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Three Pint Stance - First-time home brewer questions, Vol 4(0 oz. to freedom)

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A handful of Hops from Zatec, Czech Republic. A handful of Hops from Zatec, Czech Republic. (photo courtesy AP/Ronnie Crocker)

Volume 4 of our ongoing series is upon us, and it comes with a bitter attitude and a powerful aroma. We are taking about IPAs today – specifically, how to describe the type of IPA flavor you are looking for. We now turn to Mike Fern for the setup question. Take it away, Mike.

MF:As a fan of IPAs, I've brewed a few at home but they always come out too hoppy. What am I doing wrong?


3PS: OK, unfortunately this question is just leading me to a bunch more questions, so I think we have to take a step back and demystify the word “hoppy.”

You see, back when I started making and drinking craft beer, there were a few crazy brewers out there who were looking at the fairly old and well-established tradition of making beers with extra hops (traditionally added as a way to introduce more of the preservative quality of hops into beer being made for the long journey to India from England) in order to create new and interesting flavors in their beer. This experimentation, coupled with the emergence of new hop varietals into the market (the result of a decades-long breeding programs at various universities around the world), saw the IPA beer style morph into something that is almost unrecognizable today when compared to what it was just 10 years ago.

With that context, let’s set up the agenda for this column before the tangents take over and we get nothing done here. Let’s work on the following goals:

1.) Discuss the different ways hops are used in the beer making process and how that affects the resulting flavor

2.) How to talk specifically about different hop flavors

We can get more into the nitty-gritty later, but for now, we have a surface to scratch.

When a brewer looks into building a recipe, hops are (99 percent of the time) part of the equation. Hops perform multiple functions within the beer recipe, depending on which varietal is used, when it is added in the process and the temperature of the liquid it is being added to. With these multiple functions and resulting flavors, you can see how just using the word “hoppy” can lead to some ambiguity. Let’s put that word away and start using two words in place of it: bitterness and aroma. Those will be the words we use instead of hoppy, deal? Let’s define them now.

Bitterness: When you boil hops in wort (unfermented beer), you isomerize certain compounds in the hop that provide a bitter flavor to the beer. Depending on the variety of hop used and how long it is boiled for, you will get more or less bitter flavor. This bitterness can be calculated using a certain formula available through many online calculators and other recipe software. The way bitterness is measured is in IBU’s or International Bittering Units. The higher the IBU, the more bitter the beer will taste.

Aroma: When hops are added after the boil (to warm, but not boiling wort) or after fermentation (to cold, finished beer), the compounds within the hop are not being isomerized, so the resulting flavors will be more like what the hops smell like in the bag. You will get notes of pine, citrus, stone fruit, tropical fruit and the like (and in some extreme cases, even things like onion and cat urine). These flavors all depend on the hop used, and the amounts used as well. You can combine multiple hops for a more complex flavor, or use one type of hop to accentuate the individual flavors within. The choice is yours; there are hundreds of hops to choose from out there!

So, to directly answer your question now, Mike, I would say that you should try a few different IPAs out there and pay attention to the flavors you like and the flavors you don’t. If you tend to like some of the more bitter flavors, you are probably looking to create a more traditional, British-style IPA and you are going to want to make sure you get the hops in before the boil. If you find yourself gravitating more toward the juicy, citrusy/fruity notes, you are heading more into the newer New England IPA territory and you will want to be adding the bulk of your hops after the beer is finished boiling.

Now you know - and knowing is half the battle!


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