Hoppy Vs. Bitter: What’s The Difference?

There has been a bit of a renaissance in the beer world as of late.

The ale market has started booming across the US as people start to get into independent brewing, cask brewing, craft breweries as well as tasting, people have begun to appreciate beer like they would wine.

Hoppy Vs. Bitter What’s The Difference

Flashback to the yesteryear when Budweiser, Heineken and other European beers, lagers specifically, were made to seem like the peak of engineering, coinciding with the explosion of sport nationally in the 90s.

These were beers for the every man, so there was certainly a gap in the market for bespoke and gourmet beer.

This market was quickly filled by ale, while in the UK ale was originally the more popular drink in the British pub until the 80s and 90s when larger similarly exploded onto the market as it did internationally.

Yet, in the US, ale was still something that was considered to be uncommon and for those who were really into beer and brewing.

But in the present day, in both the UK and US, ale, specifically IPA and its variants, have started to take over the taps.

In most US bars and UK pubs, you can easily find cask ales, keg ales, and lots of different IPAs in the fridges and on the taps, where you totally couldn’t before.

AS more and more people get interested in ale and its different facets, there are a whole host of debates about flavors and tasting notes using different jargon that can mean different things to different people.

We’re here to cut out the noise for you so you can figure out how these terms can actually enhance your own enjoyment of the beer and ale. Today, we’re going to be talking about the debate between hoppy and bitter.

Do they mean the same thing, are they different, how are they different? All these questions and more will be answered. Keep on reading to learn more about ale, its flavors, and how it is made.

Hop Basics

Okay, so let’s start with hops and clear up what they are and what attributes they have which lead to people using the term ‘hoppy’.

If you want to know how to make beer and the ins and outs of the brewing process, there will be more detailed explanations on the site, but we’re only going to cover the surface here.

Hoppy Vs. Bitter The Difference

This is the most basic equation of beer and should be understood to truly inform how we use the terms bitter and hoppy.

In total simplicity, beer has only four ingredients, one of which is always hops. Grain and water is heated up which creates sugar, that sugar is then eaten by yeast which creates alcohol.

Here’s a super simple equation to make this even simpler:

  • Grain + Hot Water = Sugar
  • Sugar + Yeast = Alcohol

Why is this important? Well, when grain is heated up it produces sugars, so this means that beer would be very sweet if it were left like this.

The more grains you use, the more sweet a beer will be. Thus, hops are used to balance out the sweetness of the beer.

So there are two facts here worth noting. All beer has hops in it, but not all beer should immediately be described as being ‘hoppy’.

So, hear me out. This would be like saying your orange juice tastes like oranges, of course it does. What you might mean to say is that this orange juice is sweet, because of the sweetness attributed to oranges.

Some might say, this orange juice is very sour or acidic, this is because acid has been introduced to balance out the sweetness – the same thing happens in beer.

The second thing we need to realize is that the amount of grain will affect the amount of alcohol. The more grain means more sugar, this means more yeast is required to eat more sugar, and thus more alcohol is created.

But as we now know, grains are very sweet so more hops are used to balance out this sweetness. This brings us to IBU and ‘relative’ and ‘perceived’ bitterness.

Bitterness And IBUs

The concept of bitterness is often understood and occasionally used in a different way or misused all together.

As we mentioned, hops are added to balance sweetness with bitterness. One attribute we can give to hops is that they are bitter, so are hoppy and bitter interchangeable terms? Not necessarily.

Hops bring way more to beer than just bitterness, they are piney, fruity, floral, perfumey, it totally depends on which hops you use.

Have you ever felt like your beer smells like marijuana? This is thanks to hops too, but maybe ‘it smells like cannabis’ isn’t the best tasting note, even though it’s very popular.

However, what we can say is ‘this is very hoppy’. The term hoppy should be used to describe all the characteristics of a hop, apart from bitterness.

So hoppy refers to the other notes hops brings which we outlined before, grassy, woodsy, floral, herbal.

So now we are left with bitterness, which as we say is commonly used in the wrong context. The term bitter can have a super far range in the context of brewing so let’s break it down further.

There is actually a scale used to measure bitterness in beer, which is almost on every single bottle of beer everywhere, this is known as IBUs or ‘International Bitterness Units’.

You may be thinking ‘Great, I just need to read this to know how bitter a beer is.’ As you may have guessed, it’s not that simple.

IBUs only measure isohumulone, which is the chemical released by hops, as well as others, which specifically makes beer ‘bitter’, at least in the brewing process, other bitter elements can be added in addition to hops.

But as we mentioned, the more alcoholic a beer is, the more grain it has, and this means it will be sweeter. This also means there is more availability for the beer to be perceivably bitter, and IBUs are a relative measure of that.

