I find that when most people say “I don’t like beer” they really mean “I don’t like hops”. Hops are the main source of bitterness in beer, and bitterness is mainly what turns people off. Evolution has configured our brains to register bitterness as poison. Some people are unable to overcome this embodied aversion.
Others can’t stand the intensely spicy, fruity, and earthy flavors and aromas that hops provide. Not everyone likes a squeeze of grapefruit in their beer.
But aside from traditional lagers, the more hoppy styles of beer — pale ale, IPA, and double IPA — are currently the most popular styles. And the twin cities represent a particularly rich market for hops. Go to any store with a good selection of better beers and you’ll find entire coolers devoted to them. Faucet handles are heavily weighted by these three styles.
What should a beer lover who hates hops do?
Fortunately, beer contains two other main ingredients that also assert their taste influence: malt and yeast. And just as some styles of beer showcase hops, other ingredients have their stylistic champions too. It’s simply a matter of knowing what styles to look for.
Here are some stylistic pointers with a classic example for each.
If you like hops, but don’t want the heavy load of an IPA, head to American amber ales. These balanced beauties are like lagers with an extra dose of caramel. The added malt lessens the bitterness and provides a smoother flavor base for these citrus hop varieties. Bell’s Amber is a good choice. Light toasted grain notes add a bit of interest to the typical caramel malt. The low hop character is made up of citrus, earth and herbs.
I find the Vienna lager style to be a constant treat for any beer drinker’s palate. These are very balanced beers, showcasing the toasty malt flavor with spicy hops and approachable bitterness. And they’re smooth, crisp and refreshing like good lagers should be. August Schell Brewing Co. of Minnesota has an award-winning example at Firebrick. The malt leads with hints of caramel, bread crust and light nutty notes. The bitterness balances out without getting in the way.
Sticking to lagers, bock beers are another good avenue for those wishing to avoid hops. A good doppelbock is rich, warm, and bursting with bread crust and raisiny dark fruit flavors. Some – like my favorite Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock – even have a subtle hint of chocolate. Bitterness is low and hop flavor is generally non-existent.
Scottish-style ales are almost defined by their malt concentration and limited hop influence. These beers are all about caramel, with final notes of coffee roasting to reinforce the impression of dryness. For a lighter sip, look for a Scottish export style, like Belhaven Scottish Ale – available in nitro-widget cans – or Odell 90 Shilling. For something sturdier, look for a Wee Heavy. Steel Toe Brewing’s version in St. Louis Park has won many well-deserved international awards.
During the fermentation process, yeast imparts compounds to the beer that bring fruity and spicy flavors of banana, orange, stone fruit, pepper and clove. Beers that showcase these yeast-derived characteristics tend to be on the lower end of the hop scale. They provide another safe haven for hop showers.
If your preference is for the lighter side, look for a “hefeweizen” – a German-style wheat beer. The bitterness is low in these effervescent beers and there is no hop flavor. Instead, the tongue encounters the taste of wheat bread and aromatic undertones of banana, bubblegum and clove.
Hefeweizen is best eaten fresh, so domestic is often better. But they tend to be a summer seasonal brew, making local examples hard to find at this time of year. Sierra Nevada Keller Weiss is a good option available year-round. Authentic examples from Germany are plentiful, but processing issues when importing often mean they are well past their prime by the time they hit shelves. I’ve generally been lucky with Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier.
Belgian dubbel is another good option. The profile is a bit like a doppelbock on fermentation steroids. The bread-crusted malt and raisins of the former are joined by a savory blend of ripe banana, dates and peppery spices. A festive fizz makes dubbel an uplifting treat. Koningshoeven Dubbel is an excellent Belgian example. Boom Island Hoodoo Dubbel is an option for those who like to stay local.
Sour beers are often made with aged hops, used primarily as a natural preservative. They do not impart bitterness or flavor to the beer. The wildness of many traditional sour beers can be difficult for the uninitiated to accept. Flemish red or brown beers offer an accessible introduction to these sour styles.
Flemish Brown – also called Oud Bruin – focuses on malt with the acidity of balsamic vinegar playing a supporting role. Caramel and chocolate roll in your mouth with a basket of dark fruits – figs, raisins, plums, dates, black cherries and prunes. There is not a jump to be found. Liefmans Goudenband is arguably the style benchmark and relatively easy to find in the Twin Cities.
Flemish red beers lean towards sourness. The malty character and dark fruit — especially cherry — of the Oud Bruin are there, but the balsamic accompaniment is much bolder. It’s not so sour as to be off-putting, however. I find that people who think they don’t like beer can fall in love with a Flemish red. The Duchess of Burgundy is a good starting point. It’s a little softer than some others and therefore a little less intimidating. The first time I tasted Duchesse, I turned to the person next to me and simply said, “Delicious.”
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer world’s version of the sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He organizes private and corporate beer tastings in the Twin Cities and can be contacted at [email protected]