Last month, I attempted to improve the quality of dialogue about sour beer by arguing that such a label is an insufficient and needlessly vague way of discussing the diverse range of beers that get lumped into that category simply because they are all somewhat acidic. In effect, "sour" beer is no more meaningful a term than "dark" beer.
Now, I'd like to do the same thing for "hoppy" beers. The idea comes from a comment made by Joel Bigham of Fermented Reality, who has begun to notice a conspicuous lack of detail in the discussion of hoppy beers. There's much discussion of these beers, with surprisingly little being said.
When people think of hoppy beers, they think of IPAs. These are the beers that feature hop flavors and aromas most prominently, so that's reasonable enough. But what about an English barleywine?
In the popular malty vs. hoppy dichotomy, IPAs are hoppy and barleywines are malty. But the upper threshold for International Bittering Units, according to the Beer Judge Certification Program, is 70 IBUs for both English barleywine and American IPA. That's strange, considering that most folks see hoppiness as a function of bitterness — a quality found in similar quantities in both the quintessential hoppy beer and what could be considered the quintessential malty beer.
Or is it the flavor? Early American craft beers set themselves apart from the big names by adding copious amounts of flavorful hops to their beers. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale made Cascade the most instantly recognizable hop in the country, with its spicy, grapefruit flavors. Anchor used Northern Brewer hops to add herbal, minty flavors to its iconic Steam beer. Grapefruit and mint don't taste similar, but with hop flavor playing such a big role in defining the flavor of these beers, a hoppy tag seemed reasonable enough.
Now, a newer variety of hops, many originating from Australia and New Zealand, have become wildly popular, lending a range of fruity flavors — melon, mango, pineapple, blackberry, cherry, lemon — to beers, rather than the earthy, piney, spicy and citrusy flavors associated with traditional hop varieties. If we also refer to these beers as hoppy, then we're making an already-broad category substantially bigger.
Then there's the new trend of dry-hopping everything. Without getting too far into brewing chemistry, I'll just say that adding hops post-fermentation adds a lot of aroma, a little flavor, and practically no bitterness to a beer. So a dry-hopped Berliner weisse may have IBUs in the low single digits while still possessing a powerful hop aroma. Is this beer hoppy?
It may seem pedantic to gripe about the overuse of "hoppy" as a beer descriptor, but I think we can all benefit from learning to describe beer in a more detailed manner. It makes for better discussion and, more important, it helps you to refine your critical evaluation skills, which I guarantee will improve your beer drinking experience.
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Next time you try a hoppy beer, focus on the aroma, and describe what you smell — don't be afraid of sounding pretentious, it's unavoidable. Is it bitter, or does most of the hop character come through in flavor, rather than as a base bitterness? Does it taste earthy, resiny or piney? Or is it bright, juicy and full of ripe tropical fruit flavors?
Think about these individually, and you'll have a much more detailed description of your beer than "hoppy."