So let’s go back a step. Can IBUs tell me how bitter a beer is? Not really. For instance, if a beer is 6% and has 60 IBUs, this will taste as bitter as a beer that is 9% and has 90 IBUs.

So this can stop people buying beer which has a high IBU as they think that it has a high amount of bitterness, this is not always the case.

However, if we use what we have just learned, we can actually figure out how potentially bitter a beer could be versus how sweet it may be.

For instance, a beer that is 9% but has 45 IBUs will be much sweeter than a beer with 9% alcohol and 90IBUs.

The higher alcohol means more grains which means more sweetness, the lower number of IBUs tell us fewer hops were used to balance out this sweetness.

Another example could be a beer that is 4% but has 60 IBUs, this means that the beer may well be quite bitter, more hops were used than necessary in order to make a more bitter taste.

Let’s be clear, just because a beer has a higher IBU than ABV does not mean it will be sweeter for certain, and vice versa.

The brewer may have used other elements to balance out the bitterness or sweetness.

So to sum that up, perceived bitterness refers to the actual taste of the beer and our own preference of bitterness, some may like bitter flavors more than others.

So if I said ‘this beer has a lot of ‘perceived bitterness’ I would be referring to how I am perceiving the bitter notes the beer has to offer.

Relative bitterness only refers to the potential for the beer to be bitter, but this does not mean it will be bitter.

Other elements may have been added in order to make that beer less bitter.

But its relative bitterness will always remain the same no matter how bitter it actually is as this refers to the levels of isohumulone.

Beer Styles

Styles have a huge effect on the brewing process, and in turn will affect how sweet or bitter a beer is. Two really popular yet different styles of ale are the New England IPA or what you might term a ‘hazy’ IPA and then West Coast IPA.

Hoppy Vs. Bitter

Most beers will tell you what style they are on the can or on the tap, one very clear way to tell is that a New England IPA is visually very cloudy, hence the ‘hazy’ moniker.

On the other hand West Coast IPA is actually much clearer and has a more amber color.

With West Coast IPA this style is much sweeter, and commonly higher in ABV.

The grains are malted which makes them have a caramel-like and malted flavor, the hops bring a sort of stone fruit element to the tasting notes that is mildly tropical spending on hops.

A West Coast can very easily be described as ‘bitter’ with affirmation.

With a Hazy IPA you can expect these to be sweet also, but in a different way.

Hazy IPAs often use yeast that has strong flavors, usually British yeast which kicks back the fruity flavors of the New England IPA.

They then compound that by using really strong hops. You could describe a New England IPA as ‘hoppy’ because of this, even though most of that flavor is actually from the yeast.

Just to compare them again, the West Coast IPA will rely on malts and grain for sweet flavors, a clean yeast with essentially no flavor is used, and then hops are introduced to balance the perceived bitterness.

With New England IPA strong yeast is used to ferment the grain which is then balanced out by the bitterness of isohumulone and also the other flavor elements of the hops used.

Hoppy Vs. Bitter: The Final Words

So, let’s summarize.

Grains bring sweetness to beer when steeped in hot water, or they can use malts which are simply grains that have been fermented.

The sugar that is created is then eaten by yeast, hops are also introduced to help balance the sweetness with bitterness while also adding other flavors which bring the complexity to beer we love.

If a beer is high in alcohol, more hops are required to balance out this sweetness.

This is what IBUs measure, not literal bitterness or what is termed ‘perceived bitterness’ but it in fact measures ‘relative bitterness’.

A beer with 3% ABV and 30 IBUs has the same potential for bitterness that a beer with 6% ABV and 60 IBUs does.

But with each beer there are other elements, such as the type of hops or type of yeast, that will significantly affect this sweet and bitter balance.

So in terms of how to use these words, experience will help more than any of these explanations can.

If you have drank ales and beer for a long time you will already know what a bitter beer tastes like and what a hoppy beer tastes like.

As a rule of thumb, though, ‘hoppy’ should be used to refer to any aspect that the hop brings beyond simply bitter notes.

If you are saying a beer is hoppy you are suggesting that the flavor is driven by the choice of hops which dominate the tasting and nose notes.

On the other hand, ‘bitter’ should refer to your own perceived bitterness. It does not refer to the IBU rating, which measures relative bitterness, nor the ABV rating.

When you say something is better you are saying to the other person that based on your own palette and comfort with bitter flavors.

‘Hoppy’ should be used as an identifying term, while ‘bitter’ should provide your opinion.

TO go back to orange juice, saying something is ‘hoppy’ is just like saying the main flavor of the orange juice comes from the oranges.

If you say the orange juice is acidic or sour, you are commenting on the balance of the juice and how that interacts with your own palette.

Andrew Carr
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