The Good and Bad of Hops

by Stephen Beaumont 

Pssst, hey you, brewer, over here! I’ve got a hot tip for you, something that is not only going to save you money, but make your beer taste better, to boot! You ready for it?

Enough with the dry-hopping already!

Now please, don’t get me wrong, I’m not hating on dry-hopping in general. I’m hating on your dry-hopping in particular, or if not yours, then the dry-hopping of someone you know. Because dry-hopping in craft beer – which, for the uninitiated, is the addition of hops to a beer at some point after the boil – has gotten a bit out of control these days, and often it is impairing rather than improving the character of the beer.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start by going back to earlier days of dry-hopping in the country with which it is traditionally associated, England. In the 1985 copy of the CAMRA Dictionary of Beer I have gathering dust on my bookshelf, author Brian Glover described dry-hopping as “the addition of a small quantity of fresh hops to a cask as it is filled with beer” and notes that the aroma and bitterness it provides is “subtly different from that provided by the hops boiled in the copper.” A little over a decade later, the Dictionary of Beer & Brewing observes that dry-hopping may take place “during primary or, more often, secondary fermentation” and “increase(s) the aroma and hop character of the finished beer without significantly affecting its bitterness.” (All emphases my own.)

In his more contemporary book, The Oxford Companion to Beer, Brooklyn Brewing brewer Garrett Oliver devotes a couple of pages to dry-hopping and suggests that “today it might be said that intense dry hop character is now widely considered a quintessentially American attribute when it comes to beer flavor.” It is worth noting, however, that the beers Mr. Oliver was referencing in that section were quite specifically IPAs and double IPAs.

Yet today brewers are dry-hopping most everything, from kettle sours to pilsners to stouts, and more often than not they are doing so with a most generous hand. Or, as brewers are wont to say, “dry-hopping the shit out of it!”

As with bunging beers into bourbon barrels and chucking chicken tenders into brew kettles, it is worth asking whether the ability to affect something must necessarily translate into the need to do it. Or to put another way, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

Take pilsner, for example. A well-constructed pilsner is a thing of subtlety and beauty, even when it is of the more aggressively hopped northern German style, speaking to the finesse of bitterness rather than the sometimes splendid aggression of an American style IPA. Further, it is a beer of aromatic elegance, floral in the classic Czech form and more herbal and even minerally in its German countenance.

What it is not is an olfactory brick upside the head, which is where it lands when heavily dry-hopped.

It’s the same with many, perhaps even most dry-hopped ‘sours.’ You take a beer that is fermented by any number of microflora to an appealingly tangy, appetizing aroma and then drench said bouquet with hoppy citrus and pine notes – why? Further, the dry-hopping of kölsch style beer engulfs a subtle union of malt and hop in fresh, leafy oils, the heavy-handed dry-hopping of dry stouts sacrifices sublime maltiness on the altar of the hop gods. And don’t even get me started on dry-hopped wheat beers.

None of which is to say that dry-hopping is de facto wrong, or that all of the examples listed above don’t have their exceptions. But when the practice is actually hampering rather than enhancing the majority of such beers that this professional beer sampler encounters, it’s worth considering whether that new beer recipe you worked so hard on is really, really, really going to benefit from dry-hopping. Could be that it’s just fine as it is.

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Short Sips with Stephen Beaumont

A corner dedicated to bringing you insight from industry author and beer connoisseur, Stephen Beaumont.

Twitter: @BeaumontDrinks