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JUST SAY NO TO HOP MADNESS

May 20, 2016
I’ve been grousing about the infestation of IPAs into American Beer Culture for some time now, as well as the fact that so many US craft brewers seem to have no clue in how to use them correctly. This attitude was strengthened even more after a recent trip to Germany, Switzerland, Alsace and Austria—where I was actually able to enjoy a number of different beers. While they varied quite a bit in their color, taste and strength, they all seemed to have one thing in common—they were largely formulated with varying combinations of beer’s four main ingredients: Water, Malt, Hops and Yeast.

I’ve often been of a mind that most US craft brewers should first dedicate themselves to learning how to make a solid, well-balanced beer with just these four ingredients before jumping into trendy stuff like pumpkin ales, sours, hop-bombs, chocolate or peanut-butter ales, or any other exotic style. There are a very few US craft brewers who can successfully pull this wizardry off (my local brewery, Hoppin’ Frog, comes to mind) but the truth is, this “everything and the kitchen sink” approach can offer plenty of style and little substance. It also offers some brewers with limited skill a convenient place to hide—behind a truckload of ingredients that can camouflage an otherwise less-than-stellar brew.

After being reminded of what simple, fresh and delicious beer tastes like, it’s easy to get tired of so-called “experts” telling me that I just don’t “get” the appeal of hops, or have “too weak a palate” to appreciate all these bold, bitter hop flavors. What a load of bullshit.

“You need to train your palate to appreciate these bitter hop flavors.” More bullshit. I suppose I could slip a dab of poop into my ham sandwich every once in a while and build up a tolerance. What does that prove other than I have developed a taste for shit?

First of all, I’ve been drinking beer long before some of these morons were even born; and most of it was good beer, not just the swill that the macro-brewers have been foisting upon us for the last 65 years. It’s true that for much of that period, imports were the best and most popular route to quality beer, at least until the late 1970’s and early 80’s. At that time, microbreweries were just beginning to appear and some of the larger brewers responded to the rise of imports by rolling out premium lines and bringing back some old brew house recipes that offered more flavor. And back then, most imports were really imported—not brewed in the US under contract. I believe I developed a fairly sophisticated palate over 40+ years of beer drinking, and while my taste buds and sniffer might not be as good as they used to be, I’d like to think I know what beer is supposed to taste like.

And I’ll be damned if you try to convince me that it’s supposed to taste like turpentine. Or Pine Sol.

Unfortunately, we have a whole generation of beer drinkers who have been marketing-brainwashed into thinking that this is exactly how good beer is supposed to taste; utterly convinced that these “bold” flavors have been missing from beer for generations. Of course the convincing has been done by some craft brewers who have built a reputation on hop-bombing the Western Hemisphere, and US hop-growers who only want to expand the market for their goods.

Now the usual response to my view is always – “Well, if you don’t like it, just don’t drink it.” And that sounds reasonable, until you realize that the tidal wave of IPAs has pushed a vast number of great alternatives off the store shelves. It’s getting harder to obtain beers I actually like. The local super-grocers offer dozens and dozens of IPAs in their cooler, both in 6-packs and in single bottle (“build your own 6-pack”) selections. But where before I could choose from among 10 or 15 English ales, or 18 different German beers, or a few dozen other imports, or some reliable, high-quality domestic beers, now I can only find a handful (cold) and maybe a few more (warm) on the store shelf.

Yes, there are a number of US Craft Beer offerings that are not IPAs, it is true; but the simple fact is—I don’t trust a lot of these brews to deliver on their promises. Many are not “true to style”. Many are still over-hopped, as brewers end up massaging their entire brewery lineup to cater to the “hop-forward” tastes of today. I’d be happy to give some a test shot, but I’m not going to buy a $12 6-pack to experiment—or give away later.

Other bozos will try and make some technical argument that bitterness is not always associated with hops. They add fragrance and aroma, too. Yes, I know that. And I will respond by simply stating that, while yes—a beer with extra hops does not always have a bitter taste, the other side of the coin is simply this: almost every beer that tastes too bitter is the result of being over-hopped.

Or the result of using the wrong hops. I really do think a lot of craft brewers are using hop varieties for taste that should only be used for aroma. For example, let me be clear in stating that while Pine-like flavors may lend a nice aroma, they have absolutely no place in beer taste.

Have you ever had smoked meat or fish? Have you ever wondered why expert barbeque masters only use hard woods like oak, hickory, mesquite or cherry on their fires? Did you notice that they never use pine wood? The reason is simple: pine leaves a sharp, resinous and wholly unpleasant taste in the mouth that ruins food. No grillmaster with a brain uses it. Why would you want to put that taste in your mouth via beer?

Again, we see generations of simple knowledge and proven experience go by the wayside, as idiots try to convince us that this is actually a good taste for beer to have. I’ll be honest and also admit that I have found few American hop varieties that I appreciate as much as traditional, noble hop European varieties. I’m sure there are some good ones, but it’s hard to judge when they are being used by the boxcar load.

Do I sound grouchy? Good. Then you’re catching on.

Just as lame arguments break on the rocks of four decades of beer drinking experience, the same can be said for trendy brewing approaches that go against the grain of several hundred years of beer brewing tradition. Just how bitter can a beer be, anyway—before it becomes palate-tiring, overwhelming and undrinkable?

Ever had a real, traditional English IPA? Bass dropped the “India” from its “Pale Ale” some years ago, but the taste hasn’t changed all that much over the years; this style was never intended to be as bitter as the stuff that has been pushed on us today in the US. Ever had an English “bitter”? Try a Fullers ESB. The bitterness is subtle; it embellishes the taste and balances the malt. It doesn’t overwhelm it. Same with a genuine Pilsner, which has slightly more bitterness than a typical Lager.

Hey, if you wanna drink this bitter swill—go ahead. Pay $12 a 6-pack or $8 a pint and support the Hipster Brewmaster & Organic Hop-Grower’s Retirement Fund. Of course IPAs are selling so well, but what do you expect when (aside from Macro-Brew) that’s mostly what you find on today's store shelf? It’s a self-fulfilling cycle—and a cycle that’s making it harder to obtain truly good, honest beers that have been enjoyed for decades.

For the craft brewers who are focusing on innovative, well-balanced stouts, tasty porters and drinkable ales that people can actually enjoy, my hat is off to you. Continue to innovate, and please resist the urge to obscure the tastes you’ve worked hard to develop by wrapping them in an overly-bitter hop shroud. Hopefully this hop madness will wear off, the pendulum will swing in the other direction and more brewers will come to their senses—not to mention beer drinkers who haven’t had enough experience to know any better.

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