The Difference Between Hops & Bitter – How To Tell Which Is Which

Beer, it’s the best damn drink in the world – Jack Nicholson 

For the last forty years and some change, a silent revolution has been slowly but surely capturing the imagination of beer fans all around the world.

The craft beer revolution or movement as it’s sometimes called is dedicated to proving that there’s far more to beer than the mass-produced, watery “lagers” that fill the shelves of supermarkets all over the country.

It’s a movement based on flavor and savoring the sometimes surprisingly high alcohol content of beers that have been brewed with passion, enthusiasm, and a rare zeal for eccentric experimentation.

As the revolution grows in strength and attracts new members to its cause every single day, it isn’t uncommon to hear those who have decided to throw their weight behind and commit to the craft beer movement talk about the hoppiness and bitterness of the strange and wonderful beers that they’re being introduced to.

While both terms are inextricably linked to beer, bitter having been used to describe a style of beer that was popularised in England for more than a century and a half,  it was the rise of the craft beer movements flagship style that brought the idea of a beer being “hoppy” into mainstream zeitgeist. 

So what, if anything separates and differentiates hoppy and bitter beers? Can a beer be both hoppy and bitter, or does it have to be one or the other? And what is the mysterious beer that propelled the craft beer revolution to fame and introduced the world to the idea of “hoppiness”? 

These are just some of the questions that we’re going to answer as we plunged headlong into the world of craft beer and the hoppy and sometimes bitter beers that it’s home to … 

To Hop, Or Not To Hop, That Is The IPA Question 

There’s one style of beer, above all others that the craft beer revolution has helped to make famous, and that’s the IPA, or as its dedicated legion of fans call it, India Pale Ale.

Every new brewery that throws its cards into the craft beer ring does so with an IPA, and more often than not their success is completely dependent on how good that IPA is and whether or not it can find its own army of admirers. 

One of the undisputed characteristics of a good IPA is its incredibly powerful, hop-led flavor which creates a wonderful, upfront bitterness. 

And it’s this flavor, and the IPA’s position in the craft beer hierarchy, that has led to the catch-all term “hoppy” becoming hopelessly entwined with the idea that bitterness and the reliance on hops to create a specific flavor profile in a beer are one and the same.

They’re not, and we’re going to explain why the two are different, without dwelling on one of our favorite styles of beer and craft revolution big gun, the IPA. 

No Hops, No Beer 

Let’s get something straight right from the start. All beer, regardless of style, is brewed using hops. You can’t brew beer without hops, it just can’t be done. Oh, and the people who say that they don’t actually like “overly hoppy beer” are actually talking about the IBU content rather than the hops that are used to make that beer.

But we’re getting slightly ahead of ourselves, so let’s try and stay on course for the time being, and focus on the importance of hops in beer production. 

One Of The Four – You need four things to make beer – water, malted grains, yeast, and last, but not least hops.  Without that quartet, you can’t brew beer. Well, actually that’s not quite true, but that’s another story for another time, and as we’re happy to be part of the ninety-nine percent, we’ll stick with the ingredients that ninety-nine percent of beers use. Hope, malted grains, water, and yeast. 

It’s All About Balance – Hops are an essential part of achieving perfect balance and flavor in a beer, and without them, beer would be an incredibly sweet, alcoholic drink that had more in common with Mead than… Well, beer. 

The Bitterness Control Switch – The level of bitterness in a beer is controlled by the amount of hops that are used to brew it. The more hops a brewer uses, the more bitter a beer will be according to conventional wisdom. It’s a delicate process and getting the aforementioned balance right can take a lifetime to master. 

It’s Not Just About The Bitter Hit – Hops, however, don’t just add bitterness to a beer. They also regulate the flavor,  imbue it with a rich aroma and in some cases, are even responsible for the amount of head (or foam as the newbies refer to it) that a beer has when it’s poured from draft, a can, or a bottle. 

Does That Mean That They’re The Same Thing? 

It would be easy to assume from everything that we’ve said so far that “hoppiness” and bitterness are the same thing and that somehow, somewhere along the line, they became intertwined and that when a beer is referred to as being “hoppy” what that actually means is that it’s bitter rather than sweet.

It would be easy to do that, but it would also be wrong. 

And in order to properly, and finally explain why it’s important to understand that there is a universe of difference between hoppy and bitter, we’re going to have to take a slightly deeper dive into what it is that actually separates them. 

The Wonderful World Of Hops

We’ve already established that a high hop content can lead to a beer being overly bitter, but it doesn’t always have to be the case.

Brewers use hops to create the flavor profile of beers, and depending on where in the world the hops they use come from, the beer that they brew can be sweet, have a floral quality, or have a rich, long-lasting, and lingering fruity taste. 

