American microbrewers: can they be saved from Hopsessive/Compulsive Disorder?

I love microbrew. Ask any of my friends and they’ll tell you that I’m a proud beer snob and have been since first moving to Boulder in 1993. Colorado, along with states like Oregon and California, led the micro revolution in the ’90s and when I landed here I was absolutely staggered by the number and quality of local beers available to me. The state continues to be one of the the nation’s brewing leaders, with Denver/Boulder (as you’d expect) being at the epicenter. Some interesting facts:

  • Denver ranks first in the nation in per capita beer production.
  • Denver is second in the nation in number of total breweries in a city.
  • Denver is third in the nation in volume of brewpubs and craft breweries.
  • In all, there are roughly 100 breweries statewide, the majority of which are found in Denver.
  • In 2007, Colorado was named the nation’s top beer-producing state, surpassing California.

These days I’m even an SMS beer reviewer, which is to say that I actually get paid to produce reviews and trivia items. Which is nice. (It also means that, in theory, I should be able to deduct my beer expenses on my taxes, although I haven’t tried that one yet.)

ABInBev isn’t in danger of going out of business, but what I see around me tells me that I’m not the only guy who’s crazy about craft beer. A lot of us love beer that’s handcrafted, unique, original and innovative. There’s simply not much the big industrial brewers can do to match the passion and quality of smaller-batch beers from around the country. Even when they roll out a faux-micro brand, like Blue Moon, Shock Top or Land Shark, the results usually taste like exactly what you’d expect from a big-ass macrobrewer trying to cash in on something it doesn’t really understand.

Despite the explosion of microbrewed wonderfulness sweeping the country, there’s a disturbing trend that needs talking about: a runaway obsession with hops. American brewers have always been partial to India Pales, English Pales, American Pales, Extra Pales – sometimes-light and sometimes-bold, always driven by the hops. And that’s great. Some of my friends love hoppy beers and what I see when I go to Argonaut or Liquor Mart or to the little store in my neighborhood, the surprisingly well-stocked Highlands Wine & Liquor, or to just about any brewpub or bar in Colorado indicates that hop-heads are a solid majority. Sometimes I walk into a pub and see that the place has as many three pale styles on the menu (and a taste of their Amber often reveals that it’s actually an American Pale in disguise). This isn’t the ideal situation for me personally, since I’m really not a hop-head. Most of my favorites lie decidedly to the malty side (during warm weather I usually prefer Weizens of one stripe or another and my current specialty beer explorations are taking on every Sour and Saison I can lay my hands on). Still, this isn’t a big issue – I can find something I like most of the time (most, not all), and if I can’t I can always go someplace else where they cater more to my preferences.

Lately, though, we’re seeing a couple of problems. First, too many brewmasters with no imagination. So many new offerings come off like little more than an exercise in “let’s see how many more hops we can stuff in a bottle.” The result: less character, less originality, less everything except blinding hop bitterness.

The second issue, and the worse one by far, is that now they’re starting to mess with other styles. At various times in the past two or three years I’ve ordered brews that are, by definition, maltier balance styles, only to have the first taste hit me like a firehose pumping raw hop-water. I’m talking about Irish Reds, Browns, Porters, Scotch Ales, Winter Warmers, Ambers and a wide variety of winter seasonals. (I’d also include Barley Wines in here, with a caveat. The style definitions allow for hoppy variants, although in practice they have traditionally been very malty and sweet. So if you’re heading over to the other end of the spectrum, please, a heads-up on the menu would be appreciated.)

What’s worse is when I specifically ask the bartender or waiter or the clerk at the liquor store and am told no, this isn’t hoppy when it is. In a pub this is no big deal – the taster hasn’t cost me any money. But you can’t get a sample in a store. If anybody wants the rest of this six of Deschutes Jubelale let me know. Otherwise I’m pouring it down the sink.

To be clear, again, this is not a rant against hops. Here’s my review, from last year, of a popular hoppy beer made by a brewer that specializes in hops:

BEER: Stone Brewing Co. Arrogant Bastard Ale, CA. HUGE hops, strong citrus notes. Rich, assertive hoppy boot to the face. Like hops? A+. Otherwise stay clear.

Those who know me have also heard me rave about Dogfish Head’s 90-Minute IPA, which I have gone so far as to rank as one of America’s absolute best beers. My review of it gave it an A+ (or an A++ – I can’t remember for certain). I frequently provide my readers with takes on a variety of Pales and I try to be honest and thoughtful, even though those aren’t in my wheelhouse.

