Ruining Craft Beer With Hop Bombs

hop-bomber
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past twenty-four hours, you’ve no doubt seen the provocative article on Slate, Against Hoppy Beer, The craft beer industry’s love affair with hops is alienating people who don’t like bitter brews, by Adrienne So. I’d been hoping to avoid taking the obvious bait, but I find myself thinking about the article itself, the way it’s gone viral and the two camps that have been set up online defending or decrying it.

From Slate’s point of view, it’s a massive success. As of this morning, almost 1500 people have left a comment, nearly 4,000 shared it on Facebook, and it’s currently one of the most read and shared articles on Slate. That’s eyeballs on the page; that’s money in the bank. But the article itself, though there are a few deep flaws, isn’t itself that inflammatory. It’s that headline, or as Stan points out: headlines. Because while the page itself displays Against Hoppy Beer, The craft beer industry’s love affair with hops is alienating people who don’t like bitter brews, e-mailing it changes the headline to Hops Enthusiasts Are Ruining Craft Beer for the Rest of Us and bookmarking it saves the headline Hoppy beer is awful — or at least, its bitterness is ruining craft beer’s reputation. If you look in your browser bar where the URL you’re at is displayed, you’ll see that’s what it’s titled online in the address. To me, that suggests that the last one was Slate’s original online title and the plan from the beginning was to pull people in with intentionally inflammatory, and somewhat misleading, headlines. It’s certainly not the first time, for them, or many other websites. I can’t speak for everyone, but it’s a rare article of mine that has the same title when I started as what ends up printed on the page or displayed online.

To me, that’s the ticking hop bomb, not necessarily the article itself, that discourse so often happens online in response to something incendiary rather than just as a desire to have a discussion or to address issues important to us a loosely defined group.

hop-bomb

Because the issue of balance in beer is certainly a worthy one. Or as Stan Hieronymus muses.

It’s good to call for balance in beer, and too bitter is too bitter. Although perhaps there could have been a little more, well, balance. Maybe more about why there’s more to “hoppy” than bitterness.

But if the transition from bland, flavorless macro beer to a craft beer landscape should have taught us anything, it’s that there’s plenty of room for lots of kinds of beer: hoppy, malty, sour, dark, light, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. That hoppy beers have been in ascendency for a few years now is certainly true, but so what? All flavorful beer is selling more and more each day.

So admits that “[n]ot all craft beer is hoppy. There are many craft breweries that seek to create balanced, drinkable beers that aren’t very bitter at all.” How could she not? She blames Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for starting it all, perhaps forgetting Anchor Liberty Ale was the first beer to use Cascade hops and was considered very hoppy in its even earlier day. But as Jeff Alworth correctly points out, it wasn’t so much that those beers introduced imbalance, they re-introduced a new mix of flavors, ones which emphasized a bit more hop character than a majority of Americans were familiar with in the 1970s. I was alive, and drinking then, and can tell you there were not a lot of hoppy beers to compare these with. As Alworth puts it. “That was shocking because we’d slowly leached all hop character from hops and told customers that bitterness was the enemy. THIS was the bizarre position.”

Maybe it’s the bubble of Portland that has given So the impression that hoppy beers are the big sellers, but again, as Alworth points out. “When you look at the best-selling craft beers, they’re not hoppy: Fat Tire, SN Pale, Boston Lager, Blue Moon, Widmer Hef. Those five beers account for at least four million barrels—something like a fifth or a quarter of the market.” For several years, IPAs have been the fastest growing category in mainstream grocery stores, as reported by Nielsen and IRI, but you have to remember that’s from a very small base, and is not representative of the market as a whole. But even that aside, breweries are at heart, businesses. If their hoppy beers were not selling, they’d stop making them. Which begs the question. How can something that’s selling, and selling, be ruining a market that continues to keep growing? I’ve heard brewers tell me that they feel like they have to have at least one hoppy beer in their line-up, because customers expect it, and want it. Does that sound like a situation in which hoppy beers are alienating the customer? Or ruining the market?

Whenever I hear the canard that people don’t like bitter flavors, one word leaps to my mind: coffee. Please tell me again how people won’t drink something bitter? Go ahead, I’ll wait until after you’ve had your morning cup of joe, or even your Earl Grey tea. Even if you’re adding milk or sugar, it’s still a bitter concoction to some degree. Bitter is one of the basic tastes humans experience, and is present in virtually everything we eat and drink. Are there times when it’s too much? Of course, just as there are beers I find to be too sweet, or display too much oak character in a barrel-aged stout. Balance is the key, but sometimes even balance can be overrated, if done well. If every beer was balanced in the exact same way, they’d all taste the same again. And we all know what happened to American beer when that was the case. There’s room in the beer world for all manner of beers on the continuum of possible flavors, and if you want something that’s not overly hoppy, there are many, many choices available. So concludes by suggesting what she believes everyone who loves, or is obsessed, with hops should do now. “Give it a rest.” To which I can only reply, in the words of the great Marcel Marceau, who spoke the only word in Mel Brooks’ film Silent Movie. “No.”

