​Hop Springs Eternal!

From the Producer: Producer David Page turns to a heavy hitter, Beer Geeks Host Michael Ferguson, to weigh in on the ongoing hops debate.

I recently found myself in yet another discussion of hops in craft beer, the debate that might as well be titled “Hops – Savior of the World or Scourge of Humanity.” You know the arguments – it’s too hoppy, it’s not hoppy enough, it’s too bitter, only wusses don’t like hops, etc. So I decided to ask a well-respected, extremely talented veteran brewer to weigh in. Here’s what Master Brewer and Beer Geeks host Michael Ferguson has to say on the subject:

As craft brewers and home brewers and lovers of all beer not mainstream, we have the tendency to forget that 70% of the beer drinking population of the world consumes beer that we consider "proletariat.” The number one and two selling beers in the world are not from the United States or even Belgium. They are from China and believe you me when I say they are even more proletariat than what we are used to stateside.

We are riding the second and larger wave of the craft beer reemergence and we are so incredibly proud of ourselves for making beer on the edge, breaking new ground. We are the way the world is going to be!

Perhaps, but let's reflect on this a bit. Even our most entry level craft beers push the limits of what mainstream beer drinkers want. We want everybody to like the beers we make as much as we do.

The fact is most people don't. They drink mass produced, low hopped, fizzy yellow beer. Oh yes, the craft side of beer is experiencing double-digit growth, but that's barely a single-digit loss for the big boys. We still have a long way to go.

The largest part of that double-digit growth is the category of IPA - India Pale Ales, the spectrum of which boggles the mind, truly covering the ridiculous to the sublime. This includes a new favorite called session IPA. All the hop bitterness and flavor of an IPA but with lower alcohol so that they can be enjoyed in quantity. But even this easy drinking beer that we in the industry think of as an entry level beer has three to four times more IBU's than what most people drink. We have become so used to what we like that we forget that we aren't most people. In fact we have become so jaded that our palates are forever skewed.

Don't get me wrong, I am a real fan of experimentation and thinking outside the glass but we do have to keep things in perspective.

I have been privy to more than a few blind taste panels that ask you to guess the IBU's of several different beers. And it never fails that the panel guesses on average 20 to 40 IBU's lower than what the beers actually test at. In my own restaurant, people that enjoy hoppy beers often believe our beers are much lower in IBU's than what I know them to be.

There are at least a couple of reasons for this. One of those reasons is balance. If there is a residual malt sweetness that competes with the hop bitterness, then it can certainly fool your palate into thinking the IBU's are lower or higher than they actually are. More residual sweetness, the lower the apparent hop bitterness. By the same token, the drier the beer, the higher the hopping rate will appear to be.

Another reason is harshness. I believe a hopping rate 100-110 IBU's is about as much as our palates can take before it starts to taste and feel more like harshness than clean bitterness. Of course, balance can help dampen this effect.

Hops just may be the single most influential flavor profile in beer today. I am in no way denigrating the other fine ingredients that go into the manufacture of craft beer - in fact I've been a malt-head (as opposed to a hop-head) for at least half of my surprisingly long brewing industry career. But even during that phase, I still sought out and preferred balance, which sometimes had me drinking undeniably malty beers that were still 60 and 70 IBU's. I'm still a fan of true British style IPA's, a very different beast indeed from their American cousins.

As it turns out, we are a country of extremist. Chances are you exhibit some form of extreme behavior. Extreme snowboarding, where you jump out of a helicopter on some insanely high peak and try to beat the ensuing avalanche down the mountain. Extreme base jumping, skate boarding, down hill off-road bicycling, jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, extreme techno geeks, even extreme couponing and shopping. It's there somewhere. Here in the states, too much of a good thing is still a good thing! Why should beer be any different?

We have pushed the hopping rates to the limit and I fear that we aren't done yet with all the new varieties of hops, both proprietary and experimental. We keep finding new ways of stuffing hops into a glass. The longest lines at the GABF are for beers run through a "Randalizer" - beer that has been excessively hopped, then strained through a water filter in which the filter itself has been removed and replaced with whole leaf hops!

My home brew buddy is one of the hop extremophiles that seem to permeate the fringes of our community in search of that beer that will finally put an end to the ability to taste anything ever again. But bitterness for bitterness sake is not art or craft. When it comes to beer, excess is easy. Balance, like comic timing, is hard! Whether people realize it or not, the best and most popular IPA's (insert double, triple, imperial or stoopid hoppy here if you prefer) are the ones that find that balance between bitterness, hop flavor, hop aroma, and residual malty sweetness. This takes talent and imagination and the finer honed knowledge of the manufacture of beer that is often referred to as experience.

There are so many ways hops can be added to beer: mash addition, first wort hopping, start of boil addition (bittering), flavor and aroma hop addition, whirlpool, hop back, dry hopping, even wet hopping. Some brewers even package with cured whole leaf or fresh hops in the container! Every form has very different effects on the flavor profile of the beer. Not to mention the importance of water chemistry on the uptake of bitterness, flavor, and aroma. I see it as four components: bitterness, flavor, aroma and spicing or seasoning. (I also don't think hops should boil more than 90 minutes so as to avoid one of the ways to get that unpleasant vegetal flavor and aroma, but that's just my old school thinking shining through).

The truly talented brewers will either design or stumble across, through repetitive experimentation, a way to strike a balance with all the forms of hopping to attain a truly balanced beer, utilizing the best attributes of every form they choose. Instead of hops merely being a way to balance residual sweetness and adding longevity to the shelf life, as it was at the inception of their use in beer (starting some 1100 years ago and becoming ubiquitous some 500 years later), hops are being used to define beer, to elevate hops in beer to a level that has previously never been attained.

But we must temper our quest for ever-increasing IBU's and remember the other uses that we know exist.

Personally, I've always preferred the flavor and aroma of hops over the straight palate- crushing early hop addition bitterness. (Yes, many an IPA has been referred to as a palate destroyer. I think there are at least a couple that actually bear that distinction by name). I also love the way an excessively hopped beer of strong ABV ages and changes with wonderful oxidative qualities. This whole hop thing is far more complicated than merely having over-hopped unbalanced beer or an IPA that barely has the IBU's of a moderate pale ale.

Hops are a multi-edged sword that must be wielded with care, lest you get cut in the process. Any good lexicon of beer should necessarily be a spectrum of beer including the entry-level beer that, alas, has almost no hops in it.

The facts are that we should not be stuck in a rut. We need to explore the use of hops for the betterment of craft beer, not simply beat people over the head with them. We need to be sure to include all types of beer drinkers when it comes to the business of craft beer. If we want a bigger chunk of the pie without taking customers from each other, then we should certainly close off no avenues to success.

Whether you are a home brewer, taproom, brewpub, multi-location, nano, micro, regional, macro, or an emerging national brand, having a broad appeal is a good thing. Brewpubs pretty much get to do what they want because they deal with a smaller sample of the available set of people willing to try new and adventurous brews. As you expand, you need to appeal to a larger and ever growing cross section of that set.

Throw a couple of training-wheel beers out there to get them in through the door, then slowly wean them off the mainstream beer. This however takes baby steps.

Bring them into the fold, don't leave them out in the cold.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.

Continue the Discussion