Giving Hoppy Beers a Second Chance

While IPAs remain craft beer’s most popular style, it is also its most polarizing

Illustration by Jason Stout/Apologies to Theodor Geisel

IPAs by and large are known for a single, albeit outdated, characteristic that makes those three capital letters derivative of a more aggressive six: B-I-T-T-E-R.

And while India pale ale remains craft beer's most popular style, it is also its most polarizing due to humankind's innate sensitivity to bitterness as a means to survival, since many bitter elements found in nature can kill you dead. It's some kind of damn wonder that in our enormous commitment to potable leisure on a patio somewhere (anywhere), our sensory systems have actually evolved in a way that disrupts 87 fajillion years of self-preservation for the pure enjoyment of beer. And yet, despite the imminent peril of defying God's master plan (or whoever it is up there turning dryer lint into human beings) on how to prevent us dummies from accidentally offing ourselves at every turn, there are still a bunch of IPA doubters who ponder the beer wall like Galileo reading the star charts before diffidently bleating the words "Well, I don't really like hoppy beers. Do you have anything else?"

No, man. Take a deep breath.

"Traditionally hops were used to balance the sweetness of malt in beer," says hop wizard Joe Mohrfeld, director of brewing at Pinthouse Pizza and leader of inarguably the best IPA program in Texas. "But it was only about 15 years ago in the States we started pushing the boundaries of what hops could really do with bittering. [Recently] Mosaic, Citra, Simcoe, and some other pretty young hop varieties started redefining IPAs in the U.S., which are very fruit-forward hops and have lots of really sharp citrus and tropical notes."

Mohrfeld notes that these newer, juicier hops are helping to rein in the traditional bitterness from hops like Cascade, Chinook, and Centennial that put American IPAs on the map in the first place, but sometimes turned off newcomers to craft beer because of their rindy bitterness. "These newer hops are yielding more fruit character and a more exciting flavor to those who say they don't like aggressively hopped beers," suggests Mohrfeld.

Indeed, IPAs and other beers with heavy use of bittering hops seem to be normalizing toward nuances of flavoring instead of these giant nine irons to the palate. As the market continues to become more crowded, particularly in the IPA category (there were 336 entries out of 750 breweries in the American-Style IPA category at the Great American Beer Festival last year, its largest category of entrants), it is vital for the industry that the artistry of hop usage remains controlled but confident.

"There are hops in every single beer," reminds Danny Clay, lead brewer at Hops & Grain Brewing, "but subtlety comes into play, because if [a brewer] gets too aggressive on that hopping bitterness in the boil, then you won't be able to express all the other great nuances like fruitiness or spiciness down the line during the dry-hopping process. I hear it all the time, 'I don't like hoppy beers,' but it's great to educate people about hops and just start the conversation. People have preconceptions about an IPA and now it's kind of this new thing where people just haven't made the association yet to their favorite hop variety."

Amongst many things, Hops & Grain is well-known for its "Greenhouse IPA" series, which prominently features a seemingly unsystematic list of hop varieties with each one of their 51 small-batch IPAs to date. The Greenhouse series is a clever way for the brewery to guide some of their customers to discovering their favorite of the 80-plus varieties of commercially used hops by focusing on the spectrum of flavor and aroma each provides: Columbus (pungent, herbaceous, piney), Nugget (floral, resiny), Citra (fruity mango, passion fruit, pineapple, peach, orange), Simcoe (rindy grapefruit, pine, sweet onion, tropical fruit), Mosaic (blueberry, tangerine, pineapple, peach, pine, hint of garlic), Nelson (melony and aromatic), Cascade (grapefruit rind, floral – famously used in Sierra Nevada's pale ale), and so on.

"My favorite was the Wakatu and Meridian hopped batch that we did near the beginning of the series that we nicknamed 'The Dreamsicle' because it had this smooth, juicy orange flavor to it," says Clay. "It was awesome. Since then Wakatu has been my favorite hop, but lately I'm really digging Equinox. We put some of it into our latest batch [51]. When I smell it, it sort of reminds me of Fruit Stripe gum. That's the aroma I get. It's amazing."

With a metaphorical color palette of earthy, spicy, citric, and tropical hops being used at specific benchmarks during the brewing process to elicit target characteristics like bitterness, flavoring, and aroma, Mohrfeld asserts that modern brewers are taking on more of a chef's role by experimenting with hops in a way that hasn't been meticulously studied. "Most of the people doing really interesting things with hops have kind of thrown out their science books," says Mohrfeld, "but we do know that you can't just throw every kind of hop in there and make a beer work, you have to understand the chemistry. For example, our dry Irish stout, Bearded Seal, uses an aggressive hop called Perle that is herbal and earthy and it's a great characteristic for a beer like this. However, it is hopped at the rate of some of the more traditional pale ales. If we didn't have those specific hops in there, it would just taste like bitter malts and it wouldn't have the depth that it has."

"The phrase 'I don't like hoppy beers' is one of our favorite things to hear at Hops & Grain because we can show them the way," says Clay. "What they usually mean is that they don't like in-your-face, bitter beers, which doesn't even need to be an IPA. We're not really into big bitter beers either, but we love to highlight the hops. It's like a nice cup of coffee that is bitter but also has nice vanilla notes, or orange notes, or berries. Sure it's a bitter experience, but there are those other elements and characteristics to it that people who sometimes don't like IPAs don't mind in their coffees. That's kind of what our Greenhouse IPAs are."

"As for Pinthouse," says Mohrfeld, "we usually pour the doubters a Pineapple Express which is just our Old Beluga Amber Ale that has been dry-hopped. It has this nice juicy body of an amber ale but the fruitiness of the El Dorado and Citra hops. It's like those fruit cups from when you were a kid. Or maybe we'll pour them a Fully Adrift, which is actually a double IPA but is round and balanced. Typically they say, 'Wow, that's good!' and we say, 'Okay, well, there are 10 pounds of hops per barrel in there and it's over 10 percent ABV.'"

And while the casual hop skeptic would want to seek out clues as to the enamel-stripping potential of a beer, Mohrfeld suggests that IBUs (International Bittering Units) aren't even the best indicator: "I think IBUs are a bit misleading because on paper, a beer can be 80 IBUs but have little or no bitterness to it. Fully Adrift has very little perceived bitterness but it has to be bittered enough to hold up to its heavy malts, so its IBUs are high. Meanwhile a session IPA that has 35 IBUs can come off as extremely bitter because there's very little body to it. So IBUs don't always paint the true picture of a beer."

Instead look for the names of the hop varietal most pleasing to you, or heed the junior high grab-assery of beer names like "Laryngeal Spoilation," "Hop Jong-un," or "Nuclear Demon Scorpion Tsunami," which is probably a good indication that the brewer has been chugging too much Mountain Dew Code Red and cooked up a big, abrasive, bitter goon of an ale.

Overall, it appears that the brewers want to change perception about the nuances of IPAs and other bittered ales from "Oh, are there hops in this?" to "Oh, how are the hops being used in this?"

"It's not like we have 13 IPAs on the board," Mohrfeld states. "We have 13 hop expressions up there and they're all completely different. Just because there are hops in them doesn't mean the beer is necessarily an IPA. But it's kind of the verbiage we're stuck with at the moment. They all have nuances and complexities."

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Danny Clay, Hops & Grain Brewing, Joe Mohrfeld, Pinthouse Pizza

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