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TPFFor reasons known only to God and the little man in Nebraska who runs the internet, a post from 2013, from one of my favorite general interest websites, Slate.com, suddenly rose from the dead and dragged its putrid corpse back into wide readership. The post  –  entitled “Against Hoppy Beer: The craft beer industry’s love affair with hops is alienating people who don’t like bitter brews.” (and which seems to have another sub-head, contained in the link: hoppy beer is awful or at least its bitterness is ruining craft beer’s reputation“) was written by a woman named Adrienne So, a young writer from Portland, Oregon, who appears to be about 30-something and whose Slate oeuvre consists of two articles on beer, out of maybe 20 total. She writes about a wide range of subjects and, as her resume says, “pitches” articles to a list of editors, which basically means that, when she gets something to say, she uses it as a way to get assignments. And, of course, the way that the publications gauge the effectiveness of a writer is to count the number of clicks and/or page hits that the post generates.

Most writers find out, very quickly, that saying provocative things online is the best way to maximize your click-rate. Stir things up. Sow controversy. And what better way to do that, in writing about a subject as passionately held as craft beer, than to call the vast masses of American craft beer fans – those people who have driven craft beer into a cultural phenomenon unlike anything seen since the early days of soda pop – addicts…addicts who are basically killing craft brewing with our mindless obsession and addiction to…hops

hopworks-urbanMs. So began her rantlet by telling the sad tale of how she and her hubs took a visiting friend from craft-beer-challenged state of Tennessee to Hopworks Urban Brewery – a company which advertises its aesthetic leanings right there in the first syllable of its name – and had the poor man push back his Hopworks “Velvet” ESB (which, for the uninitiated, means “Extra Special Bitter”, a British style of beer based on extra additions of – you guessed it – hops) and say that it was just too darned hoppy for him. Let’s set aside that HUB has a splendid Pilsner, Hopworks Lager, that would have been – as an actual beer writer should have known – a far better choice for a craft newbie whose hops tolerance is unknown. Giving the poor sap an ESB virtually guarantees that it will be too much for him. And…whose fault is that? “Craft enthusiasts”? I think not…Adrienne.

Instead of maybe, I dunno, like, asking the brewer or manager to recommend something less overtly hoppy, Ms. So’s conclusion was this:

From the slate.com post:  “That’s when I realized that I had a problem. In fact, everyone I know in the craft beer industry has a problem: We’re so addicted to hops that we don’t even notice them anymore.

Not that there are regional stylistic differences between a craft beer culture like Portland, arguably the nation’s hotbed of intense beers, and Tennessee, which is just barely developing a craft beer culture, but that “we’re so addicted to hops that we don’t even notice them, anymore.

Hopworks Lager: every bit as light and refreshing as it looks/64bottlesofbeeronthewall.files.wordpress.com

Hopworks Lager: every bit as light and refreshing as it looks/Photo by 64bottlesofbeeronthewall.files.wordpress.com

Out of all the small universe of possible conclusions to reach about what must have been a bit embarrassing for she and her husband, the one she reached was not that, oh, maybe her guest just hasn’t had a lot of experience with hoppy beers or even that maybe, fundamentally, he’s just a big ol’ wimp. She also (conveniently) ignored the far more likely  idea that a woman who calls herself a “beer writer” took her pal from a state like Tennessee, very much a part of the much milder Eastern IPA stylistic community, to a brewery that she should know damned well is very much All About Hops. No blame here for Ms.So and her highly questionable social and brewing awareness. No, it’s WE, the craft beer community, who are so inured to bitterness that we can no longer distinguish between a beer that’s overtly bitter and one that isn’t. THAT is what’s to blame for her social awkwardness. In essence, to Adrienne So, we are all brain-dead zombies who mindlessly chug anything put in front of us. Her big idea to solve this unseemly character flaw?

So here’s my plea to my fellow craft beer enthusiasts: Give it a rest. Let’s talk about the differences between wild and cultivated lab yeast, and the weird and wonderful flavors that are created when brewers start scouring nearby trees or flowers or even their own beards for new strains. Let’s geek out about local, craft-malted barley and how it compares to traditional imported European malts. And let’s start preaching a new word: Craft beer isn’t always bitter.

Where would we all be without you guiding us, Adrienne?

Victory Brewing "Prima Pils"

Victory Brewing “Prima Pils”

My first reaction to anybody’s assertion that I do or think or like or ignore pretty much anything is almost always that I should decide what I’m interested in doing and that you should do the same and never that little twain should meet. I, for one craft beer fan, really don’t require guidance from Ms. So and her offended sensibilities. I’ve been an adult with my own tastes for about 25 years longer than she’s been alive and I kinda like it that way. And, as I and millions of other craft fans have discovered, it’s quite possible to geek out over hops AND geek out over all that stuff she suggested. It’s called “being well-rounded“. It’s called “thinking“, as opposed to obeying your first knee-jerk reaction. Why Ms. So thinks she’s the only practitioner of this, well, that escapes me.

