If you go to the IPA section of your local beer purveyor, you’ll find labels and names vary wildly in an attempt to attract consumers in a saturated market. But one common element found on these labels are images of hops – skeletons with hops in their mouths, anthropomorphic hops, fairies dancing through a field of hops – you get the point. And beers often have names featuring hops, like Hop Stoopid, Hop Venom and Hoptimum.
Hops have become the unofficial mascot of IPAs because they’re what give India Pale Ales their trademark smell and bitter taste. But now some enterprising scientists from the University of California-Berkeley claim they have discovered a way to create the bitterness of hops without using any actual hops.
The scientists engineered brewer’s yeast to “biosynthesize aromatic monoterpene molecules that impart hoppy flavor to beer by incorporating recombinant DNA derived from yeast, mint, and basil.”
But why would anyone want beer without hops? Well, according to the study:
Flowers of the hop plant provide both bitterness and “hoppy” flavor to beer. Hops are, however, both a water and energy intensive crop and vary considerably in essential oil content, making it challenging to achieve a consistent hoppy taste in beer.
According to Inside Science, the study’s co-author, Charles Denby, said that with more than 30 varieties of hops, tastes vary greatly, and even the flavor of a single type of hops can vary considerably depending on subtle differences in how it grows from year to year and from farm to farm.
Consistency is certainly something to strive toward – as is energy and water conservation – and this could certainly be comforting to brewers should another hop shortage scare come along down the road.
The study was largely focused on the bitterness hops bring to the table, and according to the double blind study, drinkers found the beer to be even more bitter than the hopped IPAs they sampled. But is that necessarily a good thing?
For years, the attitude toward IPAs was “bitter is better.” IPAs couldn't get bitter – or alcoholic – enough, which led to the invention of double, and eventually triple, IPA, as breweries attempted to outdo each other when it came to Alcohol By Volume (ABV) and International Bitterness Units (IBUs).
While a typical IPA has between 70 and 100 IBUs, breweries have made IPAs reaching as many as a self-proclaimed 2,600 (although the highest IBUs actually lab tested was Dogfish Head’s Hoo Lawd with 658 IBUs back in 2015, and it's believed humans can't notice anything above 100).
But in the last couple of years, the trend has strayed from the overly bitter IPAs of the 2000s in favor of ‘juicy’ IPAs that mimic the cloudy, golden beers out of the Northeast – like The Alchemist’s infamous Heady Topper – which use hops more to add a tropical, fruity flavor than for their bitter qualities.
Exemplifying this is the fact, in 2017 Veil Brewing Company created a previously unfathomable IPA with 0 IBUs that was still hoppy, but in no way bitter. And as of yesterday, the Brewers’ Association made an official category for “Juicy or Hazy IPA.”
Will IPAs without hops be able to add the depth of flavor brewers are now looking to get from hops? It’s too early to tell. But in a market where breweries are constantly searching to be the biggest, the weirdest, the first, we’re willing to bet there are brewers lining up to be the first to brew a commercial IPA with no hops. There’ll probably be a clever name and label to match.