Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

May 12, 2009

Beer 201:

The Bitter Truth

Fancy yourself a hophead? Learn the nuances of tasting the so-called “spice” of beer.
by Jug Dunningan

Jug Dunningan is just here for the beer.
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So you’re a hophead? Or maybe you’re tired of over-hopped beers. Maybe you rate somewhere in between. For the purposes of this article, your hop allegiance is irrelevant. No matter what your perspective of hops is, this article will help you fine tune your zymurgy appreciation. We’re going to cover hops in layman’s terms, some of which you may know, and then apply them in a way to help you realize your most and least favorite attributes about hops.

First we’ll have to cover a little bit of Hops 101. Hop utilization can get pretty scientific, but we’re going to skip all the hoopla since our goal is to understand hop character, not create it. Hops have 3 basic ways of impacting beer flavor.

The first way is by bittering a beer. Now if you’re thinking “But I don’t like bitter beers,” realize that with very few exceptions all beers contain bittering hops. Although it is called “bittering,” this term is misleading and we should think of this as “balancing.” Basically the brewer adds a certain amount of hops to counter the naturally sweet malt flavor of the brew. This can be almost undetectable, or an in-your-face bitterness (not hoppiness!) depending on the beer style and what characteristics the brewer was shooting for. This is one of the first sensations you perceive when tasting a beer along with the malt sweetness. This bitterness is detected on the back of the tongue, so when looking for it make sure to take a mouthful, not a sip, and wash it all over your mouth. If you don’t mind looking like an idiot, you can also plug your nose while doing this to help eliminate the other hop qualities.

The second way hops impact our beer is through our nose. Whether you have a button or a beak, the olfactory system is an important tool to tasting beer. The obvious way to do this is to stick your schnaaz in your mug and inhale. What we’re looking for is the ‘nose’ of the beer. Although these are called “aroma hops,” a beer’s aroma is used to describe the odor of the grains, the bouquet describes the esters of the beer, the nose of the beer is the hop scents and sensations. Hops have aroma, but aroma hops affect the nose of the beer, not the beer’s aroma. Got it? So the next time your buddy tells you the beer’s aroma is hoppy, slap him and take his man card away. There are many varieties of hops, so the sensation will be very different depending on which hops were used and what qualities the brewer was trying to extract from them. More on that later. Remember this though, bittering hops do not affect the nose of the beer, and aroma hops do not affect the bitterness of the beer.

The last, and often most dominant way hops can affect our beer, is by their own flavor. There are well over a hundred varieties of hops, with more popping up all the time. To complicate it more, the same variety of hops grown in two different geological locations will have different qualities. Some hops are very similar in flavor, while some are very unique to themselves.

Now aroma hops and flavor hops can overlap and affect each other, but neither will actually affect the bitterness of the beer. Hoppy and bitter are not synonymous terms. I’ve run into several hop heads who were surprised to find they didn’t like bitter beers, just hop flavors.

I’ve run into several hop heads who were surprised to find they didn’t like bitter beers, just hop flavors.
For the purpose of the flavor hops, let’s think of hop varieties like we would cheese. Everyone likes some styles of cheese, and hates others. You might love provolone, but find Limburger too strong of a flavor for you. The same principal applies to flavor hops. If Cascade hops are a mild cheddar, Amarillo hops are the stronger tasting sharp cheddar with Saaz being the delicate baby Swiss. Then of course brewers mix varieties of hops to achieve their own creation like Colby-Jack cheese.

The point here is you will likely not enjoy all hops or only like some hops dulled down or in conjunction with other hops. Since you’ve made it this far into the article, I know you don’t dislike all hops even though some of you may have said “I don’t like hoppy beers” in the past.

It’s often not hard to find out what hops a brewer uses in his concoctions. I don’t think I’ve ever had a craft brewer refuse to tell me what hops they use in their brew. Now that we know the differences between the ways to use hops, we are armed to make good beer decisions. A brewer might tell us his IPA has Chinook bittering, Simcoe flavor and Cascade aroma hops. Another important point to remember is although there are three ways to utilize hops in beer, many hops can be used in all three ways, while some are only good for bittering, aroma or flavor hopping. Amarillo is a good example of a hop that can be used for all of the above, where Saaz would be hard pressed to act as a bittering hop. (For extra credit you can read about noble hops.) The difference in the three styles is the amount of kettle time the hops get, but that isn’t important for our purposes today.

So how do we discover which hops we like? That’s the fun part. We go to the brewpub and give it a whirl. Pick your brew of choice and find out what the flavoring and aroma hops are. Smell it, taste it, savor it. Write down what you like about it and what you don’t. Now the next time you go to a brewpub and decide to sample their pale ale, find out what hops they used. You’ll have a good idea what to expect. I do this all the time. I am insanely tired of Cascade hops, so every time I find a pale ale hopped with Cascade, I take a pass. I’m a big fan of Simcoe, so I’ll go out of my way to a pub that I know has a Simcoe IPA.

But you don’t have to stick just to the brewpub. Go to your local better beer store and grab some brews. A little reading on the packaging copy or some before-hand searching on the interwebs can direct you toward different beers using distinct hop varieties. Bell’s Oberon uses Saaz for aroma, while their Two-Hearted is pure Centennial. Founders Red’s Rye has a powerful Amarillo aroma. Goose Island Harvest Ale is like drinking a juicified Cascade hop flower.

I am insanely tired of Cascade hops, so every time I find a pale ale hopped with Cascade, I take a pass.
This is a fun way to discover hops, of course, but for the more serious beer dork I advise taking the bull by the horns. Take $10 out of your piggy bank and go to your local home brew shop or Midwest Supplies and buy a few ounces of different hops. Have your beer buddies come over and make a few simple teas. Simply boil some water in a tea kettle and steep a pellet or two (make sure to get pellet hops, not leaf or plug) in a coffee cup. Wait about 2 minutes and you’ll reach prime aroma hop utilization. Wait for about 10 minutes and you’ll reach prime flavor hop utilization. It’s an easy and cheap way to discover hops. After you’ve discovered your preferences, head out to the brewpub for a search and destroy (where you get to drink at your buddys’ expense since you had the cool idea of using hop teas).

Some good varieties to start with would be Cascade, Simcoe, East Kent Goldings, Saaz, and Hallertau Select. Each of the above has a very different flavor profile than the others but has similar attributes with other varieties (except Saaz, which I insist is the most distinctive hop in the world). Don’t be frustrated if you cannot distinguish between them at first. There is, indeed, a difference and you will be able to detect it after a while. After you get good at it go to the pub and try a beer without before finding out what hops are in it. After you give it a try, take your best guess, then get the answer.

With over a hundred varieties and, not to mention, different hop utilization times and combinations, you’ll never get to know them all. You can, however, get a good idea of what to expect. For instance, Fuggles and Williamette are similar to East Kent Goldings. Although there is a difference in flavor it is not exactly important to be able to tell the difference in a beer. The important thing is you have a very good idea what to expect when you order a Fuggles-hopped ale.


Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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