Whether anyone likes it or not, hops are here to stay. MILLIONS of craft beer fans LOVE hoppy beers. IPA is the #1 beer style in the US and it is NOT happening just to spite less adventurous beer drinkers.

“Ruining craft beer”? REALLY? How? Is anybody being forced to drink hoppy beers? Isn’t the selection process for beer the same as it is for anything else? Don’t you ask about what the beer tastes like, get a few viewpoints, try it, and if you don’t like it, maybe never order it again? It is categorically UNTRUE that all craft beers are hops-forward, even here in the hops-centric Northwest. There is a real, legit – if rather small, as yet – movement back toward German and Austrian beer styles: Pilsners, Alts, Berlinerweisse, Kellerweiss, Vienna Lagers, Bavarian Lagers, NONE of which is excessively hoppy. (Photos of some of these low-hop/high flavor lagers appear on this page) Many, MANY Pales and Scotch ales and Ambers are VERY mellow and edgeless.

Chuckanut Pilsner: Possibly America's Best Pilsner

Chuckanut Pilsner: Possibly America’s Best Pilsner

Possibly because craft brewing is in its relative childhood or maybe teenage years, posts like this one from Adrienne So grow legs and become internet behemoths. In wine and whiskey, to use two examples, similar debates have been going on for a century and have lost most of their steam. Most wine lovers have already made their peace with what are sometimes called “excesses”:  forward fruit, excessive tannins, lavish oak, over-extraction, terroir, etc., etc., etc. Craft beer fans have this new controversy in their teeth and are shaking it like the family dog gnawing down on a slipper. Have none of us ever stopped into some winery where we just didn’t like the wines – too tannic, too fruity, too extracted, etc. – and then left and said, “Well, live and learn. Won’t be going back there again” ? I don’t read windy online screeds about how big fruit or extraction or tannins are “ruining wine“. If anybody can’t find beers that suit them in this age in which we have over 3,000 working breweries in the US, I submit it’s because they’re A) too lazy to do any research into what they might find, B) so over-entitled that they feel that any old brewery they walk into should cater to their tastes, or C) maybe shouldn’t be drinking craft beer, in the first place. Bud, Miller, Coors, etc., my own rantings not withstanding, DO have a legitimate audience – those who don’t care for beers with intensity.

Responding to a repost on Facebook, I got this reply:

“...I think the essence of the article is simply that the excessively hoppy beers are getting so much attention and shelf space that if someone were very new to the beer/craft beer movement, they might be put off by the style and flavor profile and decide they aren’t fans of beer overall.

Airways Brewing "Pre-Flight" Pilsner: 2014 GABF Silver Medal Winner

Airways Brewing “Pre-Flight” Pilsner: 2014 GABF GOLD Medal Winner

“Excessively hoppy beers” get all that attention and shelf space because they’re popular and they’re the beers that most people want. IPA is the most popular beer category in the US, rivaled only by winter seasonals, many of which are also very hoppy. I can just as easily make an argument that craft beer is MOSTLY about hops; started with the idea that all those watery, insipid, virtually hopless adjunct Pilsners that we all habitually drank for 100 years were just not cutting it anymore. From the very beginning of craft beer, at New Albion in Sonoma in 1976, craft beers have shown vastly more hops presence than all the faux-Germanic styles that were really our ONLY American beers for over a century. Craft beer has always been about hops and, as consumers have continued to ask for more and more hoppy beers during craft’s titanic boom, brewers have obliged them.

Adrienne So

Adrienne So

I know for a fact, from my own experiences and what brewers have told me repeatedly, that there has always been a very small percentage of taproom customers who didn’t want extreme hops, and said so. But, what should a growing brewery do, cater to that tiny percentage and roll back the hops…or satisfy the majority of their customer base? The usual solution is for the brewery to produce one or two milder beers, for all those friends of the IPA drinkers who are not yet conversant with hops. The ONE and ONLY thing that ALL breweries have in common is that they need to sell beer to stay open. If a lot of customers were already asking for less hoppy beers, this Slate piece would never have been written because school marm and her friend would have had a quiet, enjoyable evening and gone home satisfied. The simple fact is that what alarmists like Ms. So are really complaining about is that they had an evening at a brewery that went awry and they’re casting about for someone to blame, instead of assigning the blame where it properly belongs: with themselves. What sort of monumental ego does it take to believe that brewers should roll back what their customers want most, just because it didn’t satisfy your house guest or because you don’t like it? Apparently, Ms. So believes that she is the only one among the entire beer-drinking community who is sufficiently enlightened to see that we’re so “addicted” to hops that we just mindlessly swill any old thing, as long as it’s bitter enough. This begs the question of why some hoppy beers sell better than others and why certain breweries are big hits and other languish in relative obscurity, but why ruin a good rant with something as messy and contradictory as logic? In a desperate effort to prove whatever her nebulous “point” is, she also drags out one of the most completely discredited falsehoods ever whipped up to validate Hops Avoidance: that past 60 IBUs, our palate can’t  distinguish any differences in the beers…which is instantly disproved with two seconds of A-B beer tasting of Imperial/Double IPAs. She attributes this conclusion to “beer judges”. After emailing with four prominent competition judges today, the responses ranged from “LOL” to “what a bonehead“. (I cleaned that up a bit.)

