"What's your hoppiest beer?" It's a question that was rarely uttered over a decade ago and yet, ask nearly any person working in a brewpub or taproom, and it might be the most common question they have heard over the past five years. I'm not knocking it. When I turned 21, the craft beer craze was just beginning and I — having grown quickly tired of the metallic piss-water served at Butler's Thirsty Thursdays and Fratty Fridays — was looking for something with flavor and that I didn't have to drink a six-pack of to feel a buzz.
But, after a few years of hop-chasing, killing my palate with IPAs, Double IPAs, Triple IPAs, hop-your-face-off brews, I was ready for something easier. To clarify: I wasn't going to go back to the swill that has long passed as American beer. I wanted something with more nuance, a more subtle balance.
Then, as if by magic, I started seeing this trend taking hold. Sarah Buschmann of Bier Brewery says she has heard it too, "Hoppy biers are selling better on-premise. However, at our taproom, we have noticed that more people are saying that they have moved on from their 'hop obsession' and are willing to try other styles." As Sarah astutely points out, people are still ordering IPAs — they always will. Hell, I always will. But, as palates change, maybe we're moving toward beers with something more unique than overtly bitter hoppy flavors (which is often mistaken for the only flavor of hops).
While chatting with the team at Bier Brewery, they tell me that there is a shortage of hops, especially popular styles like Citra and Amarillo. This shortage is due to a highly saturated market of craft breweries and in a bigger sense the "hop craze" that is driving hoppier and hoppier beers. A major issue with this, outside of the sheer fact that breweries are unable to get the hops they need, is that many lower quality IPAs are being brewed and the strong hop flavor covers the fact that the beer isn't high quality.
To give you an idea of IPAs' impact on the beer market, the Brewers Association found that just two years ago, in 2014, "The IPA is up 47 percent by volume and 49 percent by dollar sales, accounting for 21 percent volume share of craft and 23 percent dollar share of off-premise beer sales. Additionally, the style was the number one entered category at the Great American Beer Festival®." But, we are slowly starting to see this trend changing — emphasis on slowly.
From nearly all of the industry insiders I spoke with, I found that it is a huge testament to the abilities of a beer-maker when they can create a well-balanced and consistently great light beer such as a kölsch, lager, or pilsner. With this in mind, I think it is our responsibility as beer drinkers to try these styles and to find and support breweries that have passionate and truly talented brewers.
I believe this awakening in consumers is already starting. David Waldman of Triton Brewing explains, "Now consumers are looking for balance in their hops. This likely has a lot to do with people developing their beer palates and becoming familiar with the variety of hops and the value that those hops can bring to the beverage. Now we have craft beer enthusiasts that ask for particular hops, Cascades, Citra, Amarillo, Mosaic, etc... and seek out beers that highlight the nuances of those particular hops."
Ray Kamstra, of Indiana City Brewing Co., heightens the appreciation and necessity of hops in beer, "Simply put, hops are beautiful. What lead to the popularity of chocolate? What lead to the popularity of vinyl? People who have a taste for the finer things, take notice of and seek out the best." I, as well as most any beer advocate, will wholeheartedly agree with Ray. But, the goal should be to use the hops for delicate changes, and to showcase their intricate flavors, instead of simply killing the palate.
I chatted candidly with Tori Luksha, assistant brewer at Metazoa Brewing Co., and she mentioned the use of different strains of hops from different regions such as New Zealand, Australia and England to bring out varying flavors that form in the assorted climates. Much like grapes, hops are from a vine, so different soils bring out different notes, from tea, to lemongrass, and even spicy peppery tinges. By using late addition hopping these added touches become more prominent.
Due to the increasing level of knowledge amongst brewers, when you're out at local breweries you are able to find more and more intriguing styles. Kamstra points out, "we brew many barely hopped beer styles that are often lesser well-known styles but delicious in their own unique ways — oftentimes with a history that spans hundreds of years. Prime examples would be our Sister City Kölsch, Forefathers Rye Roggenbier and Shine Dampfbier."
"... [A] history that spans hundreds of years ..." For this reason and this reason alone, avid beer drinkers should be intrigued by the hundreds of styles that are available. Broad Ripple Brewpub has a beer made entirely without hops right now. It is an unhopped herbal ale called gruit whose origins can be traced to sometime around the 11th Century. They've dubbed theirs Drumpf ("you don't have to be a megalomaniac to enjoy it"). The Brewpub also has one of the most classic of classic beers on cask, the E.S.B (Extra Special Bitter).
"Our E.S.B. won the gold medal at The Great American Beer Festival," points out Billy Hannon, the general manager "It has this incredible pedigree, but because it's not an overly hopped beer, a lot of people don't even think about ordering it ... They go straight for the IPA, and miss out on what I think is our best beer."
Not only are these age-old styles available, but there is also a barrage of new beers being brewed all the time. "Consumers also love innovation," says Waldman. "Beers like our French Toast Saison, Grimace Purple IPA and Ale Pacino Mocacino, or the hard sodas that are popping up everywhere, are examples of beverages that tickle this itch."
In the end, David answers with the delicious and bitter truth, "I think that hops will always be part of craft beer. They are essential to creating balance and producing a product that consumers will return to again and again. Will IPAs, Session IPAs and hoppy pales continue to be the best-selling and fastest-growing brands? I think for the time being. But, I do believe that the days of trying to find the hoppiest beers are past."
So, maybe the title lies a little, maybe hops aren't dead, and they never will be. As long as good, local craft beer is being made that's what really matters. But, I think the insurgence of other styles, including light, easy beers, like pilsners and kölsches, and heavier, malty stouts and porters, to the disparagingly sweet rise of sours and everything in between, has definitely put the hop in its place. Who knows, maybe one of them will overtake the throne someday? Until then, I'll be drinking them all.