Point of Brew: Hops: the bitterness of beers and politics

By From page A7 | April 10, 2014

By the time you read this, I shall be returning from the Craft Brewers Conference in Denver. I’m looking forward to this annual adventure into the craft brewing landscape.

There I shall be exposed to an extraordinary overload of sensory inputs in the form of raucous ideas as well as raucous products, many of them undrinkably bitter.

Hops are very important to beer flavor. They provide some aroma to some beers, help stabilize a creamy foam, bestow protection against certain kinds of bacteria and they are universally used by brewers of ales and lagers and every other kind of beer to provide bitterness. You might say bitterness is what hops do for beer.

The crucial chemical entity in hops is called alpha-acids. They are not very bitter and in any case are insoluble in beer and would be therefore be quite useless except for one quite extraordinary thing: When these compounds are boiled (with the extract of malt from which brewers will ferment the beer using yeast), the alpha-acids are miraculously transformed into iso-alpha-acids.

I say miraculously because this isomerization, or change of molecular shape, creates compounds that are among the most bitter substances known and renders them quite soluble (and therefore useful) in beer. And they tell me there is no Creator for the Creation!

Bitterness is one of the four or maybe five taste sensations. That is, we can detect bitterness by tasting (rather than smelling) because the sensors for this quality are placed on the human tongue. Generally speaking, humans do not like bitterness. It is an inborn survival trait, we think, because so many natural poisons are also bitter. Avoiding such plants as food therefore might have been a way for primitive humankind to survive in a world without the FDA, Nugget Market and nutritional labeling.

It is not surprising, therefore, that most contemporary beers made by large companies are not very bitter — it is simply not a preferred taste for the majority of consumers whom the large-scale brewers are targeting.

It is perhaps also not surprising that micro-brewed beers or other beers making a claim to difference (e.g., some imports) establish that difference partly by adopting a robust bitter character. Some — indeed, too many — craft brewers overdo the bitterness of their beers. I call them extreme beers, although this is by no means the only way craft brewers have discovered to make extreme beers. As a result, many craft-brewed products appeal only to a limited slice of the beer-drinking cohort.

One has to wonder why they would deliberately shut themselves off from the larger market in this way; one reason, I suppose, is that they just are small breweries and want to remain so, or they just do not have, or even want, the capacity to make more beer. Maybe they want to remain small for reasons of artisan credibility because bigness (even on the craft brewing micro-scale) equals badness.

Now, not everyone has this reaction to these intensely bitter beers. With enough determination and numbed taste buds, one can tolerate most anything; and, at the end of the day, the drinkers of the most aggressively bitter beers get to do a lot of chest thumping around the drinkers of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Lagunitas Pils that are plenty bitter for most of us and put bitterness in a manageable and suitable sensory context.

I have no idea what the reason is for ignoring the market demand for beers in which bitterness is well-balanced with other beer characters is but I think there is a lesson to be learned from the tea party. Tea partiers have a determined drive to what I would call the loony end of the political spectrum where await defeat and disappointment for many of the candidates (though not all) that they nominate.

The tea party makes righteous stands in the midst of frequent failure, not because they like failure any more than other might or seek failure, but because they perceive their stands as the right thing to do and the right (Right!) message to send and defend.

Turns out, oftentimes, the tea party candidate is a too-bitter pill to swallow for the general populace same as a too-bitter beer. Certain brewers think that the whole point of craft brewing is to make extreme beers, especially extremely bitter ones, not because they sell well or have mass appeal but precisely because they do not. It’s partly, at least, a matter of macho brewers for macho drinkers. Let’s explore these products, they say, because we can.

Now, neither the tea party and their political candidates nor extremely bitter beers succeed particularly well; one might suppose that the market would be self-correcting in some way and these products would fade quietly away. But they don’t. In fact, extreme beers and extreme political views exert far more influence than they should in a more rational marketplace.

It seems to me it’s a matter of sphere of influence: Moderate politicians and moderate brewers are afraid to be seen as wimpy, by a few opinion makers who have the voices to make their opinions known, and so are persuaded to join the extreme club.

Now, while I would love the political and beer marketplace to be a bit more rational than it is, I am pleased and delighted that we have the free marketplace of ideas and products that we have and so would not attempt to change it other than by making my voice known alongside any other.

— Reach Michael Lewis at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com

Michael Lewis

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