It’s time we strike the word “hoppy” from our collective beer lexicon. The word has become a crutch, a way for some to find the most aggressive IPA on the shelf and for others to avoid an overly bitter beer. But in truth, the word “hoppy” doesn’t mean much at all. With few exceptions, all beers contain hops. And the tiny cones pack a wider spectrum of flavors than most of us give them credit for.
“We like to think of ‘hoppy’ as more about flavor and aroma than bitterness,” explains Steve Sloan, of Roundabout Brewery. “A very small percentage of the hops we use are for bitterness.” At his Lawrenceville brewery, Sloan concocts beers like Hy-PA and Pacific Ring, IPAs that are big on juicy, tropical flavors and surprisingly low on bitterness. This is largely thanks to the way Sloan and his team use the hops. Though hops added early in the brewing process release more alpha acids (the compounds responsible for bitterness), later additions of hops contribute an astounding range of delicate flavors and aromas.
Those profiles will vary depending on the specific hop varietal. In recent years, hundreds of new and experimental hops have flooded the market, with more coming all the time. “Every hop brings something different to the table,” says Kyle Mientkiewicz, head brewer at Millvale’s Grist House Craft Brewery. Japan’s Sorachi Ace hop, for instance, smacks of lemon and dill, while Germany’s Mandarina Bavaria bursts with (you guessed it) fresh Mandarin oranges.
Brewers occasionally create single-hopped beers — useful tools for highlighting and educating about a particular varietal. Generally, however, brewers combine multiple hop varieties in the way a chef might blend spices, pulling different characteristics from each hop to achieve complex layers of flavor. Sloan, for instance, often marries hops from the U.S. and New Zealand to develop his distinctive, dangerously drinkable IPAs.
Early on in craft brewing, brewers tried to outdo each other in creating the most resinous, dank and intensely bitter beers imaginable. These days, however, brewers embrace the full potential of the humble hop, using new varietals and nuanced techniques to create hop-forward beers that don’t wreck your palate. Mientkiewicz regularly includes Grist House’s summery Wheat Juice IPA on flights for even the most timid drinkers — only to have it become their favorite beer on the board.
Calling a beer “hoppy” might not be a bad place to start, but it begs further investigation. Do the hops bring citrus? Pineapple? Freshly cut grass? “When people say ‘I don’t like hoppy,’ I would translate that into ‘I don’t like astringently bitter beers,”’ says Mientkiewicz. “They don’t like old-school, strip-the-enamel-off-your-teeth IPAs.” If you’re one of those people, give hops another shot. With the amazing range of skill and creativity in today’s craft-brewing world, there might just be a “hoppy” beer for you.