|A brewer at Cantillon in Brussels adds hops to lambic... a style of beer which does not taste remotely |
hoppy or bitter. Photo via Facebook.
Yesterday morning, I began skimming The Social Medias over coffee when an article titled "Against Hoppy Beers - Hops Enthusiasts Are Ruining Craft Beer for the Rest of Us" appeared on my Twitter doorstep like so much flaming poop in a paper bag. I knew it was going to be trollbait when I saw that headline, but the bait was too strong. I read it. And as I did, my blood pressure rose, the sarcastic quips and exasperated rebuttals soon piling up in my mind.
Normally, I just forget about this sort of click-bait "journalism" after a few minutes. The article — by Adrienne So, appearing on Slate.com — was intended to get people's attention, to get people talking, and it succeeded at that. Here I am, hours later, taking the time to write out this rebuttal. But this particular article bugged me more than most of the sloppy beer journalism that's sloughed off by big mainstream publications, who typically assign wine writers to elaborate on beer styles they don't even enjoy. Maybe these lazy articles are just building up over time — a crust of stale, uniformed laments. But in this case, from an author who says that she likes hoppy beers herself, it's not just the laziness or ignorance of brewing techniques that bothers me: it's the missed opportunities. Where there was an chance to open dialogue about why people like what they like, Adrienne So's Slate piece instead enters a bizarre, misguided blame game. It starts right there in the title: Hops Enthusiasts Are Ruining Craft Beer for the Rest of Us. And so the message seems to be: You should feel bad for liking what you like so much, because not everyone likes it. Sadly, this is the common thread with many of these articles. Rather than admit their tastes are simply different from others, writers too often try to cast their preferences as some fault of the thing they don't enjoy. If only IPAs tasted more like fermented grapes...
Let's peel back each layer of why this is so ridiculous, one by one.
1. First, apply this thesis to, well, anything else. Replace hops with "chocolate" and craft beer with "cupcakes." Imagine you had a friend complaining that they couldn't enjoy their blueberry lemon-swirl cupcake because chocolate cupcakes were just too popular. The horror.
2. Beyond starting with a misguided accusation, the article ultimately fails because it offers no helpful dialogue — there's no concrete, addressable problem identified, and therefore no solution. Is the author suggesting that IPA-drinkers should try to like what they like a little less? "Please stop enjoying IPAs so much"? It's hard to complain about any one style of beer being too beloved these days when we live in the most diverse era of beer styles and beer variety in history. Let's appreciate the craft beer Renaissance, rather than bitching that a couple styles are having slightly more of a Renaissance than forty other styles.
3. Again, to be clear: not everyone is required to like everything. That's fine. No one should think less of you for not enjoying hoppy beers. And this is not exclusive to hop-heads, or sour-heads, or stout-heads, or Grätzer-heads, or whatever. There are plenty of beer styles to go around, and plenty of room in the beer-world for those who don't enjoy them. Let's work on making people understand how varied beer is, rather than fearing their prejudices.
4. Sadly, the article misses the opportunity to address some issues that might be real. A complaint could be lodged about bars that lack appropriate diversity in their menu. If your taplist is almost entirely any one style of beer, and it's not some special event, sure, you'll alienate some drinkers. That's just poor planning. Likewise, most half-assed, half-craft bars are simply disappointing by nature, and likely always will be, loaded with their mass-market wheat beers. A bar with a couple old, stale IPAs is no fun for anyone, Hop Heads included. But such is life. Casting the blame on hop lovers doesn't help anything.
5. It would be absolutely legitimate to complain that some breweries put out IPAs simply because it's a popular style, because those brewers think they have to. Chances are, those IPAs aren't going to be very good. Don't brew beer you aren't passionate about — now there's a case you could make that's relevant and necessary.
