On Bitterness


adj. bit·ter·erbit·ter·est

1. Having or being a taste that is sharp, acrid, and unpleasant.
2. Causing a sharply unpleasant, painful, or stinging sensation; harsh: enveloped in bitter cold; a bitter wind.
3. Difficult or distasteful to accept, admit, or bear: the bitter truth; bitter sorrow.
4. Proceeding from or exhibiting strong animosity: a bitter struggle; bitter foes.
5. Resulting from or expressive of severe grief, anguish, or disappointment: cried bitter tears.
6. Marked by resentment or cynicism.

Doesn’t sound at all pleasant, does it? Yet bitterness is the flavour – the experience – that perhaps most excites beer geeks. Whether it’s the high, Quinine-esque rasp of a good Gueuze or Berliner Weisse, or – more often than not – a tastebud devastator of an IPA, bitter is the flavour we crave. Hell, even a really, really good G&T… If our lips ain’t puckered, then it’s not bitter enough.

For me, there’s always moderation (How very you, I hear those who know me proclaim…) – but how did ‘Hop-Bombs’ become so damn popular? Is it the bitterness, or the aroma that packing a beer full of hops brings? Both? Why do we love IPA so? You could argue for the tastes of an underground; a niche, a subculture not truly represented in the wider drinking view of the UK. Then again, the effect of said ‘hop-bombs’ in the general brewing world (up to a point), is hard to deny. Difference, I guess. Difference to what was out there.

It’s easy to get desensitized to extremes of flavour; it’s easy to get desensitized to most things if you try them enough. So when something like Hilden’s Twisted Hop came along, it fair knocked me off my chair. It’s not an IPA; but smacks you square in the jaw with green, lime-sherbet bitterness. Sharp as a razor, spiky as a cactus, it lays those barbs of bitterness over a mesa of boiled-candy, sugar-sweet, orange-jelly body that disapears in the middle of the sip, only to surface again at the end, to stop too much of a dry finish. It’s a 4.7% abv Pale Ale, remember; not an IPA. That would have been too easy.

And so the beer becomes entirely memorable purely for the surprise package; the promise of a Lisburn Pale Ale and the resultant shock of such a crisp, zippy one at that; a reminder of what can be done with perhaps one of the broadest formats in Beer. I drank this on the train after a day out in Nottingham, a present brought back from Belfast by my erstwhile drinking buddy Chris, and one that recharged a jaded palate at that. I’d tasted Hilden’s wares before, a few years back now – but was mightily twisted by this Twisted Hop. More, please.

To see only a cross-section of what IPA in this country means, check out this wonderful exception to the usually predictable list blog over at BeerCast. It inspired me to finally get this recent review online. That’s what good blogging’s about, no?


About leighgoodstuff

Blog: https://goodfoodgoodbeer.wordpress.com/ I'm Leigh Linley; born and bred in Leeds, and writing about it since 2005. TGS exists solely to highlight the great beers that are out there; brewed with passion by Craft Brewers around the World. I also edit the 'Tavern Tales' section of Culture Vulture, which looks at Pubs and Pub Life rather than the beer in the glass.

Posted on 29/04/2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Any UK stockists that you know of Leigh?

    • remember northern ireland is the uk Phil 😉

      no mail order companies up here though, i can always post you something though.

      • Haha Mr Pedantic 😉

        You know what I meant, I’d like to try some though, maybe bring a bottle or two with you to EBBC, save posting? I’m not booked in yet but I think it’s likely

      • i’m not bringing checked luggage this time and i’m flying from city airport else i could pick some up post security if it were international…will see what i can do.

  2. Hi Leigh.
    Jumping media here from twitter where I hope critique of this post has been read as such: critique not criticism or having a go. This is an interesting post and I think you have a good line of argument about the cult/fashion for extreme tastes.


    To me you make a fundamental but very very common error – not differentiating between the basic tastes (which as a reminder are sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami).

    You start by talking about bitterness:
    “Yet bitterness is the flavour – the experience – that perhaps most excites beer geeks.”

