Give Me Hops, But Don’t Give Me Bitter Death

Originally published in the August 2021 Issue of the Old Town Crier Magazine

“What’s your favorite kind of beer?” The bartender asked with a smile.

“An open one.” I replied. She chuckles, probably out of politeness. It’s an old joke and not overly funny.

I was visiting family and friends in Pittsburgh. Like most Pittsburghers, we are all of Irish and German descent. So, a bar is a fitting place to gather. The craft beer trend is alive and well in Pittsburgh, just like the rest of the country. There are breweries and brewpubs in every part of the area. We were in a Gastropub downtown called City Works. It’s a huge, wide open, brightly lit establishment with tons of televisions, and tons of beer. They carry over 90 beers on tap. My wife jokes that I am in heaven. She’s not far from the truth.

“What local beers do you have?” I inquire.

The bartender asks, “Do you like pale ales?”

Oh yes. The Pale Ale. The sweetheart, the little darling of the craft beer industry. The name still brings back bitter memories of the beers being brewed in the early days of the American craft beer trend.  It’s loaded with hops and can often be bitter beyond belief. I am reminded of a quote from the Master Brewer of Brooklyn Brewery in the New Yorker in 2008:

 “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?’”

Even the mere mention of hops makes many beer drinkers think of only one word, bitter. Over-hopped beer can be very bitter. It also raises the specter of beer elitism. We envision brew pub bars packed with man-bun-wearing millennials sipping from a flight of five small glasses in front of them while they are taking notes, discussing aromas, and comparing flavors. Hops is a natural preservative and does not need to be bitter. Many Pale Ales brewed today are IPA’s, Indian Pale Ales. In the 19th century, when the British controlled India, they needed to ship beer to their troops. So, they created the IPA, a strongly hopped beer that could survive the long trip from England to India, hence the name. It is the original over hopped beer, as the portion of hops needed to be heavy to preserve the beer for the trip. The hoppy strength of IPAs is the reason hops earned a reputation for having such a bitter bite.

I do like Pale Ales. But I am always leery when I try one.

The bartender grabs a small beer glass and turns to the taps behind her. She’s a good bartender. Any place that carries over 90 draft beers should be offering tastes to their guests. And she was quick to do so.

She sets the beer in front of me. “It’s called The Big Hop. It’s an American Pale Ale from East End Brewing right here in the city.”

Although the name, Big Hop, concerns me. American Pale Ales tend to be softer, less bitter, and not as strong as their Indian cousins. I pick it up and look at it. The best way I can describe the color is putrid brown. It’s not pretty. It looks like a stool sample. There is an old saying that people “eat with their eyes first”. It’s true, they do. But this is not food, this is beer. Looks can be deceiving. Beer is about the nose and mouth, not the eyes. It’s the palate that counts.

I taste it: immediate hops on the front, nice hops, smooth not bitter. I can detect a couple different kinds. I look at the description, Centennial and Cascade hops. And there is malt on the back taste, close to a toasted malt. The beer finishes very well, no bitter bite. It’s an exceptionally good beer. When I check out the brewery’s website the next day, it calls the Big Hop their Flagship Beer. I can see why.

“I’ll take a pint, thanks.” I smile as she hands me my putrid brown pint.

Hops has been used in beer making for over 1000 years. In the early 2000s, 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 people loved them. This early trend was a revolution against the big breweries that mass produced the sweet lagers America had been drinking for decades. In the 1960s, large beer producers began making sweeter beers to attract the younger market. This made business sense because the baby boomers, a large part of the populace, were just coming of age to drink. But by the 2000s, we had grown tired of the sweet and watery flavors of these mass-produced beers. America wanted something different, and the Craft Beer Trend was born. As was the trend toward the bitter beers filled with hops.  

But the beer drinkers’ tastes have since evolved.  That hop-infested brew from 2001 probably doesn’t exist at your local brewery or brewpub anymore. And if it does, it’s probably a different version of the original. If I went back and tasted some of the hop bombs that I loved 20 years ago, I’d probably hate them now. Brewing processes have evolved, as has the use of hops. Different 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. Like wine vintners do with grapes, brewers are drawing a variety of flavors from hops. The practice of adding hops for hops sake is 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 technologies to add flavors and aromas with hops, ones we have never encountered before. Hops are being used more often in all kinds of beers like lagers, pilsners, and stouts, not just pale ales. Fruit and flower flavors from hops that do not taste artificial, or overpower the beer, are driving this new trend.

Note: This column will be about beer, drinking beer, and different aspects of beer. Beer is a fun and interesting subject. And craft beers offer a variety of opportunities to enjoy. It pays to remember what Benjamin Franklin said about beer: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” I’ll even write about whiskey on occasion. Because what is whiskey? It’s distilled beer. Cheers!!

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