The hops used can add a tropical twist to the beer, or make it overly sweet, and depending on when the hops are added to the beer being brewed (at which stage of the brewing process), the amount of hops used can have very little impact or an incredibly large effect on the bitterness of a beer. 

At this point, we’d usually start extolling the virtues of dry-hopping versus wet hopping, but that’s almost certainly another topic for another day because we tend to get carried away when we do start talking about it. 

The main problem that stems from the number of hops used in a beer by a brewer is the number of other ingredients that they use to balance the hops and increase or decrease the amount of bitterness in a beer.  

For instance, a brewer could use a large amount of Citra hops in a beer, which would create a rich, almost sweet grapefruit and citrus taste, but as long as they also used an equal amount of malted grains, they could effectively cut the bitterness that the amount of hops they used would normally create in that beer to a minimum.  

That means that a hoppy beer doesn’t have to be bitter and that most of the time, beers that have a high hop content are only brewed that way to create a new, interesting, and intriguing flavor profile and aren’t being used to make the beer overly bitter. In other words, hoppiness and bitterness, they’re not the same thing. 

A Little Bitterness Can Be Good For You… And Your Beer

The idea that beer isn’t supposed to be bitter, or at least slightly bitter is another modern myth that someone made its way into the popular mindset through the power of advertising.

As we’ve already mentioned, one of the most popular styles of beer in England is actually called “bitter” and celebrates the idea that beer should be perfectly balanced, and ideally shouldn’t be too sweet or too bitter. 

In fact, brewers came up with a term, the Internal Bitterness Unit (IBU), that they used to measure the bitterness of beer, and the higher the IBU of a beer is, the more bitter it usually is.

The bitterness it measures is imparted to a beer by a natural acid found in hops called isohumulone. It’s that naturally occurring acid that makes a beer “bitter”, and the more of it there is in a beer, the higher the IBU will be. 

How is the IBU of a beer measured? Usually between zero and one hundred (although the latter figure isn’t the be-all and end-all of the bitterness scale, as some brewers have pushed through and beyond that figure) and an IBU above seventy is usually regarded as being a beer that has a high degree of bitterness in its flavor profile. 

Normally, that would be the line that most creative industries used to draw a line in the sand, but nothing is ever that simple or straightforward in the brewing business, and just because a beer has a high IBU it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be bitter.

We know, it’s enough to make your head hurt, but it’s all due to something called relative bitterness. 

It’s All Relative…

Relative bitterness is where things get slightly weird and the mysteries of the brewer’s sacred art come into play. Just because a beer has a high IBU, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be bitter, as the bitterness of a beer (even if it has an off-the-scale IBU) can be controlled using the number of malts that a brewer adds to their beer. 

The drawback or benefit depending on your point of view, to using a higher percentage of malts in a beer is that it usually increases the ABV (alcohol by volume) of said beer. So a beer with a high malt content and a high ABV could also have a high IBU but wouldn’t taste bitter even though its alcohol content would be enough to floor even the most hardened moonshine devotee. 

Let’s put that into context, and explain what we mean. If for instance, you had a beer with an IBU of sixty and an ABV of four and a half percent and a beer with the same IBU, but an ABV that was closer to ten percent, the beer with the lower ABV would taste far more bitter than the beer with the higher ABV.

And that’s because the malt (and thus the final alcohol content) of the latter beer had balanced and reduced the relative bitterness of the beer. We know, trust us, we know.

Brewing beer these days is more complicated and complex than rocket science, and it’s all due to the desire to experiment and push the boundaries of what can be done with beer that was and is inspired by the craft revolution. 

Hoppy vs Bitter – The Last Word 

See, we told you they were different things, didn’t we? Just because a beer has a high hop content it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be bitter, and the flavor of any individual beer is always going to depend on what the brewer is trying to achieve with the beer that they’ve created. 

Perception and taste are everything in the craft beer movement. It’s probably the most exciting time in the brewing industry since the Sumerians first started making beer nearly four thousand years ago. Don’t be fooled by populist wisdom and don’t allow yourself to miss out on all that the world of craft beer has to offer. 

Our best advice? Try everything once (apart from Morris dancing, which is this weird, “traditional” jig that the British do around a pole in which the dancers use way too many bells and sticks for our liking), and don’t be afraid to sample every beer that you can, regardless of how hoppy you think they are, as you never know what you might discover.

After all, the next beer you drink might just become your favorite. Remember, and repeat after us “It’s all about the hops, and it’s all about the flavor”. It’s a beer-centric mantra that’ll serve you well, and never steer you wrong.