I was absolutely shocked at how different the American IPAs tasted when I returned home. The first beer I had was a Racer 5, which I normally love for the full flavored super dry hop bite. Yet, when I had that first one, the syrupy, malty sweetness completely overshadowed the hops. It tasted like Anderson Valley’s 20th Anniversary or Oggi’s Hop Juice. As I said, I was completely shocked. It took me a couple of days to re-acclimate my palate to west coast hoppy beers (thanks in part to living a couple of blocks from the Toronado).

So, it would seem that not only is there the issue of a generally becoming more accustomed to bitterness through exposure, but at least for me personally, there is a contextual affect as well.