A few weeks back, I was sitting in the tasting room at Device Brewing and, unbeknownst to me, became party to what’s become the scourge of the craft beer industry.
The room was loud and lively. There was a line that stretched the length of the bar and out into the parking lot. In the queue were mostly unsophisticated beer bros who covet hoppy beer – really hoppy beer that’s dreadful to drink and impossible to enjoy.
Dope that I am, I had a very hoppy beer, followed by a mildly hoppy beer, and I was impressed with the skill with which these assertively flavored but balanced beers were crafted. Judging from the crowd, so were many others.
But you wouldn’t think that if you just finished reading “Against Hoppy Beer,” an article on Slate.com by Adrienne So. Written in 2013, it argued that the relentless “hop arms race” has left some potential craft beer consumers feeling alienated and, well, embittered. The article resurfaced recently on social media and has been much discussed by beer nerds then and now. By 2016 standards, it’s a position that no longer seems relevant for a number of reasons. Let me list three:
1. Not everyone who dislikes hoppy beer is right. You actually have to learn to enjoy bitter things, whether it’s olive oil, coffee or pale ales. You have to invest some time and work up to it. Train and educate your palate. A couple of sips and then rejection? That’s not giving it a fair shake. If you still don’t like hoppy beer, you’re not alone and you’re not wrong.
2. Craft beer continues to grow in popularity. Since 2013, when the industry was much more closely identified with all-hops all-the-time, there is more nuance and diversity than ever. Still, the top-selling craft beer in America is the India pale ale, usually loaded with hops and scoring high on the International Bittering Units (IBU) scale. Pliny the Elder is a double IPA. It’s extra hoppy and extra popular. Stone just opened a brewery in Berlin to cater to the great international demand for the West Coast-style (hoppy) IPAs.
Is there bad beer – over-hopped and out of whack? Of course. It deserves to lose out to good beer. Rather than losing their ability to taste hops, beer geeks are looking for more hop varieties and enjoy comparing and contrasting different hop characteristics. Witness the rise of Mosaic hops and the strikingly different hops from New Zealand.
3. Craft beer may be led by hoppy beers, but it is bolstered by an incredible variety of style options. Go to Capitol Beer & Taproom, Final Gravity, University of Beer, LowBrau or Pangaea and check out the menu boards. There are so many styles, so much creativity, so many hoppy and non-hoppy options these days that you simply can’t keep up. Was that beer too hoppy for you? Order something else.
You’ll be able to do just that at Claimstake Brewing. Who? Formerly Argonaut Brewing, it’s a Sacramento brewery that’s about to open. What will be Claimstake’s style? “We plan on going with a public approach, using our customer base and innovation as our motivation,” co-owner/brewmaster Brian Palmer told me. “We want to brew what the customer asks for rather than brew what we feel like they should drink.” In other words, if customers are coveting oatmeal stouts, coffee porters, Belgian farmhouse ales or Hefeweizens, that’s what Claimstake will give them.
I asked two of the Sacramento area’s best brewers to give me their reactions to the Slate piece, realizing that the landscape is much different than nearly three years ago. Ken Anthony of Device and Jeremy Warren, the founder of Knee Deep who moved on to start Revision Brewing (expected to open in West Sacramento in the months to come), are both known for their hoppy beers.
Anthony: “There are things I totally agree with. It isn’t all about hops. To only focus on hops is to miss out on a lot of great assets of beer. At Device, we brew a number of beers that are not hop-forward. I really enjoy drinking a well-made Helles or Pilsner because I don’t always want a big, hoppy, aromatic smack-you-in-the-face beer. The hops arms race is a very real thing. When looking ahead at hop futures, at contracting opportunities, all of the hops that are hot right now are mostly sold out for the next four to six years. That tells me that those hops are going to get over-done and those marquee hops are going to get tiresome because not everyone is going to do them well.”
Warren: “The article has some accurate points and some inaccurate points. Hops are a really good thing for the industry, but there’s a real art to using them and and some of the breweries aren't using hops the right way. There are a lot of new breweries I can’t go to because they’re not brewing good beer. It’s getting worse and worse, but over time it will weed itself out.”