IPA Beers, Hops, and Bitterness: Getting Past the BS
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Posted on 05 Aug 2014 02:21




One of the stand-by restaurants we frequent as a family, is Red Robin. Our Red Robin, a flag-ship location, is consistently top-notch for both food and service, and my son is always happy. So am I, for the most part, and I'm pretty picky. Of course, I usually get a beer. Red Robin is one of those chains that tries to have at least once "craft" brew on draft.

Given what is called the Craft Beer Revolution, beer has become down-right confusing. When you're faced with a beer that calls itself "Countryside Ale" or some such, its difficult not to scratch your head and say, well, that sounds made up, don't it?. And it probably is, having nothing whatsoever to do with what's in the bottle, or can. It's hard for anyone to understand and keep up with the bewildering varieties on the market, and bartenders are no exception. Of course, if your establishment is making an effort in terms of beer, it behooves you to at least know what the beers taste like, but these days, that's not always enough, when you deal with beer aficionados. Personally, however, I'd rather a bartender tell me what they think of a beer, in simple terms, than try to bullshit me!

This evening, along with the usual suspects on draft, Sam Adams Boston Lager and Seasonal (Summer Ale), Blue Moon, Guinness, and uhh..Budweiser (I don't even know), there was a beer called Fat Tire. I asked the waiter, what's that? She told me that it was an Amber Ale kind of thing. Okay. It sounded familiar but I couldn't remember. What the heck? I'll try it! So, she comes back and tells me the bartender told her to tell me it was "very hoppy" and it is an IPA (India Pale Ale). Not being exactly a hipster, certainly not a beer expert, but being more savvy than average, I knew two things: 1) Calling something an IPA doesn't mean as much, anymore, as most people think and 2) It is quite unlikely that Red Robin would have an actual IPA on draft. It just doesn't fit their customer base, market..whatever. So, I said, no problem, I'll have it, even if it is an IPA (i.e. it probably isn't but I might still like it if it is an IPA because I like many IPA's).

So, I get a nice somewhat hoppy ale. It's good. I enjoy it. I don't think it is an IPA. Doesn't really seem anywhere close to an IPA, which is fine, because I didn't think it would be. Still, it isn't so cut and dry as people think and I don't have the most discerning palate in the world. I know what I like, though, so I enjoyed the beer enough that I had two of them, and I've gone through a few six-packs since and ordered it out a few times as well.


New Belgium Ranger IPA

New Belgium Fat Tire is not close to New Belgium's IPA, Ranger,
yet the bartender told me Fat Tire was an IPA. Beware of bartender
BS when it comes to beer, they can be just as bewildered as the
rest of us.

Image by Jeff Moser via [*Flickr]Image Credit

New Belgium Ranger IPA

New Belgium Fat Tire is not close to New Belgium's IPA, Ranger,
yet the bartender told me Fat Tire was an IPA. Beware of bartender
BS when it comes to beer, they can be just as bewildered as the
rest of us.

Image by Jeff Moser via [*Flickr]Image Credit



So hey, no harm no foul. Enjoyed our dinner, enjoyed our evening. But when I got home, I got to thinking about why this guy at the bar thought he was serving an IPA. Did he taste it, and being a Coors/Miller/Bud kind of guy, figure, "man, that's hoppy" or "man, that's bitter" and figure he'd call it an IPA because IPA's are supposed to be bitter? I looked it up and find out, it's from New Belgium Brewing. OH! Okay, I knew it sounded familiar. It's just what the waiter told me, what they call an Amber Ale. And it was good. It is very weak on hops compared to an IPA, though. Definitely has that good hoppy bitterness, but it was quite balanced. It simply depends on what you compare it too. If the bartander was comparing it to the most beloved beers in America, it's quite hoppy. If you compare it to many other craft beers, or an IPA, it's not so hoppy. New Belgium's IPA, on the other hand, is called Ranger.

But what is hoppy, really? There is more bullshit than science in the way the term hoppiness and even bitterness is used.

