PORTLAND — As a beer writer, I often find myself preaching the word about craft beer to people who don’t want to hear it. There are a lot of Bud Light fans and people who’d rather sip a zinfandel, even in the craft beer capital of the world, Portland, where I live. So when a homebrewer friend recently decided to visit my husband and I from Tennessee, I was excited to spend time with a kindred spirit, someone with whom I could share my favorite brews without having to make a hard sell. The first brewery I took him to was Hopworks Urban Brewery, where I ordered us a pitcher of the Velvet English session beer.
After a few sips, I noticed that he had pushed away his glass. “I’m sorry, guys,” he said when he noticed our puzzled expressions. “This is just way too hoppy for me.”
I was floored. Session beer is light and drinkable — it’s called session beer because you’re supposed to be able to drink several over the course of a drinking session without ruining your palate. If one of my favorite session beers was too hoppy and bitter for an avid beer drinker — for a homebrewer who is currently brewing beer to serve at his own wedding — what would he think of the famed Pacific Northwest IPAs? Do friends let friends drink only pilsners?
That’s when I realized that I had a problem. In fact, everyone I know in the craft beer industry has a problem: We’re so addicted to hops that we don’t even notice them anymore.
Hops are the flowers of the climbing plant Humulus lupulus, a member of the family Cannabaceae (which also includes, yes, cannabis), and they’re a critical ingredient in beer.
Although they make up a small proportion of the ingredients used in beer, hops command the vast majority of the industry’s passion. Beer geeks have an intensely emotional relationship to hops. We wax poetic about the differences among varieties: the mildness of the Saaz, the bright tang of the exotic Sorachi Ace.
In my wanderings through bottle shops, breweries and beer conferences, I’ve seen hop cufflinks, hop bracelets, hop tattoos. I’m a party to the hop mania: I have hop-scented soap in my shower and hop-and-peppermint foot cream by my bed.
Let’s be clear: Not all craft beer is hoppy. There are many craft breweries that seek to create balanced, drinkable beers that aren’t very bitter at all, like Patrick Rue’s the Bruery in Placentia, Calif., and the Commons Brewery in Portland. Among the nonhoppy yet complex and delicious American craft beers available are Widmer’s hefeweizen, New Glarus’ cherry and raspberry beers, and Full Sail Brewing’s Session Lager.
That said, there is some truth in the stereotype that craft beer is hoppy. The beer that more or less launched the contemporary craft beer movement, Sierra Nevada’s flagship pale ale, was, for its time, a supremely hoppy beer. In 1980, when most of the nation’s beers were produced by Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Schlitz, Pabst and Coors, Sierra Nevada’s pale ale was a revelation. Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman added way more hops than most brewers at the time would ever consider using. But he used a recently discovered American variety called the Cascade, a hop whose big, bitter bite was counterbalanced by a sweet grapefruit scent and a spicy aftertaste. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a beautiful beer with an aggressive edge, and it’s the beer that put me, and so many others, on the path to craft beer enthusiasm.
Thanks in part to Grossman’s pioneering influence, the pale ale, and its hoppier sister, the India pale ale, grew massively in popularity. This was a positive development, but some breweries went overboard. By the 1990s, craft breweries like Rogue, Lagunitas, Stone and Dogfish Head were all engaged in a hop arms race, bouncing ideas and techniques off one another to produce increasingly aggressive, hop-forward beers.
Hoppiness is measured in IBUs (International Bitterness Units), which indicate the concentration of isomerized alpha acid — the compound that makes hops taste bitter. Most beer judges agree that even with an experienced palate, most human beings can’t detect any differences above 60 IBUs. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, one of the hoppiest beers of its time, clocks in at 37 IBUs. Some of today’s India pale ales, like Lagunitas’ Hop Stoopid, measure around 100 IBUs. Russian River’s Pliny the Younger, one of the most sought-after beers in the world, has three times as many hops as the brewery’s standard IPA.
Craft brewers’ obsession with hops has overshadowed so many other wonderful aspects of beer. So here’s my plea to my fellow craft beer enthusiasts: Give it a rest. Let’s talk about the differences between wild and cultivated lab yeast, and the weird and wonderful flavors that are created when brewers start scouring nearby trees or flowers or even their own beards for new strains. And let’s start preaching a new word: Craft beer isn’t always bitter. Who knows? Maybe we’ll finally win over some of those Bud Light fans.