Is Hoppiness actually Happiness? Understanding the Signature American Craft Beer Trend

Hops, some people are sick of it. It has become the signature of American craft beer. And I have to admit, it has given to a lack of variety in some bars and pubs. I just shake my head when I walk into a bar or pub, start excitedly viewing the tap handles, and see a row of very similar beers, all hoppy ales. When we think of hops in beer, we tend to immediately think bitter taste. We tend to think beer elitism. We envision brew pub bars packed with man bun wearing millennials sipping from 5 small glasses in front of them while taking notes, discussing, and comparing flavors.  There is a growing concern that hops is slowly destroying the industry. That craft beer brewers are so taken with using the ingredient that they are alienating the common beer drinker. I’ve even heard hopped beer referred to as liquid potpourri. I read articles and blogs calling for “The Resurgence of Malt!” and admonishing the craft beer industry. And the complaining has been going on for a while. The Master Brewer of Brooklyn Brewery was quoted in the New Yorker Magazine in 2008 as saying,

“When a brewer says, ‘This has more hops in it than anything you’ve had in your life—are you man enough to drink it?,’ it’s sort of like a chef saying, ‘This stew has more salt in it than anything you’ve ever had—are you man enough to eat it?’”

Over hopping beer in this country has been a problem. But is hops an actual problem? Or the exaggeration of a trend that many people, including bar managers, just don’t understand? My thought is that it is the latter.

Hops has been used in beer making for over 1000 years. It is used as a preservative and as a way to counter the sweetness of malt. The most hopped beers are usually IPAs.  The IPA, Indian Pale Ale, was originally developed in the 19th century to survive the long trip from England to India, hence the name. These were the original over hopped beers, as the amount of hops needed to be heavy to preserve the beer for the trip. In the early 2000’s, America began to experiment greatly with hops. Hoppy bitterness was the trend of the day.  At that time, most of the hoppy beers produced were ales. The beers were pucker your mouth bitter, and we loved them.

The trend was actually a revolution against the big breweries that mass produced the sweet lagers America had been drinking for years. In the 1960’s, large beer producers like Budweiser and Miller began making sweeter beers to attract the younger market. This made business sense because the baby boomers we just coming of age to drink and were a very large part of the populace. But by the 2000’s, we had grown tired of the sweetness and watered down flavors of these mass produced beers. America wanted something different, and the Craft Beer Trend was born. As was the trend toward bitter hoppiness. Oddly, this trend reflected an American trend of the early 1900’s. Before the sweet beer trend of the 1960’s, American beers were bitter lagers. What we began calling “Old Man Beers” in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Beers like Schaefer, Schlitz, Pabst (The original one, not the new one), and Strohs were all bitter lagers and very popular brands in their day. They were the beers of the World War II generation.

And now things are changing again. Turns our tastes are actually evolving.  That hop infested brew from 2001 probably doesn’t exist at your local brewery or brewpub anymore. And if it does, it’s probably an evolved version. If I went back and tasted some of the hop bombs that I loved 18 years ago, I’d probably hate them now. Brewing processes have evolved, as has the use of hops. Hops have different effects on beer depending on where they are grown, how they are treated, and how and when they are added into the brewing process. Growing local hops for unique flavors has become a huge trend. As Lew Bryson wrote in his article for The Daily Beast back in 2017:

“And like wine, depending upon the soil and climate, hops will develop a range of aromas and flavors. The main growing regions can be found across Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and America’s Pacific Northwest. Small amounts are also being grown in other areas, too. Sometimes these upstart farmers are working with neighboring brewers who make “fresh hop” beers, with hops right off the bine.”

And the proper word is bine, not vine. In case anyone was thinking of challenging my spelling on that one. The bottom line is, the usage of hops has changed during the evolution of the American Craft Beer Craze. The practice of adding hops for hops sake is long gone. The bitter flavors have receded and given way to a new array of flavors and aromas. More and more brewers are using different techniques and technology to add flavors and aromas with hops, not just bitter bomb the beer. Hops is being used more often in all kinds of beers like lagers, pilsners, and stouts, not just ales. And it’s adding flavors and aromas we have never tasted before. Great fruit and flower flavors that do not taste artificial, or overpower the beer, are becoming the taste of the day.

So don’t let the hops scare you. The dark days of acting like we enjoy a mouth full of bitterness are over. Beer needs to be approached like wine.  You need to try different varietals. So taste the different beers when you hit that local pub or brewery. You may be pleasantly surprised. And bar managers, how about treating your beer list like your wine list. Have some variety. There’s no need to have 5 IPAs and 1 Brown Ale make up the 6 beers on your draft list. Mix it up! Don’t be afraid to put those lagers, pilsners, and stouts out there! They’ll also have some hops in them, and you may be pleasantly surprised at the wonderful flavor profiles.  So drink up my friends! Cheers!!!!

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