A few months back I wrote a series in Planet S/Prairie Dog looking at how to transition to craft beer, taking newbies one step at a time from pale lager to the accessible zones of craft to the more challenging. I also re-posted them on this website (here and here). One characteristic I didn’t really delve into too deeply was hops and bitterness.
I finally got around to rectifying that omission in my latest column for the Saskatchewan papers (you can read it here). I walk through some possible steps to introducing someone to the wonderfully pungent and puckering experience of hops. While I do make some specific beer selections, keep in mind I was limited to what is available in Saskatchewan at the moment, so a drinker elsewhere may have alternative options. Pay more attention to the principles rather than the specific suggestions.
After some a primer on the effects of hops, I suggest starting with a real pilsner of some kind. Beginning with what is essentially a hoppy pale lager (yes, I know it is more complex than that, but bear with me), you can isolate the flavour and aroma effects while maintaining a very familiar malt profile. Often it is good to pair the pilsner with a decent all-malt pale lager to really note the differences.
I then suggest moving into the world of Pale Ale, which still maintains some balance. Since there is a noted range in pale ales, you can move from more modest examples to more assertive interpretations over time.
Then your newbie friend might be ready for IPA. I would argue if you start with a British-influenced interpretation first, they can transition quietly from pale ale to the more lupulin influenced American types. IPA is actually ideal for exploring someone’s lupulin threshold. A Propeller IPA might suit them fine, but Green Flash West Coast IPA is just too one-sided. Fair enough. Or maybe they prefer the bigger, more citrusy American versions.
The final stage, of course is Double IPA. I consider this an optional step, only to be taken if your friend has not yet topped out on their tolerance. If Red Racer IPA was too hoppy for them, you can be pretty sure that Pliny the Elder isn’t going to suit their palate. No point feeding someone a beer you know they won’t enjoy.
Hops and bitterness in beer is, in many ways, the final threshold of beer. My experience is that it is a combination of acquired tastes – some people truly do not like the flavour of hops – and experience. We have had generations of beer consumers raised to expect single digit IBUs in their lagers. Hops is an alien taste in the mainstream beer world. It is important those of us who have had our palates shifted through years of drinking IPAs and such remember that we too, at some point, found bitterness in beer strange.
If we can slowly shift our tastes, so can almost anyone. It simply requires time, patience and practice.