6. The beer world moves fast, and so far as I can tell, diversity has usually been the result. For example: I can't think of a single brewery that makes exclusively IPAs (The Alchemist doesn't count). I'm sure there must be one or two out there at this point. However, off the top of my head, I can think of breweries focusing in plenty of other styles exclusively. Stillwater, Funkwerks, The Bruery, Logsdon Farmhouse Ales, and many others brew almost exclusively Belgian and farmhouse inspired beers, with nary a double IPA to be found. Jolly Pumpkin brews a dozen delectable sours, and bottles nothing else. Are we going to start complaining about the over-use of Belgian yeast next? It's a big, diverse market, with literally thousands of breweries in the U.S. alone. To imply that hops have some sort of monopoly can be nothing but an exaggeration.
7. The Slate article also implies that the popularity of IPAs is in jeopardy if we don't all calm down. We're scaring people. Yet all the evidence seems to point to hoppy beers growing more popular, and more accepted — how does that work, then? So far as my research has revealed, the Illuminati is not funneling millions of advertising dollars to push IPAs on the unwilling masses. The government is not giving secret tax cuts to The Alchemist to prop up Heady Topper's success. (Thanks, Obama!) If IPAs are popular, it's an organic popularity. And it's a hard-earned, underdog popularity. (Unlike, say, Blue Moon, which has a mega-corporation and millions of dollars behind it, and can afford to build artificial popularity over time by simply being everywhere). Thirty years ago, hardly anyone would touch a hoppy beer. IPAs had to fight to be accepted, much less consumed, much less popular. And now they're too popular? You think Hop Heads are just pulling your leg? Choking down bitter beers just to convince you to like them? No, the passion is genuine, and it's not going anywhere.
8. What really saddens me — the ultimate missed opportunity in starting a flamewar like this — is the effort that could have instead been spent educating people. For all its casting of blame, that silly article was the only thing hurtful to craft beer. It told people to be narrow-minded, to set up boundaries rather than broaden horizons. Don't do that. You don't have to like hoppy beers; really, it's fine. Some people will never be okay with bitterness at any level. But as with any style, not all IPAs are created equal — you'd be amazed how much variation there can be.
The author makes the common mistake of correlating IBUs with hop flavor, even making the totally inaccurate insinuation that because the human threshold for IBUs drops off at a certain point, Hop Heads are just wasting their flavor potential on most hoppy brews. Humans do have a threshold for bitterness (around 80 to 100 IBUs), and it's true that hops provide bitterness, along with flavor. But that doesn't mean hop flavor levels out on every beer over a certain IBU level — that's not how it works, at all. This is important, Beer Writers and Mainstream Journalists of America, and I too often see it confused, so take note: hop bitterness (IBUs) and hop flavor are not the same thing. Hops provide bitterness, and hops provide flavor, and they can provide both, or one or the other. It's up to the technique and skill and preference of the brewer. The author had a great chance to lay out what makes a beer bitter, and what hops can taste like other than bitter. What do hop lovers love about hops, after all? Why is the style so popular? Those who don't understand this passion often think of IPAs as harsh, grating beers overloaded with vegetal preservatives, rather than the nuanced, fruity, exotic elixirs the rest of us enjoy. Rather than casting blame on those that enjoy them too much, one could illuminate the many ways hops can be used — clarifying that you can brew IPAs that are full of hop flavor and hardly any bitterness. Believe it or not, you might even convert a few new Hop Heads this way.
Since the author relies on anecdotal evidence, so will I: I've brewed beers that, on paper and by quantity, were exceedingly hoppy, but I brewed them in such a way that even my hop-fearing friends enjoyed them — and never once described them as "bitter" when asked. Focus on the flavor, and what brings that flavor, and you'll grow the ranks of beer lovers. When you've shown them something different, explain why it was different, and what they should look for in the future. With new hop varieties and new flavors appearing all the time, there's something for everyone. The best way to alienate people is to make them feel bad — no matter what kind of beer you, or they, enjoy.
If you enjoyed this article, please check out my exploration of what hops will taste like next.