    Then you say this:
    “Whether it’s the high, Quinine-esque rasp of a good Gueuze or Berliner Weisse”
    Now these two beers *are not bitter*. Geuze brewers go to quite astonishing lengths to ensure minimal bitterness. They age their hops till they are dry and cheesy so all aroma and bitterness are lost and just preservatives remain. Typical ibu as low as 5. the sweetness is balanced with sourness from lactic and acetic acid as well as other complex flavours from wild fermentation.
    Berliner Weisse is also defined not by bitterness (short boil low to almost no hopping ibu as low as 2 rarely over 8) this balances sweetness with lactic sourness.

    You then go on to say
    “or – more often than not – a tastebud devastator of an IPA, bitter is the flavour we crave”

    An IPA *is* defined by bitterness, though this is also historically specific. British export IPA was barrel aged for a year and then shipped to India. By the time sit arrived the massive hopping rates would have seen the bitterness back off a lot leaving a very very dry beer from secondary rent in transit and high hop flavour but probably much reduced bitterness (bitterness reduces a lot with ageing)

    It’s them damn Yankees who went for young extreme IPAs with huge bitterness. And the cult of extreme seems to be rampant – the point you make. There is a fashion for chasing flavours that are extreme whether sour or bitter and balance seems to get lost in this. Perhaps it’s showing how,inch of a non-lager drinker you are (or non middle of the road camra member you are) the beer equivalent of downhill mountain biking and sneering at commuters?

    There are exceptions, the Belgians seem to be good at doing big hops in a few beers (De Ranke XX bitter or poperinge hommelbier for example) where hoppiness is introduced in a Belgian beer that remains distinctively Belgian AND hoppy yet not overly bitter.

    To me British brewing has always been about masterfully balancing our beers, making low abv perfectly crafted beers like our iconic leyland mini, whereas US IPAs are like an SUV next to it (or more charitably sticking to a 60s vehicle metaphor) a loud brash chrome emblazoned ac cobra. Sometimes it’s like rock n roll to our skiffle – an injection of excitement and Americas endless ahistorical inventiveness and its for British brewers to craft this as the Beatles and stones did and ship back a refined balanced sophisticated version.

    I’m getting wrapped up in a metaphor here but I hope this clarifies critique and recognises at least part of the thrust of your argument but cautions on the importance of differentiating bitter and sour. There’s a lot of research showing how many people can’t differentiate which I can probably scare up if you or anyone is interested.

    Happy blogging and tasting.


  3. There you go: http://www.sensorysociety.org/ssp/wiki/Sour-Bitter_Confusion/
    “There is a phenomenon in the sensory world widely referred to as the sour-bitter confusion that commonly occurs among untrained assessors. This occurrence involves the assessor describing a sour sensation as bitter and/or a bitter sensation as sour, with the former being more predominant. This practice appears to be limited to predominantly English-speaking countries such as the United States, Great Britain, and New Zealand6. Debate in the past has centered on whether this confusion stems from a physiological disorder or simply a deficit in exposure to and training with sour and bitter tastes4,5,7. “

  4. A lovely addition to the Northern Irish beer scene, though it has since been trumped by Whitewater’s Hoppelhammer. Twisted Hop, in my experience, is one of those beers that works better, more cleanly, force-carbonated in the bottle than on cask.

    • I know what you mean – I would definately agree with that. The bottle was prickly and lively, and that ‘certain spikiness’ probably added to the overall refreshment – which was pretty damn high.

  5. Ok beer. Not a lot of flavor and not very bitter. However, It didn’t taste bad. Overall not great, not terrible.

  6. Hi Steve – brilliant comments, and thanks for the clarity.
    Absolutely agree – your advice and the accompanying reading is all brilliant. I would probably argue (not *in my defence* as such, as I’m leaving the post up in it’s entirety) that, as an untrained assessor (and I am, of course) that the confusion seems common. I would also say that the examples in the beginning are actually what I think of when I think of ‘really bitter things’ – I know now them to actually be sour, but that’s how my brain is hardwired. I wonder, perhaps, how many ‘average drinkers’ out there would do the same? Perhaps the argument is one of perception, rather than science?
    As for the blogging side of things, I’ll certainly think on this some more…food for thought!

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