Does the Beer Industry Have a Hop Problem?

In the days leading up to the 4th of July, beer Twitter was loud with thoughts on a Paste Magazine article by Jim Vorel. The premise of his article was that the industry’s quest for juicier and juicier New England IPAs has led us to a point where the market is increasingly flush with undrinkable beer.

The day after Vorel’s article was published, Jeff Alworth, author of the popular beer blog, Beervana, published an article stemming off of Vorel’s that explained in more technical terms why we’re seeing more and more undrinkable beer.

How, you ask, could aiming for a more supreme version of that juicy, hazy style beer take us to a point where bad beer (yes, I said it) is now flooding taprooms and shelves around the country?

To answer in just a word - hops.

I know, I know - hops are what make a beer hazy and juicy (at least, that’s what you’ve been told and led to believe. Side note: you’ve sort of been lied to. Yeast can play a role just as important as hops in delivering a juicy flavor, and it plays a big, big role in the hazy appearance).

But those same hops can also lead to undrinkable beer. For a deep explanation I encourage you to read the pieces by Vorel and Alworth, but the quick and dirty explanation is that many breweries are overhopping beers. As Vorel points out, if you hop a beer with double the Citra, it’s not a 1:1 correlation that produces a beer that has exactly double the juicy flavor. In fact, as he mentions, it could produce the opposite effect.

When overhopping a beer, a bad flavor can actually result instead of a juicy flavor. It’s sort of a green peppery, vegetal taste. Alworth describes it as a “plant-matter” or “chlorophyll” taste. Sometimes, that taste mellows and subsides as a beer “sits.” Other times, it never goes away.

I don’t want to get too far into the beer taste of the issue since Vorel and Alworth do such a good job diving into that. Instead I want to focus on the business and marketing aspects.

From a business perspective, why is overhopping happening?

It basically comes down to consumer tastes and trends. Craft beer drinkers want NEIPAs these days. There are a lot of really good ones produced across the country from breweries like Tree House, Bissell Brothers, Creature Comforts, and Topping Goliath. In an effort to try and stand out and make a name for themselves, many other breweries have followed suit producing the style. And by many, I mean every brewery operating. With that many breweries churning out the same style, it’s understandably hard to stand out, so some have resorted to trying to add more hops to their beers. They think they’re answering consumer demand, but it’s not always playing out that way.

Some that are overhopping are releasing beers that shouldn’t be released yet. They need that time to mellow, but these breweries are at the mercy of the almighty dollar. If they’ve been promoting a beer release on Thursday, they feel they can’t push it off. So they release the beer, knowing it’s not ready. At least, many do. They’re in a tough situation because NEIPAs need to be consumed fresh, ideally within a few weeks, so if they hold a release after they’ve been promoting it, some beer fans will interpret that as less time to drink the beer in ideal conditions.

The unintended downside of this move is beers hitting the market that taste like green pepper rather than citrus, mango, or pineapple. Oddly enough, some drinkers have actually been conditioned by this, thinking certain beers should have a vegetal taste, as if it’s a sign of freshness. It’s not fresh beer, it’s beer that isn’t ready to be consumed.

On the other side, there are some breweries that overhop beers, release them, and that weird taste never goes away. This next observation/hypothesis is from me. I haven’t seen others mention it, and I feel bad even saying it because I’m a big proponent of expansion in the beer industry, but could some of these bad tasting NEIPAs that don’t mellow be from breweries that don’t have a great grasp on the technical side of the industry? We’ve seen a ton of breweries open over the past five years. If they’re feeling the pinch of competition and aren’t standing out as much as they’d like, could they be overhopping in an effort to outjuice the others and make a name for themselves? That’s purely speculation, but is the conclusion I would draw as a beer consumer.

How does overhopping impact beer marketing?

On one hand, I’m not sure it does. There’s a crop of drinkers out there who will drink anything if it comes from certain breweries. Like I mentioned earlier, there are some who believe a released beer is supposed to taste like green pepper for a short while. Overhopping isn’t negatively impacting money spent by these people in any way at all. It’s just reinforcing what they believe a beer is supposed to taste like. It’s similar to people who only drink NEIPAs and then try a new, first time pilsner released by their favorite NEIPA brewery. The beer is hazy and dry-hopped and drinks like a session IPA. In reality, it’s not a pilsner in any sense of the traditional definition at all, but for these people, it’s now the standard of what a pilsner should be. If they later have a traditional German pilsner, their response is, “Something’s wrong with this pilsner.” By the same token, if certain people drink a NEIPA on the day it’s canned and it doesn’t taste vegetal, they say, “This beer isn’t as fresh as it should be.”

In appealing to other drinkers who are more attuned to the technical aspects of the industry, there could be a marketing opportunity. There’s a lot of respect in the industry for brewers who have admitted to dumping batches of beer that didn’t turn out the way they wanted. There could be an opportunity to build respect by breweries that can absorb the financial implications of holding on a release. This could also be a way to educate some drinkers: 

“Our NEIPA was supposed to be released tomorrow, but in testing it and tasting it, it just doesn’t have the taste we want you to experience from it yet. Given that, we’re going to hold on releasing it for a couple days. We apologize to anyone who planned to come by and grab some today, but when you buy it from us, we want you to be able to open a can that day and get exactly the taste we planned - pineapple, citrus and a touch of grass. Right now it has too much grass and still has that slight burn of hops. You don’t want to drink that. That taste isn’t fresh beer, it’s not what we’d call drinkable beer yet.”

Imagine a brewery that really focuses on educating consumers on what a beer should (and shouldn’t) taste like. I think there could be something there.

However you look at things, I think it’s clear that the beer industry is running into a hop problem that’s causing issues on a number of fronts. It needs to be addressed. It can’t be ignored.