Building the case (taste) for ipa: Lil Hops vs Big Hops

February 3, 2021
building the case (taste) for ipa: Lil Hops vs Big Hops

I didn’t start truly appreciating the complexity of the IPA until I started homebrewing. 

Translation: I didn’t know what all went into an IPA until I made really, really undrinkable, terrible disgusting beer. 

Prior to reading The Complete Joy of Homebrewing from Chuck Papazian, I was certain I knew all there was to know about beer flavors. I mean I had sampled everything from Bud and Bud Light, Miller Lite and MGD, Coors and that Coors Banquet stubby buddy, to the rarer Ice-based beers like Bud Ice and Icehouse, and the canine brands like Red Dog, national brands like Falls City, regal royal brands like Olde English, the bull-centered brand Red Bull (the malt liquor not the energy drink), and then let’s not forget Keystone, Old Milwaukee, Pabst and Old Style. DANG. I think I just described the entire world of beer, y’all.  I’m a cultured guy, what can I say?

But here I am holding a copy of the book, which is a second copy because I had too many post-it flags sticking out and smeared scribbled notes in the margins, not to mention spills and unknown sticky substances soaked into it. Learning about all of the different beer styles and where they come from is fascinating.  And if you buy some of those beers after reading about them, it’s considered research and you can justify those purchases as an educational expense with your accountant. Trust me. I write about beer; I am to be trusted. 

So here are some shared learnings:

So, an IPA was hopped to high heaven to ensure it would survive the trip from Europe to India via the high-seas way back in the day, aye? OK, cool, so an India pale ale. Got it. This is about colonialism and world domination, and there is obviously no better way to empower your global thirst for power than dispensing strong, hoppy beers amongst your shipmates. But what does hoppy really mean? TIME TO GET SCIENCE-ISH? 

*Puts on lab coat*

I began my quest to actually understand what these piney, dank, mini artichoke meets nug of kush type “flowers” were actually used for in beer and how their different complexities and competing layers can make vastly different flavors. It seemed I had to ruin a few beers on my own to truly understand the process…

There’s a laundry list of varieties and the same hop can be used for multiple reasons: first wort hops, bittering hops, flavoring hops, finishing hops, dry hopping, wet hopping, DOUBLE dry hopping... I had so many new additions to my vernacular at the same time, I was bound to screw this up. So here I am opening up every single silver packet of hop pellets that arrived in my homebrew kits, WEEKS BEFORE I NEEDED THEM. Imagine me sitting at a desk with dozens of one to three-ounce packets of varying hop packages, all labeled in tiny illegible print that smudges when you cut into the packet.  Green hoppy dust coated my entire life for days after this experience. 

Because I didn’t have any zip bags handy, some hops just ended up loosely tucked back into their sliced open bags, some were folded into random newspapers, and some were just scooped into a red solo cup. Certainly, these stupid hop mistakes were as bad as the time I received my first smack pack of yeast and SMACKED IT, seven weeks before I had a brew day planned for no other reason than I get off on smacking things in a suggestive fashion. But how else do you figure this stuff out? I’m sure Bobby Budweiser smacked every smack pack of yeast back in 1876 before his stuff hit the internet back then. I MEAN SERIOUSLY FOLKS. 

Drew

When you’re rocking homebrew from a kit, you just follow the instructions. But not if you are the son of two pharmacists who MAKE SCIENCE every damn day in the compounding lab. The same can be said for the hop additions and the times you should be utilizing them in your brew.  Those are just suggestions for the newbs *taps brain*, not for this genius.

Hops

Fast forward two weeks, I’m adding hops that had been open on my desk for more than a fortnight and I noticed that they disintegrated before they even hit the surface of the liquid in the boil kettle. Were hops supposed to be this dusty? Was that white and blue growth on top of the cone hops that was sitting open in the fridge, now sitting open on the table with a new baby hop growing out of the old hops? I didn’t know hops were sticky! Why are they sticking together in a sort of pancake of fleshy green? Why do I keep spending so much time fishing goop out of this “wort” with a spoon that’s shorter than the depth of the currently boiling brew kettle? 

See, I was contaminating everything, spoiling everything, drying everything out when all I had to do was just go to the liquor store and buy IPAs to learn about IPAs. I had assumed that through the art of homebrewing, I would gain an understanding of what hops do in certain concentrations when added at specific times throughout the brewing or finishing process. But that would require me to actually follow a recipe and take notes, and also know what the hell I was talking about in the first place, which I didn’t. 

 Long story short: discover the magic of hops by buying commercially and locally available beers that have passed QA/QC and were brewed by professionals who have more experience than the guy in the mirror. Granted, yes, understanding the specific flavor profiles of individual hops is rather difficult without finding freshly brewed single hop beers, and yes, brewing smaller test batches of single hop beers could help understand their impacts in the beers themselves, but unless you’ve got the wallet and/or the time, it makes sense to just start paying attention to which hops are in beers you tend to love on. Even if you don’t care to fanboy the beers you tend to love on, knowing which hops are which is handy when wanting to avoid certain hops at all costs.

After a decade or more of practicing my hop detection skills by paying for the beers made by professionals, I have my own lists of yay and nay. I know that Mosaic, Galaxy, and Amarillo hops are high on my list because they’re in some of my favorite beers from my favorite local breweries. I know that Centennial is normally added to what I would consider coppery beer, that hide the booze super well and they always taste WET to me. Cascade hops bring me back to my obsession with Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale, so I love detecting those babies in my swallows. Citra is in nearly everything I find amazing, not just because of the citrusy balls, but the grapefruity thwap it can punch when used in the dry hop is insane. El Dorado is another hop that I commonly find included on the labels of the beers I love and it always reminds me of candy. And I like candy. Sabro is another hop I see on my labels a lot.  I have no other opinion other than “hey, yea, I recognize you, you’re alright.”

What's New with Brew

When it comes to HARD NO, or MAYBE NOT SO MUCH, I have a short list here too. Idaho 7 hops sometimes feel like a concentrated form of hop, because every time I have something that has it included on the hop billI feel like I should water down the beer instead of tasting every centimeter of that hop flower ALL AT ONCE. Motueka hops remind me of a sweaty sock dunked into a mason jar filled with actual sweat soaked socks, and then allowed to dry in the armpit of a southern tobacco farmer, but that’s just me. Vic Secret hops tend to taste like a direct sniff of a stranger’s indigestible body odor, and whenever I find them paired with those weird yeasts, I know it’s a beer full of a whole lot of things I will allow you to drink instead of me.

See, there’s so many options out there when it comes to choosing hops to use in your own beers brewed at home. Knowing that you have to royally screw stuff up before getting that fast tracked education I mentioned above, I find it a much more pleasant experience to:

  • avoid hops that I don’t care for
  • opt for beers that contain the hops I have a pleasant history sampling
  • (safely) snag tastes during beer shares with friends of the beers containing the hops I choose not to pay for in the beers I buy. 

After I hung up my mash paddle out of frustration (and near bankruptcy), I earned so much more respect for breweries and the beers they release that are good enough to make it to market. 

If I wanted to drink bad beer, I would brew it myself. But I don’t want to, so I’ll just keep buying good beers from my bottle shop and the breweries I can visit in person.