What I’d really like to see given a rest is the attention-getting, inflammatory headline in which the article that follows can rarely back up its provocative premise. It’s the schoolyard equivalent of “look at me, look at me!” It’s like saying hoppy beers are ruining craft beer, or they’re just awful or that they’re alienating people. Those are just headline grabbing stunts to lure people in. And, sadly, it works. But it doesn’t seem to do anything to further what might otherwise be a valuable discussion about the changing nature of peoples’ tastes, preferences and the marketplace. And now I think it’s time to go to the refrigerator and grab a Pliny. After all this, I sure hope it still tastes good.

UPDATE: And while I was writing this, Jeff Alworth also posted his own response, Hops Are Not A Problem, which is worth taking a look at, too. As he nicely points out, bitterness is relative, hoppiness isn’t just bitterness and different regions have different styles.

Comments

  1. James says

    SN Pale, not hoppy? It’s not bitter hoppy (hops added in the boil) , but it’s very very hoppy with flavor hops.

  2. beerman49 says

    Interesting article, but I agree totally w/Jay. I’m a “hophead” who’s tasted innumerable “hop bombs” (brewer-described or otherwise), & sometimes the “bomb” doesn’t show up in the nose or on the 1st sip – it shows up in the aftertaste, which, as I see it, is a brewer’s skill in reversing the taste profile. I’ve had many hig-IBU IPA’s that had damned good malt balance (mostly on the back end).

    So’s friend we can write off as clueless about beer – his palate’s probably denuded: overcoating created by eating too much bland starchy & greasy Southern food.

  3. michael says

    Hop bombs are like eating at McDonalds and thinking you eating good food. All you can taste in hop bombs is the hops. It is the equivilant of saturating your food with salt destroying all the flavor in the process. Hop Bombs I would say are less flavorful because they destroy all the other smell and flavor in the beer.

  4. AnotherAnon says

    Missed the point of the original article TOTALLY. Today’s craft beers are being stamped as one-trick-ponies due to the hops. I just visited a friend’s microbrewery that he opened. I hadn’t sampled one of his “microbrews” before and thought I’d drop by while I was in town and show some support. I plopped down my $6 bucks a pint and downed the two brews. Totally jagged in taste and lacking balance. He’s got limited floor space and insists on brewing and selling these BIG beers that need age. Not only a bad business decision, but a curse of one-trick-pony “craft” brewers.

    • says

      I think you may want to re-read both again, but this time for comprehension. If anyone missed the point, I think it was you. One anecdote of trying a beer you thought was too hoppy doesn’t negate the fact that the sales of hoppy beers are the fastest growing segment in craft beer, and have been growing literally for years. Brewers are also business owners. Most of them, your “friend” included, are responding to a market that wants hoppy beers. The big brewers have already shown us the futility of trying to make a beer that appeals to everyone. Now craft brewers are making beer with flavor, and with a wide array of different flavors, too. Just because the author, So, and you don’t like them doesn’t mean that others feel the same way. Fact is, they don’t. Positive sales figures don’t lie, and trump opinion every time.

  5. Jack Dawson says

    Listen up you piece of shit yuppie. The fact is, coffee has acidity, tea has tannins. Beer tastes BITTER due to one thing, and one thing only. Hops. As in pillowcases full. I have tried every craft beer known to man and run a very important craft beer distillery…i won’t mention names. People’s genetic makeup afford different taste receptors on the tongue. People, like myself, who DO NOT LIKE THE TASTE SPECIFICALLY OF HOPPY BEER have strong receptors. Its science, not lack of a “developed or mature palate”.
    I would suspect that they also have a tendency toward being sensitive to odors, and fragrances. Again, respect what people SAY and don’t tell them they’re WRONG

    Big Paul

    • says

      Oh, silly Jack — I loved you in Titanic BTW — or is it Big Paul? How brave you are to hide behind anonymity while calling me names, especially in a conversation eights months old. For the record, I’m neither young, urban or very professional, certainly not in this line of work. The fact is, to regular people, coffee, and to a lesser extent tea, does taste bitter, regardless of whether it’s technically acidity or tannins. Reasonable people, though I can’t quite yet work out if you’d fall into that category — preliminary evidence points to “no” — wouldn’t take a sip of coffee and exclaim that it’s too acidic. And I’m pretty sure roasted grains can produce bitter flavors, and — gasp — tannins, too. Briess Malt describes the roasted barley they sell as having “dry roasted bitter, coffee-like flavors.” So I think we can agree that it’s at least two things, though I don’t think it’s even two things only.

