Hops Are Not a Problem

Yesterday Portlander Adrienne So penned a provocative piece in Slate called Against Hoppy Beer.  It created a predictable amount of hubbub on the intertubes and didn't seem to warrant a post from me, so I Facebooked it, whereupon a debate broke out.  The issue is nicely summed up by a slugline to the Slate piece is "the craft beer industry’s love affair with hops is alienating people who don’t like bitter brews."  Well, is it? So, arguing for the prosecution, offers this evidence:
Thanks in part to Grossman’s pioneering influence, the pale ale, and its hoppier sister, the India pale ale, grew massively in popularity. (Today they’re the third-best- and best-selling craft beer styles in the country, respectively.) 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....
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; the hops are added on eight separate occasions during the brewing process.
With respect to Adrienne (and Alan, who defended the position on Facebook): hogwash.  This is one of those cases of the beer geek mistaking the bubble for the world.  Most of the best-selling beers in the "craft" segment are all modest beers: Boston Lager, SN Pale, Fat Tire, Blue Moon (which to the average consumer is a craft brand), Widmer Hefeweizen.  Those beers alone account for something like four million barrels of production--something on the order of a fifth to a quarter of the entire segment, depending on how you characterize it.  Add to that the ton of wheats that sell like hotcakes (Oberon, Gumballhead, 312, Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat) and you're taking another big chunk of the market.  To think that the craft market is awash in only the Plinys and Lagunitases, you have to live in ... Portland.

Three other quick points and then I'll knock it off:
  • Bitterness is relative.  Adrienne begins by using mass market lagers as her baseline and notes that SN Pale was "one of the hoppiest beers of its time."  But that's only because at the time there were no other types of beer in the US.  A 37 BU beer isn't going to shock residents of Britain or even Germany.  That it shocked Americans was a testament to our debased state at the time, not Pale's hoppiness.  What humans consider normal changes over time.  Sometimes we like beers quite hoppy, sometimes we don't.  There is no Platonic ideal for the "right" amount of hoppiness, so it's impossible to norm it out.  (So's story begins with a Kentuckian shocked at 30 BU Hopworks Velvet English.  Ask yourself: who's out of step with hopping levels in this story?  If your baseline is Bud Light, 30 IBUs are shocking--but there's no world in which Bud Light should be the baseline for anything.)  Also, as a technical point, 60 BUs is nowhere near the threshold of human perception, and there's the further issue of the density of the beer.  A 60 BU barley wine is no hop titan.
  • Hoppiness isn't just bitterness.  Hop flavor and aroma can be intense, and when we say "hoppy," sometimes we don't mean bitter.  I wouldn't be surprised if the Kentuckian in the story was just shocked at the type of beer he was served.  Americans are making more richly layered, hop-forward--but not necessarily bitter--beers.  Recently I've heard young beer fans describe IPAs and pales not as bitter, but "sweet"--so rich are they in the fruit flavors of modern hops.  We have to define our terms.
  • Regions have different styles.  You could easily go to Brussels, order up that unpronounceable "gueuze" thing and declare it "too tart."  You could go to India and declare the food "too spicy."  These are preferences, not, again, some kind of measure against a Platonic ideal.  The United States appears to be developing a taste for hops, and I believe we may one day find ourselves with a hop-centric brewing tradition.  It's way too early to make that case now.  The opposite is true.  We are the most style-promiscuous country in the world, probably in the history of the world.  
 If you look around you and all you see are ultra hoppy triple IPAs and imperialized whatevers, you're very deep in the beer geek bubble.  In most of America, a surfeit of hops is not yet the central problem confronting beer culture.