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The Pursuit of Hoppiness

Posted on  | April 22, 2015   Bookmark and Share
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Understanding hops is key to selling beer today.

From Budweiser’s American lager to English pale ales and Belgian tripels, hops—perhaps more than any other ingredient—impact the personality or underlying character of a beer. They help to balance the perceived sweetness or maltiness of the grains used, as well as to provide components such as bitterness and acidity as well as distinctive flavors and aromas. The type(s) of hops, and how they are utilized over the course of the brewing and maturation process, influence a beer’s ultimate style and overall intensity, with mild lagers and heady IPAs (India Pale Ales) at opposite ends of the hoppy spectrum.

Flavorful and at times even aggressive, hoppy beer has developed into a signature of the U.S. craft beer industry. Liberal utilization of new world hop varieties in the last quarter of the 20th century led to widespread brewing innovation. IPAs were the most evident emblem of the hop boom, but craft brewers readily tinkered with the hop profiles of nearly every style of beer.

In the hands of craft brewers, hops became a focal point—a way to make a statement. Craft beer has pushed hops into the center of beer conversations, so to sell beer these days, you need an understanding of how hops work, and how to communicate about hops to customers.

A Quest for Hops

During the United States’ Prohibition Era, the brewing industry all but disappeared.  The surviving industrial breweries responded to a growing consumer base which favored sweet rather than bitter. Thus “light American lager” was born—a beer style characterized by the addition of corn or rice, lightening a beer’s body while also producing a mild and sweet flavor. Reminiscent of Czech lagers such as Pilsner Urquell, light American lagers dominated the industry for decades.

The legalization of homebrewing and emergence of microbreweries in the late 1970s accelerated experimentation. Brewers redefined the IPA, originally a British beer brewed for export to India, by using American hops, resulting in the more floral and citrusy American IPA. Excited by the bolder and stronger flavors of American hops, they didn’t stop there.

The craft beer movement gained momentum through the 1990s, and craft breweries across the country began producing Imperial IPAs. Whereas IPAs averaged 5%-6% ABV, Imperial IPAs sometimes saw 8% or even 9% ABV. In order to balance such a forceful brew, brewers had to increase the amount of hops. Bitterness increased, and more aggressive hop flavors were used to balance the alcohol and increased
malt flavors.

Not long after the Imperial IPA was introduced, craft breweries began experimenting with bold American hop flavors in other beer styles. Modeled after traditional Belgian styles, Belgian and White IPAs (such as Green Flash’s Le Freak and Harpoon’s Long Thaw White IPA) combine American hoppiness with traditional Belgian yeast flavors. Stouts and porters, which already contain the amount of hops necessary to achieve a balance with roasted malt, inspired Black IPAs like Stone Brewing Company’s Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale. In this case, small additions of roasted malt provide an IPA with the color of a porter and a hint of a dark beer’s depth.

But are brewers and consumers alike beginning to tire of the ubiquity of hoppy beer? Like the baseball card collectors of my father’s era, many hopheads will still clamor to find the newest releases, but many enthusiasts have moved on to less hoppy styles such as sour ales and saisons. Additionally, some beer drinkers still, no matter how many times they have tried, do not like hoppy beer.

Selling hoppily

Step one in using hops as a reference point when selling beer is knowing where various types of beer fit on the general hoppiness spectrum (see box below). Most lagers, saisons, ambers, porters and stouts have a low perceived hoppiness, while pale ales and English bitters have a bit more. IPAs tend to reside at the top of the threshold for perceived hoppiness.

Knowing which hop varieties are used—information which is becoming increasingly easier to find—can help dial in on more nuanced distinctions. Just as a sommelier would probe for a diner’s wine likes and dislikes, servers and retailers should similarly engage their patrons who prefer beer. Hoppiness is not as simple as it seems. Do they want bitterness? Do they like or dislike herbal and earthy flavors? Citrus and pine? Pineapple and passion fruit? Prodding with a few more descriptors can help steer the customer in the right direction.

Not all hoppy beer is expensive and made at a craft brewery. Macrobrewing staples such as MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch own their fair share of hoppy brands. Oftentimes, these brands are more accessible to the average palate, cheaper and easier to market. Third Shift Session IPA (MillerCoors), Goose Island’s India Pale Ale (Anheuser-Busch), and Magic Hat’s Dream Machine India Pale Lager (North American Breweries) are all examples. As of Q1 2015, Anheuser-Busch acquired Seattle’s Elysian Brewing Co., a popular craft brewery which produces a healthy lineup of hop-driven IPAs.

Celebrating the diversity of beer is a great way to promote its sales. Modern beer drinkers tend not to be especially brand loyal, so pinpointing and acting on personal tastes—which hops are which flavors, bitter or not—is a surefire way of redefining a beer section and capturing (and engaging) beer drinkers. 


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