      Please, don’t mention names, just continue to impress me with how “important” you are, or at least how “important” your place of work is, which no doubt makes you important by extension. Don’t worry, I’m very impressed. Being insulted always impresses me, especially when it’s part of an admonishment that I should “respect what people SAY.” Obviously you respected what I had to say since the tone of your comment is so civil and polite. As soon as you barked “listen up,” I immediately snapped to attention, and respectfully read what you had to say, and it never once crossed my mind to tell you how wrong you are.

      And while we’re on the subject of what people say, I would think it self-evident that if I disagree with someone’s point of view, that I’m not going to agree with them out of some weird notion of having to respect what they say. That makes no sense. Just because someone says something doesn’t make it automatically worthy of respect. You need look no further than your own comment for proof of that.

      But you’re also missing the point, a bit. Who cares if you don’t like hoppy beers. Don’t drink them. You’re one person. Many, many people do love hoppy beers, that’s why their sales are growing faster than any other category tracked by Nielsen and IRI. If her premise, which I assume you’re defending, is that hoppy beers are ruining craft beer, then that’s the premise she has to prove. And I don’t think she came close to doing that. You don’t like them, she doesn’t like them, and surely there are many others, too, that do not prefer hop forward beers. So what? The indisputable fact that people are buying them, drinking them and maybe even enjoying them is fairly conclusive that they’re not only not ruining the market, but helping it thrive and grow. There are countless choices available that are malt forward, sweeter, yeastier, etc. They’re all selling too, just not as fast as IPAs. So why does something some people don’t have a preference for have to be ruining anything, especially when it’s so convincingly not? You don’t have to even take my word for it, but look at the literally hundreds of commenters to her original post who vehemently disagreed with her and the several other beer writers, some of them “important” even, who likewise thought she did not prove her premise. Oh, and thanks for your courteousness. Nothing makes for a more pleasant evening than being insulted out of the blue.

      • Andrew says

        Nice reply Jay….and very forgiving of you not to ask wtf a “very important craft brewery distillery” might be!

  6. Aaron says

    Jay, I just read the Slate article and your counterpoint and decided to add my two cents.

    I found the Slate article very apt. I strongly dislike very bitter, hoppy beers. Heavy Bitterness and citrusy grapefruit flavors are not my thing. My preference is more the hefeweizen or bourbon aged ale. I want to try more craft beers, but I find myself having to search through all the IPAs until I find something appealing. So, I agree with the Slate author: the obsession on hops turns me off and probably others who want to drink good beer but not a hop bomb.

    And I also drink a fair amount and variety of coffee. Most coffee is not as bitter as those IPAs. Milk and sugar (which I use) also greatly reduces any bitterness. I can also taste the acidity in coffee, and dislike coffee that is high in acidity and citrus flavors (most traditional American style coffee and light roasts).

    So I agree with you that balance is key. But, I think that balance is missing with craft brewers producing too many hoppy beers.

    • says

      Thanks Aaron, I appreciate your even and reasonable tone. I understand your point of view, there are — I suspect — many people who feel similarly, but I think the point of her article was that these hoppy, bitter beers are ruining the craft beer market, which I don’t think she proved. If anything, the amount of attention, hype, and most importantly sales, suggest that the are building the market, as it is currently, as has been for a few years now, the fastest growing category of beer, as measured by IRI Scan data and Nielsen.

      Craft brewers are businesses, and their customers are asking for hoppy beers. Maybe it’s a fad, and will fade away, but for now that’s the landscape. Other types of beer are also in ascendency — saisons, sours, session beers, barrel aged beers, etc. — maybe one of them will unseat IPAs and their ilk? Hard to say what the future will bring. But there are plenty of non-hop forward beers in the marketplace right now, if one knows where to look, so I think there’s a beer for everyone right now, no need to throw one style under the bus just because it’s currently very popular.

      • Aaron says

        You certainly can’t argue with supply and demand. If people want to buy and it is profitable, then it makes good business sense to make IPAs. Ruin is probably too strong a word, but it does seem like they crowd out other non-IPAs. And I certainly would not mind a couple more bourbon barrel aged beers.