It’s simply a question of truth in advertising. When I order a Nut Brown or a holiday seasonal, I expect that the brewmaster knows at least as much about what goes into the recipe as I do. Preferably lots more. If I order a Porter and get a Pale, I’m upset. If you, as a hop fanatic, order a Double IPA and get a stout, you have every right to be annoyed, too.

My plea to America’s brewmasters is simple. First, emphasize subtlety, elegance and quality. More hops isn’t creativity and it isn’t craftsmanship, it’s evidence that you have run out of both. Take your cues from the likes of Dogfish Head and Russian River, who manage daily to distinguish between more and better.

Second, if you want to brew a Pale, do so. If you want to whip up a special batch of something neat and different for the holidays, go for it. But don’t bait and switch me. Call it what it is. If it’s an extra hoppy IPA, cool. And if you’re being innovative and what you’re doing doesn’t actually fit in any of the established categories, by gods make up a new category name and slap it on the bottle or tap handle. Just so long as I know what I’m getting before I gag and spew it out my nose.

Finally, I’m going to call out a recent (and egregious) offender by name. While on vacation in North Carolina over the holidays I picked up a pack of Oatmeal Porter from Highland Brewing Company in Asheville. I was never overly impressed by Highland when I lived in NC, but that’s been five years and things change. Also, they seem to be doing well, which means a lot of others like their products. An Oatmeal Porter sounded good. So I gave them a shot.

[sigh]

This item will be included in my SMS beer review for February: [UPDATED: this item has been softened a bit after reflecting on comment #1 below.]

BEER: Highland Brewing Oatmeal Porter. Another brewmaster who thinks more hops is the answer to everything. Not really a Porter – an IPA in disguise. Avoid.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, here’s hoping everybody finds something they love to drink. NFL playoff season is afoot, basketball is under way and we’re into the meat of the Premiership, FA Cup and Champion’s League chases. I’d hate to face all those sports thirsty….

22 comments on “American microbrewers: can they be saved from Hopsessive/Compulsive Disorder?

  1. You make some interesting points. Two or more years ago, I would have agreed with many of them. Today, however, I really couldn’t disagree more. Brewers continue to use hops, sometimes in great quantities, but are doing much more than making more bitter beers.

    First, brewers ARE “messing” with styles, but they are generally up-front with their experimentation. Confusing consumers and creating mismatched expectations doesn’t gain them any fans, and it certainly isn’t their aim. Black, Brown, Red and White IPAs are named such to express their hoppy character. If you are looking for an example of a traditional style, it seems clear that these beers don’t fit the bill.

    Second, more hops doesn’t necessarily mean more bitterness. One of the most prolific developments in the American craft beer scene in the past couple years, in my opinion, is the use of new hop varietals to contribute flavors and aromas not experienced before in beer. Many of my friends who “don’t like IPAs” have found new favorites in India Pale Ales made with hops that contribute flavors of tropical fruit, citrus and wine-like notes. If this is at all part of brewers’ obsession with hops, then I hope there’s no intervention anytime soon.

    In the specific case you mentioned, I’d like to point out that you tried Highland (with no S) Brewing Company’s Oatmeal Porter. Having had this beer many times, I find that flavors of coffee and bitter chocolate balance out the hops in the finish quite nicely. Of course, we all have different tastes, but before you declare the brewmaster an idiot: Were you expecting a deeper oatmeal stout instead? Was the beer served too cold to pick up some of the other notes? If not, then stand firmly by your opinion.

    Ultimately, a holiday seasonal has no rules…and beer styles are guidelines that allow all of us to hold a shared understanding about a beer, but style guidelines are not rules for brewers. The day brewers are required to follow “what goes into the recipe” is the day they stop creating beers and start jobs as line cooks.

    • Hi AJ, and thanks for the thoughtful comment. You clearly know your beer.

      I especially appreciate your observation on experimentation. I’m a HUGE fan of brewers who take an R&D approach to the process (I love Dogfish Head, even when I may not particularly care for a particular product, because they’re so willing to try things). I’m in love with a couple of the Crooked Stave Wild Wild Bretts and can’t wait to get my hands on the Green, which I’m told is the really hoppy one. I don’t expect to love it, but I really need to know first-hand how it tastes. And GABF this year was wonderful because I just kept tasting things that surprised the hell out of my taste buds (interestingly, a lot of sours this year).

