It usually happens this way: I’m at a bar or restaurant and someone asks me to recommend a beer they should try. But, before I can don my thinking cap, or even ask a question, the person quickly adds, “I don’t like hoppy beers or anything bitter.”
Of course, the four ingredients used to make most beer are water, malt, yeast and hops. Of the four, hops provide some of the most interesting and complex flavors and aromas, from fruity and citrusy to grassy, floral, piney and herbal.
But, yes, the alpha acids in hops can make beer bitter, too, with the International Bitterness Units scale as the standard range, measured from 0 to 100. Past 100, most people can’t perceive more bitterness, much like the sensory overload from crazy hot peppers measured on the Scoville heat units scale.
And speaking of hot peppers — or French roast coffee or stinky cheese or dark chocolate or any other robust culinary delight — I have noticed more and more, lately, that many chefs who love all those things are proud hop haters.
As famous New York City chef David Chang proclaimed in an infamous GQ piece , "When a waiter asks me what I want to drink, I respond, 'What is your lightest, crappiest beer?'" But, beyond that bit of provocation, Chang's more valid point is that he honestly thinks light, not so hoppy beer "pairs really well with food." And that's the argument I hear from other chefs, too.
Recently, chef-restaurateur Jay Swift of Atlanta’s 4th & Swift reposted a 2013 Slate story by Adrienne So, titled “Against Hoppy Beer,” on his Facebook page. To most hop lovers, So was making click bait by stringing together a bunch of poorly researched notions. But the article went viral, and continues to be a popular tract in the hop wars.
Explaining his thoughts, Swift wrote: “Many noncorporate bars’ beer lists do seem heavily weighted towards the hoppy. That’s why I shared this. I’m hoping for more balance in the future. I just don’t think they pair well with food.”
A couple of other Atlanta chefs, Chris Hall of Local Three and Josh Hopkins of Empire State South, expressed many of the same thoughts when I interviewed them about pairing Belgian beers for this week's Food cover story on the Nuit Belge tasting event . Both pointed out that they enjoyed pairing with Belgian beers because they tend to be complex, without much in the way of hops.
“I love Belgian beers,” Hall said. “Anything that will get me away from ultra hoppy beer, I’m good with. I’ve been that way for a while, now. I’ve said hoppy beers are the over-oaked chardonnay of the beer world. Get off of it.”
“Everything is so hop-forward, nowadays,” Hopkins said. “I’ve kind of gotten away from drinking IPAs, and I drink a lot more wine than I drink beer, lately. But Belgian beer is my favorite, or a nice, easygoing session beer.”
You can buy tickets to the Nuit Belge event here, and as a bonus, use code “AJC” for special promotional pricing.
Read the AJC Fall Dining Guide, Atlanta Around the Clock, here .
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Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com