Some of you might remember the commercial for a leading macro-lager showing someone wincing while drinking a competitive brand, making what was called a "bitter-beer face." This ad is ludicrous on so many levels.
First, if you lined up all of the macro-lagers on a bar and tasted them, there is about as much difference between them as hamburgers from different McDonald's locations. Secondly, "bitterness" is not a valid taste descriptor for any of the leading macros; there are barely enough hops in there to give the beer any character at all.
The real problem with this commercial is that it tries to convince you that "bitter" flavor is a bad thing. These guys are trying to appeal to your palate as if you were 2 years old.
As we grow older and more adventurous, let's hope we will take our taste buds on the journey. I have little patience with people who won't try this or that for fear that it might taste bad. If it does, just spit it out! Grow up already!
I am not talking about eating stuff like raw monkey brains or sheep's eyeballs. I am talking about mainstream stuff, like fish, cheese, greens, nuts, coffee, tea, wine and, of course, beer. I know there are many folks who cannot tolerate certain foods because of digestive issues or allergies. That's different. (Although the weak were usually the first ones eaten during a harsh winter.) I am talking about namby-pamby food wimps! "Eeee-WWW! Does that have mustard on it?"
Getting back to beer. Bitterness is an essential flavor for a majority of beer styles. Bitterness is what provides the refreshment and also is responsible for firing those dendrites and axions, delivering the beery enjoyment to your brain. The isomerized oils from the plant Humulus lupulus, commonly called hops, provides the bitterness in beer.
Sounds really technical, huh? Not really.
The brewer basically throws in a bunch of hop flowers into the boil and lets them do their thing. Hop flowers really smell great when fresh, with some varieties smelling like citrus, pine or even spice. If the hop flowers are allowed to boil longer than 15 minutes, the majority of their aromatics and lingering flavor are boiled off.
The resins from the flower remain and are isomerized by the heat of the boil. This chemical reaction manifests itself as bitterness and, at this point, the varietal character of the hop nearly disappears, leaving only bitterness.
So next time, look for the IBU label in the grocer's beer aisle. IBU stands for International Bitterness Units. This number will clue you in on how bitter the beer will be. IBU numbers approaching 40 and above are considered bitter to most folks. Many craft brews proudly label their IBUs. I have tasted brews well over 100 IBU and they are bitter indeed, but never enough to change my smile into a wince.
For more on the craft of beer, see Rich Ireland's "Beers to You" blog at thegazz.com.