Tuesday, January 11, 2011

In Defense of Hops

Recently, a friend sent me this article from the New Scientist.  My apologies that this isn't an open link, however, the registration is free and the article is fairly short if you'd like to read it.  If you'd rather not, it's called, Extreme Beer: No Accounting for Taste, and I'll summarize by giving you the tag line: "American craft beers are getting ever more bitter, expensive and undrinkable – so how do we learn to savour tastes we're hard-wired to spit out?"  The article goes on to make a few observations about the surge in craft beer popularity and then tries to suggest some possible evolutionary reasons behind our predilection for odd tastes, namely bitterness.  The article also spends some time talking about Russian River's Pliny the Younger, which needs no explanation or introduction for my audience, except to say that it seems to have reached a new level of recognition even beyond the confines of the craft beer world.

It's interesting science, although the conclusions seem to be incredibly negative, painting the motivation behind craft beer drinkers as drunken, caffeine and marijuana addicts, looking to prove our wealth, popularity, and masculinity, from an evolutionary standpoint that is.  It's a portrait that might have some truth as you gaze across American culture, but probably less so in the craft beer market as compared to the mass beer market.  

But accurate or not, something bothered me about this article as I read it.  I actually was just drinking Pliny the Elder (Younger's lesser, but much more attainable cousin) and Russian River's Temptation '08 (one of the famous sours she refers to in the article) last week at Toronado in San Francisco.  The place was packed, the beer was delicious, and it was a great time.  Surely this Thursday afternoon could be attributed to far more than the evolutionary outcomes of a bar full of people's misguided desires and addictions. 

From a beer drinker's perspective, whether a hops lover or not, I think there is a foundation in history that has informed culture and is worth mentioning.  Surely, when someone thinks of the unpalatable flavors in beer, the first flavor in question is bitterness.  And true to form, this article spends much of its time questioning (although I'm tempted to say "bemoaning") the bitterness flavor that most craft beer drinkers have become accustomed to drinking.

It's an understandable critique.  The first time I tried an extremely hoppy beer, I wasn't charmed immediately.  It took a few drinks and some exposure of the subtle flavors it contained and accompanied the bitterness, the way the alpha acids worked with the flavor of the grain and yeast to really understand how good the taste could be.  I know a number of beer snobs who think the overabundance of hops in beer is a real tragedy, and ever since hops were outlined as a required ingredient by the German Reinheitsgebot in 1516, they've been a pivotal, yet sometimes controversial part of the beer process.

Hops are a vine flower that share a lot of similarity to grapes used for making wine.  And just like grapes, they are subject to a concept called "terroir."  Terroir is the idea that the geographic climate, soil, and atmosphere impart specific characteristics to the plant.  So while Germany, the world's largest hop producer, and the US, the world's second largest hop producer, have similar conditions for growing, say a Noble hop variety, there will be subtle taste differences in the hop pertaining to the region in question.  Magnify this effect over centuries, add modern technology and a knowledge of genetic breeding in plants and we get quite a wide variety of Alpha and Super Alpha hop strains produced in the US and specific to its soil.  Names like Willamette, Chinook, Simcoe, Summit, and Cascade, just to name a few.  It doesn't take long for people to start using these hops in experimental brewing and suddenly we give birth to the distinctive flavor of the American Ale.  The American Pale, the American IPA, the American Red, and really almost every beer from the British style, all with a new bite and finish because of the hop production based locally here.

The hops arms race, started around 20 or so years ago, and saw its biggest rise in the past 10 years, as different brewers pitted against each other, trying to cram all these new super high acid hop strains into their beers.  I'm not really sure it's over, but it's a period marked by strong experimentation and individual creativity among craft beer brewers.  Now how can that be a bad thing?  In fact, I would extend that argument to say that it was this opportunity to step outside the conventional stylistic guidelines and restrictions with hops that opened up the idea of using different ingredients, experimenting with styles as a whole.

Some embrace the hop explosion and ridiculous levels of IBUs in these new beers.  Others see it as a gimmick that ruins the natural flavors of traditional beer.  Whether you're a hops fan or not, you have to admit the important role hops played in shaping the beer renaissance that followed.  That renaissance is a reflection of the real heart of American ingenuity and agriculture.  Beer, is not simply a beverage, it is a cultural reflection.  For centuries, beer has been defined by Belgian Monasteries, German Beer halls, British Pub Beers, and Czech Pilsners.  Finally, American beer has a way to separate itself from these giants with something other than mass produced flavorless lagers in cans.  Whether you like hops or not, it's important to understand that they opened the floodgates of an American revolution in beer.

So maybe the next time you pick up a pint of whatever you happen to be drinking, hoppy or not, show a little love to the bitter coned flower that helped pave the way for so many other brews.



Lizzie Buchen said...

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!


microbrewster said...

Hi Lizzie, thanks for commenting. My response was too long, so I'm posting it in my blog for Tuesday morning. Thanks for reading!