Two weeks ago, my two year old son was prescribed a ten day course of antibiotics. The antibiotic in question was the most utterly disgusting, most bitter medicine I have ever had the misfortune of tasting. In fact it made Jaipur X taste positively sweet! No matter what we did to try and disguise it, we found it impossible to get even half a dose down his neck. He would scream, kick, punch and spit the medicine out as if he was fighting for his life every time we tried to administer a dose. I found it pretty distressing and tried to make my excuses not to be around during medicine time. However, I was shocked to come home 5 days later and see him actually willing to suck the antibiotic neat from the syringe as if it was strawberry milkshake!
This started me thinking about hops; in particular how drinkers get desensitised to the bitterness of hops and the hop-centric craft beer wave the UK and the USA continue to ride. I can remember 12 or so years ago when Alistair Hook came back from the States with an American IPA for me to taste. I have to say I was not that impressed, as the rasping bitterness was just way too bitter and I felt I couldn’t taste anything else for the next hour or so. However, a few days later, I was wanting another taste of the beer, and so started my love of extremely hoppy beers! I’d certainty noticed the more I drank heavily hopped IPAs, the less I noticed the bitterness and even wanted to venture onto double IPAs. I noticed the same when I first tried chilli peppers in my teens: at first I found the heat unbearable, but over time I got used to a little more heat and soon everything I cooked had to have Habaneros in the recipe.
I have since learnt to recalibrate my palate in terms of chilli and hops. Let’s drop the chilli peppers at this point and concentrate on the hops. I think the craft drinker, particularly those relatively new to craft beer, can often be too obsessed with hops and bitterness in general. There are loads of other styles out there where hops take a seat at the back. Take Vienna lager, which is all about the Munich malt, the subtleties of a Helles which has been lagered for 6 weeks, or the unique flavours French yeast strains bring to a Bière de Garde. There are fascinating flavours here that need to be appreciated which are just as worthy of adoration as EBUs. In fact, I feel hops are often used to cover up poor brewing practices up and/or downstream.
A few months ago I sat down to write the recipe for our 10% Jaipur. When you brew a new beer, particularly a big beer with such a high charge of malt, it’s difficult to predict on the nose where the beer will finish up. That’s why with a new beer I often brew it in two batches and blend back. For the first batch I was aiming for 75-80 EBU and actually ended up with 65 EBU! This was despite reducing the predicted hop utilisation significantly to compensate for the increase in gravity. We measure the EBUs of every batch we brew here, but I know loads of breweries who don’t, and if they aren’t I am thinking their beers might not be as bitter as you might expect. In fact I know a few brewers who tell the customers it has a high EBU, but target a lower EBU as it makes for a better more balanced beer.
I suppose what I am getting at is while hops are indeed a magical and compelling aspect of brewing, I do hope that brewers and customers try and look outside hops and bitterness when it comes to deciding on what beer to brew or drink. There are such a plethora of styles to explore in the world of beer that it’s a shame to see people chasing EBUs, when they could be discovering new flavours and facets of beer that don’t have hops at the forefront, but are in balance with the rest of the beer, such as their first bottle of Orval, a Rodenbach Grand Cru or a Maß of perfectly lagered, crisp, bready Schönramer Hell.
So, is it time to recalibrate your palate?