January may seem like an odd month for beer geeks to get excited, but each snowy, bitter, and bleak January, they wait for the golden, floral horizon of Bell’s Hop Slam. In Michigan, and many states across the country, January 8th is celebrated with release parties and brewer’s dinners as well as very happy hopheads. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term “hophead,” it simply refers to a beer lover who is enthused with hoppy beer.
So what does hoppy mean?
A hoppy character comes from the types of hops used when brewing a beer. Hops are flavor agents that impart an overall bitter flavor to beers and balance out the sweetness of the malts used. Hops became popular to use in the 13th century, when brewers noticed that when hops were added during the brewing process, their beers lasted longer. Hops have a stabilizing antibacterial effect on the brewer’s yeast, making it less likely to spoil. Though many mild beers use hops, like Sam Adams Boston Lager, Pilsner Urquell, and Magic Hat #9 Pale Ale, many hopheads brush these styles aside for the king of hoppy beers, the IPA.
IPA, or India Pale Ale, was created in England in the 1700s for British soldiers stationed in India. Before IPA was created, the beer that would arrive in India would have a skunked, awful flavor due to the extreme heat it would face on its seaward travels across the equator and around Africa. The alcohol was a known preservative, and the hops had their antibacterial nature, so George Hodgson of Bow Brewery realized that by adding more hops and more alcohol to the beers, the beers would arrive palatable. As with the American Tiki Revolution of the 1950s, the soldiers came home craving the bitter beers they had tasted abroad, and a new style was born.
In my most modest opinion, American style IPA is notably more complex than English style IPA. It’s generally richer and more floral, imparting a citrus character. Noble hops, more traditionally used in Europe, are lightly bitter and more aromatic. American style IPAs, such as the ones produced by Bear Republic, Bell’s, Dogfish Head, and Founders, rely on popular and flavorful American hop varieties like Cascade, Columbus, Warrior, Simcoe, and Centennial. Some, like Nino’s most popular IPA, Bell’s Two Hearted, are brewed exclusively with one hop variety while Dogfish Head’s 60 Minute is brewed with many. Most American hops convey citrus (especially grapefruit), stone fruits, and pine resin.
The art to a good IPA, like all things, is balance. Many IPA or Double IPA brewers today have made it their goal to make the hoppiest beer around. Beers like Stone Brewing Company’s Ruination, named because it ruins your palate, or Arcadia Hopmouth, are too much for me. However, I find Bell’s Hopslam, with its addition of honey and punch of malt, delightful. A good rule of thumb when trying a new IPA is to find out its IBUs. International Bitterness Units give you a good idea of how hoppy a beer is. My favorites, such as Founders All Day IPA and New Belgium’s Ranger IPA, are 42 and 70 respectively; the aforementioned Ruination’s is 100.
If your New Year’s resolution was to try new things, I highly recommend IPAs, but be warned, their refreshing citrus quality, paired with their mouthwatering bitterness, will haunt you and leave you craving more. You may even find yourself turning into a hophead!