To Predict If You’ll Like a Beer, Look at the Hops

Generally if you name a food or drink, people know whether they like it or not. It is rare for someone to drink a merlot, or try pizza from a new restaurant — toasted bread, melted cheese, tomato sauce and toppings - and be wildly surprised at their reaction to the taste.

I can't quite figure that out for pale ales though. Some pale ales and IPA's had flavors I really liked, and some had flavors I really disliked. I had a tough time predicting which ones I would like and not like.

I had some suspicions - I didn't think I liked beers with much higher ABV than normal or beers that had citrus in them. But I also liked some beers with high ABV and one of my favorite "everyone has it" beers - Sierra Nevada - describes itself as "pine and citrus," so that wasn't quite right.

Anyway, I decided to be somewhat rigorous about this and order a few different types of beers from the bottle shop, and then figure out what I liked or didn't like about them. It turns out the key is the hops - there are some hop varieties (Cascade, Chinook, Noble) that I like a lot, and other hop varieties (Citra, Galaxy, Enigma, others) that I don't at all. If the hop description mentions passion fruit, I probably won't like it. Other than that, I can keep lists.

This is both satisfying - I can predict which beers I will like and not like, now — and frustrating. Why is this so difficult for consumers to figure out? Why does the category definition of "pale ale" include so much stuff? Like imagine if you ordered a "cheese pizza", and sometimes it would come with anchovies and sometimes with pineapple, and sometimes with nothing. People would demand better words to describe the differences between the things.

If you have ideas or answers, I would love to hear from you.

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2 thoughts on “To Predict If You’ll Like a Beer, Look at the Hops

  1. Derrick

    Hops are broadly classified as aromatic or bittering. The bittering hops contain more alpha acids, which act as a preservative. On a long journey by boat, for example, you’d want the preservative effects of bittering hops and the bitter (& other unwelcome flavors) will mellow out over the course of the journey, since they’re typically due to volatiles.

    In the modern world, brewers make these styles but do not spend the time to let them condition because time means space means money.

    Then there are those brewers who think that drinking something gross is a badge of honor. The brewers association actually started separating out West Coast IPAs from other IPAs in their style guide because of this.

    The tl;dr is that it is not quite as simple as just the hops varietal because given time a lot of the unwanted flavors will mellow out in any beer, and good breweries do it before the bottle gets to you. However, it does tend to be a good heuristic.

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  2. James Cropcho

    “Craft beer” culture is weird. If a drinker orders a freaky beer to signal to his square friends he’s better than they, but his friends end up thinking the freaky beer doesn’t taste that freaky, the drinker will order a freakier beer next time, or be out-freaked by a friend competing in the same game. Play this out over many iterations and the social structure becomes a “whose dick is bigger” contest; it becomes detached from pleasure-of-experience.

    You are not a voice of reason. Instead, you are an outsider and non-player-character fighting uphill against an industry and consumer segment which does not want taste to be predictable, nor for you to even find most beers to be palatable.

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