Don Kavanagh: Hold off the hops, please


Brewers should be seeking balance - not attention, writes Don Kavanagh.

Too much hops and alcohol makes beer undrinkable. Photo / ThinkStock
Too much hops and alcohol makes beer undrinkable. Photo / ThinkStock

I'm about to commit heresy here, but someone has to. Craft brewers around the world are in the grip of a strange fever that seems to have emerged from the US and is now throttling the brewing world. The fever causes otherwise blameless brewers to amp up both the alcohol strength and the hop levels of their brews until they are virtually undrinkable.

This is heresy, of course, because beer aficionados are demanding more hoppy flavours and more strength in their brews, so the breweries have taken up the challenge and given them exactly that.

My problem with it is that excessive alcohol and excessive hops make beer less drinkable. Beer is all about balance and structure and I don't know any brewers who would disagree with that; but many seem to forget that simple fact when it comes to producing their beer.

It's attention-grabbing nonsense and nothing more; it's about packing in alcohol and hops so they can say: "This is the hoppiest/strongest/most heavily flavoured beer there is."

As I said, this is exactly what many people want. They want to be able to say they drank a 28 per cent beer with an off-the-scale IBU rating which is available only on the third day of each new millennium.

I've had incredibly hoppy beers and though they can be interesting and refreshing in small doses, it's also nice to be able to taste them, which is increasingly difficult in an unbalanced beer.

Beer needs to have a balance between the crisp, dry flavours of hops and the broader, sweeter malt. That's what has made English, German and Belgian beer styles so good and so popular for so long.

This sort of thing has happened before. With wine it was the grotesquely over-oaked chardonnays of the late 90s and early 2000s, which were like sucking a mantelpiece. Some of them were so oaky you ended up with splinters in your tongue.

But the drinking public rebelled and shifted heavily in favour of lighter sauvignon blancs until the oak was pulled back. Chardonnay today is much more balanced and elegant. Similarly, whisky drinkers went nuts on heavily peated Islay and Island malts before a more recent swing back towards the sweeter, more honeyed Speyside versions.

I'm confident that our brewers are more aware of the need for balance; indeed, I tried the revamped Galbraith's Antipodean recently and it's a much better beer with the hops toned down. I just hope the Americans get the hint sometime soon, too.

* Don Kavanagh has been involved in the hospitality trade for more than 25 years and is the editor of Hospitality magazine.

- Herald on Sunday

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