The first time I tasted a hop-forward craft beer, a door opened in my mind. I realized I had been drinking bland beer my entire life. Beer, as I knew it, was refreshing, but it was about as interesting as Evian. This craft beer was fruity, floral, citrusy and bitter, like an artfully composed cocktail. It demanded attention.
From that moment on, I sought out only hoppy beers. I wanted that same adrenalin rush and I wanted my mind blown again and again. So I snapped up every India Pale Ale and other hop-heavy style of beer I could find: Southern Tier IPA, Red Racer IPA, Augusta Ale and then onto double IPAs like Witchshark and Twice as Mad Tom.
But recently, I noticed that the beers I sought tasted more or less the same. They tasted, of course, like hops. My range of preferred beers had become disconcertingly tiny. Like an opium addict, I was chasing the dragon of that first experience and in the process I was ignoring an entire world of beer.
I'm not the only one with this curious problem. In the United States, the obsession with hops runs deep. According to IRI, a market research firm from Chicago, sales of IPAs in the U.S. surged 50 per cent last year and accounted for a quarter of all craft beer sales. Some U.S. brewpubs – such as Dad & Dudes Breweria in Aurora, Colo. – serve beer with fresh hops added as a garnish. (The only way to get a more intense hop rush is to inject the stuff directly into your veins.)
Canada's craft beer scene has gone down that same rabbit hole. It's rare to find a craft brewery that doesn't have a hoppy IPA in its lineup. According to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, sales of IPAs have escalated four years in a row. There was a particularly large spike in 2013, when IPA sales increased nearly 30 per cent over the year before, and then sales jumped an additional 20 per cent the following year. This ascent has continued into 2015.
"We see no evidence of this trend slowing down," says Christine Bujold, a media co-ordinator with the LCBO. Another style that's gaining popularity, she says, is the India Session Ale, a lighter beer with a taste that's characterized by – wait for it –hops.
Big beer companies still dominate the market, but even they are trying to elbow their way into the hop mob. In 2013, Alexander Keith's released a hop-focused beer series that takes flavour cues from the craft world and also uses craft brewing techniques, such as dry hopping (adding hops late into the brewing process to retain as much aroma as possible).
Hops have given beer drinkers an unprecedented flavour gain, but there seems to be something vaguely Faustian about it. Isn't sensory overload one of the drawbacks of our modern world? Shouldn't we be developing palate sensitivity rather than seeking ever greater outside stimulation? Shouldn't appreciating good beer – or appreciating anything for that matter – be more about paying attention rather than waiting to get slapped in the face?
Maybe we've reached peak hops.
Hoppy beers have been around since at least the late 1700s, when the British Empire shipped highly hopped beer to India (hence the name, India Pale Ale). The abundance of hops aided preservation and ensured that the beer would still have flavour after the months-long journey. But this new wave of IPAs is completely its own animal.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. claims to have ignited the craft beer boom in the U.S. with its hop-forward Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Launched in 1980, this beer uses Cascade hops, an unusually floral American variety.
Gary Lohin, brewmaster at Vancouver's Central City Brewers – where the biggest seller, by far, is the Red Racer IPA – says that the tastes and aromas of Cascade hops and similar varieties, particularly those grown in the Yakima region of Washington State, are unlike any other hops in the world.
"These hops give you really grapefruity, piney notes," he says. "That stuff started the craze. You can't find those types of hops anywhere else. It's the terroir, it's the soil. If you have an IPA made with English hops, hardly anybody is going to buy it."
But these wonderful flavours, he says, come with a cost. Because those hops add such a low-effort flavour boost, some brewers use them carelessly, without regard for balance, just to tap into the lucrative IPA market.
"It's really easy to over-hop something," he says. "Just for the sake of making an IPA, some brewers are just totally overpowering the beer with hops. And if I'm assaulted by hops, my palate is shot."