North Coast Brewing "Scrimshaw" Pilsner

North Coast Brewing “Scrimshaw” Pilsner

If people were actually being shut out of the great world of beer, I’d be a lot more sympathetic, but what I’ve written over and over again about people who don’t want hoppy beers and aren’t resourceful enough to go to a brewery that makes a good Pilsner or Pale or Scottish or Lager is exactly true: they already have a world of beers to choose from. BudMillerCoorsPabst, etc., etc., etc. are all guaranteed never to challenge anyone’s palate with any outsized flavors. That is the purpose of those beers and always was. What all the whining is about is that these disenchanted ones don’t like hops and they feel that they’re being deprived a seat at what they (ridiculously) see as The Cool Kids’ Table, a place within the craft beer universe, where all their friends and family and acquaintances go and socialize and be thought of as current and “with it” and help create a wonderful, fun, engrossing culture that they can’t figure a way into. It’s simple-minded nonsense. I work in this business 24/7/365 and visit breweries constantly and I know of MAYBE ten total breweries in any given region that have no options for people who prefer less hoppy beers. If someone can’t take enough personal responsibility to ASK for a Pilsner or English Mild or Vienna Lager or Kellerweiss or maybe a Belgian or fruit beer or another style that’s not so hops-forward, and can’t even take the fairly modest hoppiness that craft brewers put into their milder beers, then – tough love time – maybe craft brewing is just not for those people. Maybe they’re the proper audience for those traditionally mild, inoffensive American Pilsners, and there’s not a damned thing wrong with that. Ultimately, the author’s grumbling and her obvious sense of entitlement are misplaced: her friend who wanted to explore craft beer  is at least partially to blame. Do you walk into a local cafe in Bangkok or Moscow or Bogota, serving traditional foods of that culture, and complain because it’s too spicy or weird or not like your Mom made? If you’re so closed off to new experiences, I know for a fact that there are about a million other things one can do in Portland, OR, that don’t involve craft beer. Adrienne So took her friend to a brewery called HOPWORKS, and the beers were too hoppy? Imagine that! What did the visitor think he would find there, Budweiser clones?

Full Sail LTD #3: Fabulous light lager

Full Sail LTD #3: Fabulous light lager

This silly little post has had legs only because it’s in Slate, which even I like a lot, and there are a lot of people who feel excluded from craft beer because they want less hops. My advice to those folks is to spend less time crabbing about it on the internet and actually do something that could produce results they want, rather than this sort of feckless ranting:  GO, get off the couch, visit your local craft brewery, take every friend you have who also wants milder, less hoppy beers with you, and TALK with the brewer. Tell him or her what your problem is with hops. I BETCHA they already have a beer that would suit you and, if not, and they get that kind of feedback often enough, I PROMISE YOU, they WILL brew something that works for you. But, as someone who worked for 30 years as a chef and heard constant whining from entitled vegans who felt that my menu should be mostly vegan because “it’s the wave of the future, dude“, I can tell you that there are a lot of people out there who would rather whine and fume about some perceived problem, rather than actually try to DO something about it. When the numbers of people who don’t like hops even remotely begin to be a significant percentage of a brewery’s taproom business, you’ll see more mild beers, routinely and without having to ask. But the Hops-Challenged minority is in for a rough life if they think that hops are just a fad or some youthful phase that craft brewing will soon grow out of. Yes, the IPA will evolve and take new shapes…but if Ms. So’s pal thought Hopworks Velvet ESB, with its mellow mildness and a very modest 30 IBU was “just too hoppy for me”, even a prolific swing towards milder beers is not likely to solve that problem. Someday, maybe craft brewers will become fascinated by malts or some new, exciting form of yeasts and hops will recede a bit into the background. Until then, these breweries are doing what their customers want and silly posts like Ms. So’s will have ZERO effect..

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One thought on “The Slate.com “Against Hoppy Beer” Debate: A Whine That’s Aging VERY Badly

  1. Pingback: Professor Good Ales » Post Topic » The Slate.com “Against Hoppy Beer” Debate: A Whine That’s Aging VERY Badly

Speak yer piece, Pilgrim.

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