      As for the Highland, no, I wasn’t expecting an Oatmeal Stout (although I love the style). I didn’t really get the balance you see in it, either – the dominant note from the first taste was hop and the malty elements were a lot more reserved than seemed appropriate. Now, two possibilities. First, you may be right about the temperature. This came out of the fridge, so it may have been a little colder than was ideal. Also, I’d like to see if my opinion changes with a draft pour. Bottles are never as good as draft.

      I probably ought to dial the “idiot” part out of my review, though. I was tracking the Twitter exchange that my post touched off and I think I’m just dealing with people whose meters are so calibrated to the hop side of the spectrum that this is how they think it ought to be (and they clearly LOVE hops). They didn’t regard that beer as being hardly hoppy at all, it seems, although I’ve tasted any number of pales (especially Americans) that were far milder on that point. To some extent they’re probably bearing the brunt of my frustration with literally dozens of brewers over the past couple of years. I can’t tell you how many times I have laid my money down and felt flat-out cheated.

      I hear you about the seasonals, and the last thing in hell I’m arguing is that brewmasters should follow the recipe in some kind of rigid traditionalist fashion. No, like I say above, I love experimentation. Just be straight with me about what I’m buying.

      Finally, thanks for the catch on the spelling. I live in Denver’s West Highlands neighborhood and sort of imposed our “s” on the brewery. I wish I could afford a copy editor…

    • Many of my friends who “don’t like IPAs” have found new favorites in India Pale Ales made with hops that contribute flavors of tropical fruit, citrus and wine-like notes.

      BTW, on this item, any recommendations? I’m always looking for new things to review.

  2. Pingback: On the Evils of Hops « Kevin's Real Beer Blog

  3. You clearly haven’t been to Revolution Brewing on the western slope of CO yet (http://www.revolution-brewing.com). I’m biased, of course, but Mike (brewmaster) focuses on quality first and refuses to overhop. Our award-winning IPA has been noted by many as drinkable because of its subtlety.

    Hope to catch you on our side of the divide some time.
    Cheers,
    Gretchen

    • Hi Gretchen. Actually, I’ve never even been to Paonia, but maybe I need to put you on the list. I know there’s a lot of microbrewing on the Western Slope (I’ve been to Gunnison Brewing a number of times as well as the place up in Crested Butte, and have sampled beers from a number of other breweries over there). I don’t think I’ve seen any of your stuff in stores around here, though.

  4. You’re right — we only distribute on the Western Slope right now, and only in kegs, since we’re working on keeping up with demand. We’ve just expanded and hope to can soon, however. For now, we’re a destination brewery, and there are many breweries out this way worthy of visiting if you get the opportunity. Hope to see you Sam!

  5. Man, I really need to write up my thoughts on this year’s GABF and my notes on all the beers I drank. IIRC, I tasted the Oatmeal Porter and found it too hoppy and almost entirely lacking in oatmeal flavor. Porters, IMO, should have a malty finish, not a hoppy one.

    I’m not an IPA guy because so many really hoppy beers seem to substitute bitter for flavor, but some of my favorite beers are hoppy, just not IPAs. And one of the best beers I’ve ever had is an IPA, namely Avery’s Maharaja IPA.

  6. @Samuel: I’m sure we have different regional breweries available to each of us, but to experience the different flavors and aromas that different hop varieties can contribute I would recommend Mikkeller’s series of Single Hop IPAs. Nelson Sauvin, Pacific Jade, and Galaxy hops are some of my favorite newer types and offer something very different than bitter and astringent.

    @Brian: I completely respect your personal tastes but with the hope that you can better find beers you like, I’d like to point out a couple things. First, oatmeal (in stouts or porters) isn’t used for flavor but for mouthfeel. Oats add a silky texture to the beer. Some examples of beers made with oatmeal may have been sweetened with lactose or flavored with any number of other things, but that flavor isn’t coming from the oatmeal. I asked Samuel if he was expecting an oatmeal stout, because this is an established style. Oatmeal porters, while they may be easy to find, aren’t a style that has established guidelines. Assuming an oatmeal porter is a brown porter or robust porter with oatmeal added to change the mouthfeel, up to a moderately high hop character (per BJCP: http://www.bjcp.org/2008styles/style12.php)

    Also, Avery’s Maharaja is an imperial or double IPA, which has more malt (and hops) and more resulting sweetness to balance out the bitterness of the hops. A great comparison to demonstrate this is Dogfish Head’s 60, 90, and 120 minute IPAs. The 60 Minute IPA is perceived as the most bitter, with the 120 minute (while containing the most hops) tasting the sweetest.