Mike Duggan, owner and brewmaster of Duggan's Brewery in Toronto, is a hops pioneer in Canada. In the 1980s he concocted a recipe for a Cascade-hopped pale ale that ended up being sold by Mill Street as the now-famous Tankhouse Ale. Later, in 2008, he developed the much-lauded Duggan's #9 IPA. This was, of course, before IPAs were ubiquitous in Canada. Nowadays, Duggan says, the IPA movement has devolved into a war between breweries trying to out-hop each other.
"It's just gotten silly," he says. "Now everyone has an IPA, and the only way to be different is to make it hoppier."
Duggan highlights a number of problems with over-reliance on hoppy flavours. For one, hops can cover up funky off-notes that would normally indicate a poorly brewed beer. Another issue is that the palate develops a tolerance to hops, he says, like it does with spicy food, so that you need to continually up the dosage to receive the desired effect.
"Gradually you can't taste it any more. You get used to it. And as people have gotten used to it, you have to start putting in more hops," he says. "Tankhouse used to be considered a really hoppy beer. And now some people consider it bland."
In the midst of this hop rush, other types of craft beer are often pushed to the wayside. Craft beer is not defined by hops alone and IPAs don't have a monopoly on flavour. Complicated beer has been around for centuries, such sour beers from Belgium, slightly salty Gose beers from Germany, fruity saisons or lively Trappist-style beers such as St. Bernardus Abt 12.
"There are some brewers that still think that a hoppy beer is something that represents craft beer," says Greg Clow, publisher of Canadian Beer News. "To them, craft beer equals hops. But it takes a very skilled brewmaster to make a hoppy beer that's still enjoyable to drink as opposed to just being a novelty."
For Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergso, brewmaster at New York brewpub Torst, the hops obsession is a normal and expected reaction to something that's startling and different.
"It's natural. People have been turning away from bland lagers and getting into this new thing. And when you do that, you tend to go after something that's very different," he says. "When I first started tasting the American IPAs, I thought, 'this is crazy and wild.' I like extremes, but I think if you open a brewery and it's the only thing you go after, that's a little over the top."
He expects that popular taste will correct itself, and is already seeing an increased demand for saison and other lighter styles of beer. And while the hops-inspired craft beer revolution has been a blessing, it shouldn't cause our tastes to become myopic.
"My fear is that people will think these hoppy beers are the only style of beer," Duggan says. "There are so many types of beer. It would be nice to see people getting into them rather than putting all their money on one horse."
Flavourful beer styles
Hop-forward IPAs can be an eye-opening change from the mild lagers that have dominated the beer market for decades. But there's a flavourful world of non-hoppy beer out there and it's well worth exploring. We got in touch with renowned brewer Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergso – who co-founded New York brewpub Torst in 2013 with Halifax chef Daniel Burns – for advice on how to break a hops addiction. Herewith, four flavourful beer styles that don't rely on hops.
"This is a very new style. It's called an IPA, but it's not really that hoppy. Sour IPAs are made with sour mash, which is what is used in Berliner Weisse [a sour wheat beer from Germany]. The mash creates lactic acid, so it's sour, and the combination of that with the hops brings out really nice flavours."
"It's way lower in bitterness than an IPA, but it can still holds some of the same characteristics. I think that an IPA fan would appreciate saison because it has fruitiness, tropical flavours and other things that people look for in an IPA, but without the bitterness."
"This is a very old style of beer, and a lot of people associate lager with crappy beers. But people are starting to make better lagers and are bringing in some of the flavours that you'd see in an IPA. And now people are even starting to make India Pale Lagers, which uses lager yeast instead of ale yeast. Lager yeast ferments a little bit cleaner, so you have something that's more drinkable. It's a cool style."
It's not the most popular style, but I like it because it has characteristics of both pale ale and brown ale. If you want to try something that doesn't have crazy bitterness but has a little bit more roasted malt flavours, amber ale is a good style."