Why Saying Hoppy Isn't Helpful
Working in a retail liquor store, I hear people daily describe a beer as hoppy. But what does that really tell us? Hoppy can mean so many different things that just saying hoppy tells us very little about the beer. It is too broad of a term. Hops add so much to a beer from a sensory level and even act as a preservative. Lets just take a look at how many things “hoppy” can mean.
Hops are the ingredient that most contributes bitterness in a beer. Hops are in every beer you drink regardless of if that beer is bitter or not. When compared to wine, hops are the ingredient that are most like grapes, there are tons of varietals and each one has its own flavour profile as well as alpha acids. Alpha acids are what create the bitterness you taste in your beer.
Hops can range from anywhere between 2% and 20%+ alpha acids. It gets more complicated though because for alpha acids to impart any bitterness in the beer they must go through isomerization via boiling. During the boil the brewer can decide when to add hops. If they want a bitter beer they are going to add the hops earlier on in the boil and most likely use a high AA hop.
All that being said, there are still levels of bitterness that a beer can be, based on how many alpha acids isomerize as well as how that is actually balanced with the malt added in the beer. International Bittering Units (IBU) is the measurement of how much alpha acids are isomerized into the beer and the number of IBU’s can range from 0-100+.
An example would be: a 30 IBU German Pils may have the same IBU as a British Brown ale but the German Pils has a lighter malt used making it’s perceived bitterness much higher than that chocolaty Brown ale. In this example the Pils will have more assertive bitterness whereas the brown will have a more light bitterness acting as a compliment to the darker malts.
Flavour & Aroma
Other than bitterness, “hoppy” can also mean the aroma and flavour of the beer. To contribute the hops aroma and flavour characteristics you would add the hops later on in the boil or even post-boil (dry-hopping) to bring out the hop’s profile without extracting bitter alpha acids from the hop. Depending on the varietal and where it is grown hops can have a completely different profile.
A hoppy, pale ale from England might be woodsy, perfume-like, and spicy, whereas a hoppy, pale ale from USA may be piney, grapefruit-like, and resinous. There are hundreds of different varietals of hops and they can be quite complex.
This flavour chart from Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer shows the expanse of flavours offered from hops:
I hope after seeing the range of flavours along with the different levels of bitterness a beer can have that you will agree that to call a beer “hoppy” does not do all the qualities of that beer justice. If you are interested in the topic of hops and want to learn more I am just finishing up For the Love of Hops by Stan Hieronymus and I am loving it!