The Pursuit of Hoppiness: Bitter Beer Has Never Been So Sweet

Oct 31, 2015

Last month the number of breweries in the United States passed the 4,000 mark for the first time since the 1870s. On average, nearly two breweries open every day in this country, and by year’s end we’ll probably have more breweries than ever before. If you guess this growth is driven by so-called ‘craft’ or microbrews you’d be right.  But can you guess which style of beer is driving the microbrew industry?  JPR’s Michael Joyce found the answer, along with a local twist he didn’t expect.

Announcer: “Welcome to the 2015 Humboldt ‘Hoptoberfest’ in Sunny Blue Lake. We’ve got over 16 breweries and two cideries here pouring over 30 different types of beer today!”

Blending the word ‘hops’ into Octoberfest is more than just cute; it pays homage to not only one of beer’s key ingredients, but also the key to bitterness in America’s number one selling craft beer style:  India Pale Ale, or IPA. According to the US Brewer’s Association, hoppy beers contributed to about half of the craft beer industry’s double-digit growth last year. About one out of every three microbrews consumed is an IPA. 

Theo Brown, owner of the Dead Reckoning Tavern in Arcata, knows this trend well. About a third of his 36 beers on tap are IPAs.

Theo Brown: “Most everybody - not all of them - but I’d say probably 80-percent of the people that come in here want either a very aromatic IPA or a very dry IPA, and preferably both those things together.”

Most people know that hops give bitterness to counter the sweetness of malt in beer. They also help stabilize and preserve beer and that’s how IPA got its name: the addition of hops helped beer travel for weeks by boat from England to India without spoiling. To get a better feel for hops, I decided to visit the Mad River Brewery in Blue Lake, California.

Dylan Schatz : “This is our hop cooler here.”

Dylan Schatz has been brewmaster at Mad River for over 16 years.

Dylan Schatz : “These different hops you can smell them. ‘Sterling’ is more of an earthy, floral type, slightly spicy. And over here is something like ‘Amarillo’; this is definitely like a strong, citrusy, pine type of aroma.”

Dylan says working with hops for a brewer is very much like how painters use colors or cooks use spices. Which hops, when you add them, and how much to use is an art form. The bitterness from hops is measured in IBU’s - or International Bitterness Units. The higher the IBU's the more hoppy the beer.

Now here comes the twist: of the three most commonly used methods for calculating IBU’s in beer, one of the most popular is the ‘Tinseth Method’, designed by Dr. Glenn Tinseth.

Glenn Tinseth: “I was in grad school at Oregon State and my lab was two buildings over from the USDA hop lab.”

Tinseth lives in Arcata, where he is a chemistry lecturer at Humboldt State University, a licensed tax preparer, and even helps Mad River Brewery when they’re short-handed. 

Back in the early '90s, while getting his doctorate in chemistry, Tinseth was a home brewer trying to sell fresh hops out of his basement. He wasn’t satisfied with the IBU calculation methods that were available.  So he asked his buddies at the USDA Hop Research lab if he could grind hops for them in exchange for using their lab equipment to develop a new method.

Glenn Tinseth: “It’s just called ‘The Tinseth Method’. It’s always fun to do one of those ego-driven google searches and none of them are talking about me. They’re just talking about the hop calculation: ‘Which one did you use? Did you use Tinseth?’ Yeah, it’s kinda weird. Like a third party reference to my name. It’s just all over.”

And if you Google “hoppy beer” or “IPA” you’ll quickly notice something else.  The pursuit of hoppiness has created a fascinating split amongst craft beer drinkers - call it ‘hopheads versus anti-hops’ - and this was apparent at Hoptoberfest.

Drinker 1: “All the double and triple IPA’s,  it’s too much. It’s bitter. Bitter is good in some aspects but when you start getting that much bitter where  you have to measure it in units of bitters, how far are you going to go? You going to go with quadruple hops? It’s weird!”

Drinker 2: “My name is Eloi and I like really, really green IPA’s. Like very hoppy, like really flowery with the hops character that’s really fresh and green. Some people call it ‘dank’: D-A-N-K.”

What people do agree on - especially those who work in the industry - is that it’s the balance of hops, not the sheer amount that matters most.  And they are excited that with new hop varieties being released each year - like over a dozen last year alone - the opportunities for making more unique beers will only help the $20 billion craft beer industry.