There seems to be a lot of confusion in the beer world surrounding the terms hoppy and bitter to describe beer. Often the two words are used interchangeably which is really a disservice to talking about great beer.
So let’s take a closer look at the nuanced world of hoppy vs bitter beer and unravel how these two terms are different.
5 Facts in the Hoppy vs Bitter Beer Debate
Fact #1: Hops contains both hoppy and bitter compounds.
Hops, which are the leafy green female cones of the Hop plant Humulus lupulus, contain both hoppy and bitter compounds. What does that mean?
Hoppy compounds are derived from chemicals called terpenes.
Terpenes are a large and diverse group of naturally occurring plant compounds that create the unique smell, taste and color of a plant. The terpenes are often responsible for the medicinal, therapeutic or health value of many common plants that we use every day.
Hop terpenes create the floral, fruity, citrusy, earthy, herbal, or spicy flavors and aromas associated with certain types of beers.
But hops also contains bitter compounds referred to as isohumulones. Isohumulones are derived from the alfa-acids in the hops and are released during the brewing process to make the beer bitter.
Fact #2: Hoppy vs bitter beer is achieved through the timing of hops in the brew
In general, the more hops added early in the brewing process the greater potential for bitterness in the beer.
Adding fewer hops or boiling for less time can reduce the bitterness by affecting how much of the alpha-acids (isohumulones) are extracted from the hops.
Boiling hops destroys many of the terpenes which create aromatic flavors in the beer.
To keep those, some hops must be added later during the boil which reduces the amount of time the essential oils are exposed to heat. OR, these flavorful terpenes are added back to the brew through a dry-hopping process.
Fact #3: Hoppy beer refers to the flavors and aromas created by the terpenes
Each variety of hops contains different concentrations of terpenes which result in their unique flavor and aroma characteristics.
Some of the primary terpenes include myrcene, beta-pinene and alfa-humulene to name only a few. Many hops also contain a variety of secondary terpenes that help to create their signature flavors and aromas. A lot depends on how and where the hops were grown.
For example, for a huge citrus aroma you might try BC Cascade hops. Whereas a hop like BC Comet will impart a more zesty, dank, even funky character to your brew because of its wild Canadian hops pedigree.
Pine and woody spice overtones are derived from hops like BC Golding, while a sweet fruity and floral profile can be achieved with BC Nugget or Organic Nugget.
The choices and combinations of hop varieties and their terpenes are quite endless for the adventurous brew master.
Fact #4: Bitter beer is created by hops but also affected by the malt
The bitter compounds in hops set the tone for the beer, but ultimately the combination of bitterness from the hops and sweetness from the malt is what determines the taste when someone drinks the beer.
International Bittering Units (IBU) is the standard scale that measures the amount of bittering chemicals in a beer. The higher the IBU the more bitter the beer will taste – in theory.
Again, this is because the bittering chemicals are only one part of what makes the taste, flavor and aroma of any given beer. All four components of beer: water, hops, grain and yeast, come together in a specific recipe to create the lagers and ales that folks like to drink.
According to Live Science, the perception of bitterness may ultimately come down to individual genetics which influences how our brain processes the sensations of bitterness in our food or drinks.
Those perceptions are also influenced by what people eat with beer. Consuming sweet or salty food with a bitter beer can lessen the impact of that bitterness on sensitive taste buds.
Fact #5: New hop terpene extracts will affect the definition of “Hoppy Beer”
The latest trend in craft beer has borrowed a page from the cannabis industry and is focused on terpene extracts from hops to affect the aroma and flavor of beer.
Terpenes are plant compounds, and therefore they can be chemically separated and purified into isolated terpene extracts in the lab. These extracts can then be added to the brew instead of (or in addition to) dry-hopping to achieve a very specific burst of flavor and aroma.
While not everyone may appreciate the extra taste, the precision and flexibility afforded by terpene extracts in the brewing process means they are likely here to stay in the search for the next great beer style.
These new hop terpene extracts are changing the way hoppy beer can be made in the future. This could easily lead to traditional brews vs terpene-hyped brews allowing everyone to pick their favorite style and leaving no beer drinker behind.
So what is hoppy beer then?
Hoppy beer refers to any brew where the signature terpenes of the specific hops used in its making shine through in the flavor and aroma when the beer is consumed.
As more research into hops terpenes continues, more precise descriptions of these characteristics can be found relating to hops varieties.
Hop terpenes are impacted by how and where the hops are grown; by the maturity of the hop cones at harvest; and by the drying, pelleting and storing of the hops prior to brewing. . . . . but that’s a whole other story.
You can learn more about hop varieties and their terpenes on the HOOH Shop Hops page.