  7. Eric says

    Isn’t it a contradiction to say that people must like the taste of hoppy beer because of increasing sales, yet decry mass produced American beers, which are obviously purchased on a much larger scale, as being flavorless?

    Your article assumes that aesthetics is the driving force behind the increased sales of crafted beers, but you must realize that there are a host of other factors that drive demand. Enormous fortunes have been made by telling consumers, with varying degrees of subtlety, what they want. As opposed to asking them. Although of course that approach works as well.

    To use your coffee example, I would guess that only a minority of people actually enjoy the bitter taste. Most people drink coffee out of habit and for the caffeine, and they “tolerate” the bitterness at best. And how many people actually enjoy the taste of gin? Might there be some other reason they consume it?

    I am only an occasional drinker, and I have been searching for beers with some actual flavor. Without knowing much about formulations, I am naturally drawn to the crafted beers with the creative names (e.g., Buzzard’s Breath) and the colorful labels, only to regret the bitter taste and the $7+ dollars that I just wasted. I shouldn’t have to go through a dozen or more crafted beers to find one that I like, nor spend hours on the web researching to find one that “might” appeal to me.

    • says

      Not at all, mass-produced beers are flavorless, when compared to the majority of craft beers. That’s by design and can be verified objectively. They have very low IBUs, use adjuncts to reduce malt flavors and keep the color light, etc. Also, while mass-produced beers are very popular, they’re currently trending downward in sales, while beer with flavor, like IPAs are growing. Your comparison is apples and oranges. One doesn’t cancel out the other.

      Please don’t put words in my mouth. I don’t think I was relying on “aesthetics [as] the driving force behind the increased sales of crafted beers,” but even I was, craft brewers spend almost no time (most have very small budgets for advertising) ” telling consumers … what they want. That tactic is reserved almost exclusively for the big boys, with big budgets. Adams Research publishes an annual report showing how much the big beer companies spend on advertising per barrel sold, and it’s a truly staggering number. Compare that to what small breweries spend, and you’ll realize most ARE listening to their customers, or are simply making beers that they themselves like.

      I know there are many people who drown their coffee with milk and/or sugar to get rid of the bitterness, but they still drink it, and even if it’s just for the buzz, I think it still holds to make the point that bitter can, and is, an acquired taste, that while not everyone enjoys it, some do. And that’s what I wanted to establish, because it refutes the idea that no one likes bitterness. People have different tastes, so it’s rarely a good idea to make sweeping pronouncements like everybody hates bitter beer or it’s ruining the beer world. And not for nothing, but I love the taste of gin. A gin and tonic is my go-to drink to cleanse my palate after a day of beer tasting.

      I don’t understand your statement “I shouldn’t have to go through a dozen or more crafted beers to find one that I like, nor spend hours on the web researching to find one that ‘might’ appeal to me.” Why not? How should it work? Maybe you’re too lazy to discover what you like, but you can’t think choosing by a beer’s name or label is best way to go? If you’re using such a frivolous method of picking beers, then you can’t really be upset when the results don’t work out. Do you honestly think staying willfully ignorant of the beers you’re trying makes it the fault of the beers when you don’t like them? Do you choose your other drinks that way, or the foods you eat by refusing to learn anything about them. Do you just order meal after meal, generally choosing the menu items with catchy names, hoping you finally find one you like? And if none of the food meets your standards, then it’s somehow the fault of the restaurant, or chef, or the world at large? Or bemoan how much money you wasted on your meals? Is it the beer industry’s obligation to figure out what you should drink, or is it your responsibility? Honestly, I’m not trying to pick on you, but that just doesn’t make sense to me. Learning about what you’re putting in your body doesn’t seem to be hard work, and might even be fun. Knowledge is power, after all. You could always ask your server about the beers you’re ordering. Any decent server should be able to suggest a variety of beers that aren’t too bitter if you’re too lazy to figure it out on your own. Start with a beer you know you like, and try other similar ones to start finding a pattern of the kinds of beers you do like. That will make it easier in the future to find beers you like. But you might have to do some actual work.

  8. Abram Katz says

    As a home brewer I would not intentionally brew anything with 60 or 70 IBUs. My taste is closer to 30 or 40. After all, beer is not just hops tea. Good beer has a complex blend of flavors. Excessive hops blot everything else out. All of those “hop bomb” type beers all taste identical to me; just like American industrial beers. The object should be to impart flavor and balance, not smack something in the mouth with a hops mallet.

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