Perception of beer bitterness is both genetic and dependent on how hops are infused. Photo: Charlie Papazian
Written by Charlie Papazian
At Slow Food’s Salone del Gusto in Turin, Italy last month I participated in a “Bitterness and Beer Workshop. It was an eye opening experience about the perception of bitterness and how it related to beer. The workshop was led by Mirco Marconi and Professor Paulo Gasparini (University of Trieste ). Professor Gasparini distributed paper “taste strips” to all participants who were then asked to register their experience.
A show of hands revealed
- 10% of people experienced a disgusting and rather objectionable taste sensation.
- About 65% perceived bitterness but did not think it objectionable.
- 20 to 25% perceived nothing.
I thought to myself, “Wow.” This many people do not experience bitterness. Professor Gasparani conceded that the show of hands was not surprising. “Your ability to sense bitterness is genetic. You can blame your mothers and fathers for not being able to fully appreciate some of the beers we will taste during this session.”
The beers in order were tasted: Lagunitas Czech Pils (balanced hop and malt character), Uinta Imperial Pils (certainly more hop bitterness as measured by BU, but subdued by malt and alcohol), Wesleteren 6 (hoppy and dry), Valemiligia (Italian artisanal with Tettnang, Hallertauer and Hercules hops), Brew Dog Nanny State (1.8% abv and calculated at 200 BU), Caldera IPA (floral and aromatic with hop oils influencing perception of bitterness), Stone Arrogant Bastard (most bitter, but malt balance suppresses some of its intensity).
Here are some of the thoughts which I presented:
- Brewers often present bitterness units as calculated, which is different than actually measured.
- Hop bitterness is a measure of a specific hop derived compound. This hop bitterness reaches saturation depending on the qualities of the wort, somewhere below 100 BU.
- There are other compounds that contribute to beer bitterness derived from other ingredients, vegetal matter of hops, malt and grain derived compounds.
- Hop oils (which are not part of measured bitterness) will dramatically alter perception of bitterness, often tricking the mind.
- Balance of malt sugars and alcohol will effect perception of bitterness.
- People, who say they do not like bitterness, often don’t understand what they have an aversion to. Many of these “I don’t like bitterness” people often enjoy IPAs which are high in hop aroma and flavor; the hop oils suppressing their perception of bitterness.
I walked away with the realization that of the millions of Americans that enjoy a thousand brands of India Pale Ale, perhaps a significant percent really do not perceive bitterness at all. Is this a reason why some excessively hopped brands appeal to a small portion of beer enthusiast, while others are completely offended?
For those who do not like bitterness, it can be blamed on genetics. Genetic percentages are likely going to be different with various ethnic groups, perhaps explaining resistance to certain characters in beer in some areas of the world and USA.