Challenge accepted!

I have been taunting my hoppy colleague, Tim for quite some time about the ‘overuse’ of hops (particularly in American brews).  Playing devil’s advocate, I’ve compared their use with the excessive use of oak in the wine world.  My suggestion wasn’t merely a simple taunt.  I was (and remain) curious over the role of hops in brew, particularly in American ones and how they compare with the use of oak in wine.  Some may find it silly to compare the two, but I really don’t think so.

Now just a little about myself for you brew folks…

I’m a wine guy, to be more specific I’m an Old World wine guy.  It’s really quite simple…most wines from the ‘Old World,’ in addition to embracing tradition, have balance.  Yes I admire tradition, but I care more about balance because when I drink a glass of wine, I do so with food and balance is important.  In my book, wine is more than a simple beverage, it is an essential part of any meal and is an equal to any dish that finds itself on the dining table.  I find wines from most of the New World (i.e. outside of Europe) to be unbalanced possessing excessive amounts of alcohol, fruit, residual sugar, and/or oakiness.  This is a generalization of course.  I do realize that many a producer in the Old World can make wines this way, and many a producer in the New World do not (for those interested check out South Africa).

But I also have a great interest in brew.

Don’t peg me as a pretentious wine nerd.  I’m an equal opportunist when it comes to alcoholic beverages (although I do have reservations) and have a great passion for brew.  As for my tastes, I’m a fan of the Belgian tradition.  I always have been and always will be.  I enjoy many brews in the German and British tradition (although I find brews from Scotland to be closer to Belgians because of their use of malt).  I happen to think that Belgians are as close as you can get to wine in the brew world.  Besides they are creative and traditional, can pair well with many a dish (besides mussels and fries) and are driven by malt.  I don’t really go after sweet brews, but I do enjoy a brew that has some malt.  Unconsciously, it may be the malt freak in me that hates hops, but I don’t hate hops.

Now back on topic…

Tim recently written a blog about hops.  It’s clear from the article that he loves them and finds them to be the driving force in a brew’s aroma.  I’d have to argue with him on this point, but are hops to beer what oak is to wine?  This really is the question that I’m curious about.  My answer is a simple-no!

Hops are more important to brew than oak is to wine.  Why?  Not all wine spends time in oak.  I’ve tasted many good or great wines that spent no time whatsoever in oak.  I don’t know of any brewer that doesn’t add some hops to his/her magic potion of wort.

There are a number of variables that make up the aroma of both wine and brew.  They include, but are not limited to water, grains & their preparation (i.e Rauchbiers), malt, grapes, human tradition, traditional brewing styles, etc…  I’ll even add terroir for you oenophiles reading this.  My point is that hops are not the only contributing factor to a brew’s aroma, but most consumers (at least stateside) are obsessed with them.  In wine, many consumers love the aromas that a new oak barrel-aging contributes to a wine complimented by intense fruitiness.  Both hops and oak are big contributors to the flavor (and body) of brew and wine, respectively, but they are not the end all be all nor should they be.

My question was also rooted in my distaste of both the overuse of hops and oak in brew and wine.  I’ve come to realize that for both wine and brew, taste is subjective.  If you like hops then go ahead and drink some IPA or Harvest ale.  If you like oak then drink a wine that has seen some intense barrel aging.  Don’t let me stop you, not that I would anyways!

2 thoughts on “Challenge accepted!

  1. Nic — If balance in beer is what you seek, you’re are aiming at the wrong target. Hops, both as a flavoring and a bittering agent, are essential to the enjoyment of beer. How much is a matter of taste.

    True, some U.S. craft brewers are guilty of excess, but it is more often in areas that, as both you and Tim note, have more to do with New World winemaking than brewing. I refer to alcohol and oak.

    A quick examination of the most popular beers reviewed on the Beer Advocate Web site illustrate the point. Of the top 25, the average ABV of the 18 American beers is 10.7%. For the seven European beers listed — six Belgian and one Swedish — the average is 8.2%.

    Next (and here credit goes to Aaron O for his insightful response to Tim’s blog), 15 of the American beers — 10 Stouts and five IPAs — include the word “Imperial” in their names or descriptions. Take out the one Belgian style, a Gueze at 7% ABV, and one Pale Ale, also 7% ABV, and the average jumps to a whopping 12.04%; wobbly legged, indeed.

    On the European side, the three beers with the highest ABV numbers are a Swedish (wait for it) Imperial Stout, and two Trappist ales; Rochefort 10 and Westvleteren 12. They measure 10%, 11.3%, and 10.2% ABV, respectively.

    Having enjoyed both the Trappist ales on more than one occasion, I can say that the alcohol content is barely noticeable, so rich and varied in flavor and balanced are they. Although the same can be said for some U.S. craft brews, high alcohol levels tend to be much more noticeable, which throws off the balance.

    As to the use of oak, it’s a feature of many U.S. Imperial Stouts, as well as in the aging of beers of bourbon ilk. Like too much alcohol, noticeable oak is rarely conducive to the enjoyment of food (just as it diminishes the food and wine experience). And here may be the crux of the matter.

    The U.S. craft brew movement, while matching and in some cases exceeding the variety and quality of Old World beer, has yet to equal the latter when it comes to attention to food. Check most beer blog restaurant reviews, it’s barely mentioned.

    True, there are a few Belgian-themed bars and restaurants with extensive beer lists where he quality of what’s on the plate equals what’s in the glass. For the most part, however, “pub grub” in this country is typically unimaginative and often mediocre.

    But that’s another rant for another time.

  2. I like that you have identified a major differentiation between hops and oak… Hops are a necessary ingredient in beer and the same is not true for oak in wine. Although one can make a beer without hops and one may easily argue that the traditional aging of wine in barrels is vital to wine production they remain quite different as required ingredients.

    It can reasonably asked if more hops than are necessary are being used in brewing today, but it is indeed a subjective matter. One’s taste is the real driving factor here.
    I think that it is clear that in America we do things with intensity and we push boundaries. As such, hops, oak and any other flavor additive that might be well received is destined for extreme use.

    I’ll maintain that hops are delicious and impart addictive flavors to my preferred libation. The nose from fresh hops is just so pleasing. I’ll certainly admit that there is much more to the aroma in a beer than just hops. Hops are easy and pleasing to smell and Nic is only picking on me because his crazy wine nose allows him to smell the aftershave on an astronaut in a full space suit.

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