Friday 9 January 2009


“Never succumb to the temptation of bitterness.” Martin Luther King.

I’ve found myself more and more drawn towards getting a huge smack of bitterness in my beer drinking. The hop is an addictive little chap, calling me back for more and more. But when I was drinking a particularly gorgeous but aggressive American IPA last week it got me thinking…

The beer was Ruination IPA from Stone Brewing Company in San Diego. It’s incredible. The bottle announces it as ‘A liquid poem to the glory of the hop’; it’s more of an anthem. It scores over 100 in the International Bittering Units scale and that’s a lot (lager scores 5-15, a ‘standard’ IPA around 50).

It pours a sexy bronze colour with a large lacing head; it’s a great looking beer. The aroma is huge with fresh oranges, grapefruit, pineapple and pine - the nose is intoxicating on its own. Sweet malt hits the tongue first and this is bready and full of caramel, but it’s soon overtaken by the massive hops: oranges and grapefruit; juice, flesh and pith; a long, clingy-bitter, dry, zingy, zesty finish. It’s just so drinkable, gluggable, well balanced. An awesome beer, but certainly not for those who are aren’t hop-lovers; it’ll blow your socks off!

All that bitterness got my brain going. Now I’m certainly no scientist, but here’s my basic understanding, with a beer slant put on it.

As kids we hate that bitter twang at the back of our mouths, but we love sweetness. As our palates develop we acquire the taste for bitter flavours, such as citrus, coffee and dark chocolate. It is innately within us to avoid bitter tastes. To our distant ancestors bitterness (usually when tasted from a plant) was bad and it signaled the possibility of poison; if it tasted bitter we avoided it incase it harmed us.

So what happens when we drink an aggressively bitter beer? Our bodies innate response would be to throw out warning alarms to let us know of potential danger. The chemical mechanisms would say: ‘Watch out, that could be poisonous!’ and then the brain and body need to make a life-critical decision about whether it’s safe to continue or not. The trouble is that underneath the bitterness is a whole load of sweetness, and sweetness = good. So there’s even more chemicals and decisions flying around: it’s good/bad, life/death.

We take another sip to be sure. We experience it like this: sweet first on the tip of our tongue, brief but powerful, but then as the beer moves over the tongue it hits the bitter-taste receptors right at the back of the mouth and down the throat. The bitter area dominates that part of our palate (it’s the last thing we taste before we swallow) and so the bitterness stays around for the longest, especially in a strongly hopped beer.

Now, whatever it decides, the body is flooded with chemicals simultaneously. It gets a ‘Go’ signal from the sweetness, but a ‘Stop’ from the bitterness. On top of this, sweetness actually dramatises the sensation of bitterness. So a beer that has a high ABV will generally have a depth of sweetness which then impacts upon the sensation of the bitterness. Here’s what your brain might be deciphering: ‘If this is bitter - which it most certainly is - then it could be poison. Maybe I’ll take another sip to be sure. Wait a minute! It’s sweet too… and it tastes so good, so how can anything bad be so delicious?’ Again there is a flood of chemicals, a mass of decision making.

Yet we know that it’s alright. We bought it from the store. It’s made to be enjoyed. It’s just the body isn’t fine-tuned to think that way.

As I see it, we have a delicious beer which is intoxicating, strong, sweetly malt but bitterly hopped. It tastes mighty fine but the chemical mechanisms still aren’t convinced, they’re still on alert. So your brain is caught in between two ways of thinking: fight or flight (fight means drink and enjoy!). This double-trouble, dual thinking can surely only be a good thing for our enjoyment of the beer. We’re on high alert over the flavour, but we’re also alertly enjoying it because it is so full of flavour. The life-critical decision is to fight it, to drink that highly-hopped masterpiece and to enjoy every last sip, even if your brain is still having niggling doubts. It also gives us a burst of adrenaline and everyone loves a bit of that.

Drinking an exceptionally bitter IPA is like being on a roller-coaster: you love it, but your body is in a state of heightened arousal, worried for your death, which then increases your enjoyment even more, in a masochistic kind-of way. Maybe I love the smack of puckering bitterness, maybe I’m addicted to the thrill of it.

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