    • Thanks AJ. I wish to hell we could get NC beers out here in Colorado because there are some things there I love. Big fan of Red Oak (dating all the way back to when they were Spring Garden). Duck Rabbit used to have some great things, although it’s been awhile. And there are some new breweries there I haven’t had a chance to explore.

      Thanks for the recs. I travel on business a bit and may luck out and find myself in the vicinity of some of these suggestions.

    • My favorite oatmeal stouts have a flavor of oats. Or perhaps they have a flavor that I have always associated with oats because I don’t get that flavor with anything BUT an oatmeal stout. I’ll certainly grant that as a possibility.

      I’d never seen an oatmeal porter before the GABF this year, and the flavor was 180 degrees from what I expected. So far from what I expected, in fact, that I might not try another. To be fair, however, I should probably try it again as it was later in my tasting experience, so my palate wasn’t ideal at that point.

      I had the Dogfish 60 once and I couldn’t drink it – thankfully others around me were happy to finish mine. I’ve never had the 90 or the 120, however. I sometimes think that my tastes run funny, though, and certainly counter to the recent trend toward very hoppy and bitter beers – I prefer dark and malty beers, mostly porters and stouts. But I don’t mind a lot of hops if it’s not bitter, such as Hazed and Infused and Arrogant Bastard (which I thoroughly enjoy, but in small doses).

  7. So I’m a little late to the party. Someone once told me, “No one drinks beer for the flavor.” Well, I suppose that’s true if they’re drinking Bud or Miller or the latest bland invasion, Yuengling.

    I enjoyed the Avery references–we have a local grocery store, Heinen’s, that has a marvelous beer selection (lots of Avery regularly in stock, Stone, even the rare Brew Dog from Scotland). I concur with your comments about getting misled into hoppy territories. It’s really important to get some recommendations from people who understand the degrees and shadings of hoppiness, as well as the other qualities. My hat is off to Eric, my favorite beer guy at Heinen’s and Beaver, the best beer server at the Winking Lizard on Coventry.

  8. I love hops. I love the species/genus and its family is one of the narrowest and most interesting one’s in the plant kingdom. I love hoppy beers. IPAs are my standard and go to, ya know, because i like hops a lot.

    And yet i’m in total agreement with Sam. I’ve gotten to the point where i don’t like to try new beers very much because i’ve been hop-bitten one too many times. I’ve got my go-to’s and then i tend to shy away from American craft beer because of this and the fact that it too often feels like brewmasters are trying to do too much rather than doing something very well.

    But whatever, i only worked 11 hours today, i’m cracking open a Two Hearted Ale.

  9. Hi, I’m an English guy living in the US. I’ve been coming back and forth to the US for the past 15 years with my work. I live in Texas and enjoy many local and National craft beers. I grew up in a village with a brewery founded in 1700′s so like to think I know a little bit about beers especially ales. Fact load more beers here, many great. Fact obsession with hops. I think it’s actually a bit of lazy marketing with more drinkers associating microbrew with hops. Americans are a little obsessive with cinnamon in food and this is my beer parallel. Try rye. You cannot fault malt. Tough to beat wheat. Don’t stop the hop …. Just turn it down a little ? Cheers as I enjoy a St.Arnold.

  10. May I comment at this late date?

    Samuel: Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! I have been burned so many times, I almost will simply not drink an American craft beer, period. I wish I had a dollar for every time a friend has said “No, really, try it, it’s not hoppy at all.”

    Yes, the problem is truth in advertising, but hops have so run amok now that many crafters simply do not make a toned-down beer of any description, yet they insist on describing some like “A traditional smooth Dunkelweizen”, then the first sip smacks me in the face with hops, followed by a searing contraction of the salivary glands. I know it’s heresy, but hops have ruined American craft beer. Yeah, I said it.

    The hoppiest beer you can find in Germany does not even register on the American hop addict’s scale. The bitterest I could find in that wonderful beer country, Berliner Kindl Pils, would be scoffed at for its blandness. And don’t get me started on what has been done to my beloved Weissbier over here.

  11. Pingback: 10-second beer review: let’s hear it for Ballast Point Brewing | Scholars and Rogues | Progressive Culture

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