So, how would we compare the two beers? Well, the you look at the IBU's or International Bittering Units. This is a measurement of how much hop acids is in the beer. Here's the thing, IBU, as the name implies, measures bitterness, which is not necessarily the same as "hoppiness" since hops adds other flavors and aromas to beer, along with bitterness, which, taken together, change your perception of the overall flavor. The other thing to consider is that most craft breweries do not really have the expensive equipment needed to measure the IBU. So what do they do, they estimate using equations of some sort, which, I'm told by actual beer aficionados, is about as good as a guesstimate.

The Fat Tire ale is given a 22 on the IBU scale, whereas the Ranger IPA is a 70! So, yeah, that is going to probably taste a lot more bitter and a bit less balanced than the Flat Tire. So, the bartender was not just bullshitting, he was really and truly bullshitting, in terms of his terminology.

But, here's the thing. Beyond me comparing the two and realizing that, yes, I was right, this beer doesn't seem like an IPA and I'm not losing my mind, how much does the IBU tell me? Am I supposed to believe that a 70 would be like taking a swallow of Angostura bitters? No.

IBU's are just another of many ways we bullshit about beer and, in a way, how the craft beer industry used to, at least, bullshit about IPA's. IPA's were really the style of beer that was first to the forefront of this huge and glorious beer revolution we are having. The IBU became a sort of spitting contest for IPA brewers based on who could deliver the highest number and thus, the hoppiest and therefore bitterest beer. The idea in most people's mind is more hops equals more bitterness. I'm going to link you to an article that really explains this business of IPA's and IBU's much better than I can. But first, consider that we can look at hops just like we look at brewing a cup of tea.

If you put a tea bag into boiling water, or loose tea, and continue boiling it for a while, you will end up with a bitter tea, right? However, you may also end up with a bad tasting tea. Why? As I discussed in this article about Southern iced tea, the longer you steep tea, or boil it (which you shouldn't) the more the bitter oils in the tea come out while the other flavors, that are easier to extract in the first place, start being lost. So, how long you steep or boil tea doesn't necessarily just make the tea "stronger" but it affects the tea in complex ways.

Some flavors are pronounced, namely bitter ones, while other flavors might be lost. But if you add TWO teabags to a cup, but brew it correctly, then what do you get? Do you get a more bitter tea, or just a stronger tea? Well, it will probably taste stronger to some extent, and you may perceive it as more bitter to an extent, but still not as bitter as the over-brewed tea. Then, some teas are more bitter than others. Now, realize that hops are not unlike tea. It is possible to use a lot of hops and get a lot of hop aroma and flavor without having a super-bitter beer. In other words, it's not a simple matter of "adding more hops" or "boiling the hops longer." As I mentioned, though, it takes a real expert to explain it, so read this excellent explanation of IBU's in IPA's by BearFlavored.com.

Another thing to consider is that people often mistake a higher alcohol content for a "bitter" taste. When IPA's bump up the alcohol level, this can be perceived as more bitter, or sharp.

The thing is, given these raw numbers, if you tasted the Fat Tire, like I did, and then found it to be "22 IBU's" you might think that the actual Ranger IPA, at 70, would just be so darned bitter it would make your nose get stuck in a scrunched up position. But, that is not really how it works. I really won't know how "bitter" the Ranger tastes until I drink it. One thing this does mean is that you do not have to assume you will hate all IPA's because they will be too bitter or too strong for you. We really live in a time, more than ever, where we want to feel like we have a lot of knowledge about everything, and that certainly is true of food, beer, liquors, etc. But with beer, you cannot assume you know what something is going to be like based on its "style."

Also keep in mind that some people may have even less discerning palates than mine. I don't need a beer to make me pucker up to taste the hops, yet some people who will claims they "love hoppy beers" and pour derision on anything that isn't exceedingly bitter are most likely simply weak tasters, and need the stronger punch to be able to identify what they think of as "hoppiness." Yes, there are those who will say that you cannot taste the hops in a New Belgium Fat Tire, as opposed to a Ranger. Fat Tire was New Belgium's first offering. New Belgium offers other IPA's besides Ranger, including Tangerine IPA, Rampant IPA, and Slow Ride Session IPA. They also have other selections which they call "hoppy." Fat Tire is not listed among them, even though it is of course more hoppy than 90% of most sold beer in the United States, the typical adjunct lager.

While you're at BearFlavored beers, also check out a considered opinion about why maybe we shouldn't take beer styles too seriously!

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