I find that when most people say “I don’t like beer,” they really mean “I don’t like hops.” Hops are the primary source of bitterness in beer, and bitterness is primarily what turns people away. Evolution has set our brains to register bitterness as poison. Some folks are unable to overcome this ingrown aversion.
Others can’t stomach the sharply spicy, fruity and earthy flavors and aromas that hops provide. Not everyone likes a squeeze of grapefruit in their beer.
But aside from mainstream lagers, the hoppiest beer styles — pale ale, IPA and double IPA — are currently the most popular styles. And the Twin Cities represents an especially hop-heavy market. Go to any store with a good selection of better brews and you will find entire coolers devoted to them. Tap handles are heavily weighted to these three styles.
What is a beer-loving hop-hater to do?
Fortunately, beer has two other main ingredients that also assert their flavor influence — malt and yeast. And just as some beer styles showcase hops, the other ingredients also have their stylistic champions. It’s simply a matter of knowing which styles to look for.
Here are some stylistic pointers with a classic example for each.
If you like hops, but don’t want quite the heavy load of an IPA, head toward American amber ales. These balanced beauties are like pale ales with an extra shot of caramel. The added malt buffers the bitterness and gives a sweeter flavor base for those citrusy hop varieties. Bell’s Amber is a good one to reach for. Light notes of toasted grain add some interest to the typical caramel malt. Low hop character is citrus, earth and herbs.
I find the Vienna lager style to be a consistent crowd pleaser across the spectrum of beer drinker palates. These are very balanced beers, highlighting toasted-bread malt flavor with supporting spicy hops and approachable bitterness. And they are smooth, crisp and refreshing as good lagers should be. Minnesota’s own August Schell Brewing Co. has an award-winning example in Firebrick. Malt leads with notes of toffee, bread crust and slight nuttiness. Bitterness balances without getting in the way.
Sticking with lagers, bock beers are another good avenue for those wishing to steer clear of hops. A good doppelbock is rich, warming and brimming with bread crust and raisiny dark-fruit flavors. Some — like my favorite Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock — even bring a subtle hint of chocolate. Bitterness is low and hop flavor is typically nonexistent.
Scottish-style ales are almost defined by their malt focus and limited hop influence. These beers are all about caramel, with finishing hints of coffee-like roast to boost the impression of dryness. For a lighter quaff, look for a Scottish export style, such as Belhaven Scottish Ale — available in nitro-widget cans — or Odell 90 Shilling. For something more robust, look for a Wee Heavy. The version from Steel Toe Brewing in St. Louis Park has won numerous and well-deserved international awards.
During the process of fermentation, yeast imparts compounds into beer that bring fruity and spicy flavors of banana, orange, stone fruits, pepper and clove. The beers that highlight these yeast-derived characteristics tend to fall at the lower end of the hop scale. They offer another safe refuge for the hop-averse.
If your preferences lie to the lighter side, look for a “hefeweizen”— a German-style wheat beer. Bitterness is low in these effervescent ales and there is no hop flavor. Instead the tongue is met with the bready taste of wheat and aromatic nuances of banana, bubble gum and clove.
Hefeweizen is best consumed 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 in abundance, but handling issues during import often mean they are well past their peak by the time they hit the shelves. I’ve had generally good luck with Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier.
Belgian-style dubbel is another good option. The profile is a bit like a doppelbock on fermentation steroids. The bread-crust malt and raisins of the former are joined by a tasty mélange of ripe banana, dates and peppery spice. A celebratory fizz makes the dubbel an uplifting treat. Koningshoeven Dubbel is an excellent example from Belgium. Boom Island Hoodoo Dubbel is an option for those who like to keep it local.
Sour beers are often made with aged hops, used mostly as a natural preservative. They impart neither bitterness nor flavor to the beer. The wild character of many traditional sour ales can be hard to take for the uninitiated. Flemish red or brown beers offer an approachable introduction to these acidic styles.
Flemish brown — also called Oud Bruin — focuses on malt with balsamic vinegar acidity playing a supporting role. Toffee and chocolate roll around in your mouth with a basket of dark fruits — figs, raisins, plums, dates, black cherries and prunes. There is nary a hop to be found. Liefmans Goudenband is arguably the benchmark for the style and relatively easy to find in the Twin Cities.
Flemish red ales lean to the sour. The malt character and dark fruits — 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, though. I find that people who think they don’t like beer can fall in love with a Flemish red. Duchesse de Bourgogne is a great one to start with. It’s a bit sweeter than some others and so a touch less intimidating. The first time I tasted Duchesse, I turned to the person next to me and said simply, “Delightful.”
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at email@example.com.