Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hoptical illusion?

While curiously scouting the newest offerings from the regional brewers in hopes of backing up the claim from my last post that we'd be seeing a reaction to the current hop fiasco via low- and no-hop beers, I stumbled upon something that looking as foreboding as black clouds across the beer horizon: Cascade-afficionados Sierra Nevada has started putting an ESB - "Early Spring Beer" [their words, not mine] - on shelves. I can't remember seeing this submission from our friends in Chico in years past, and is even conveniently labeled (in case you find some in an abandoned trailer party time capsule in the future) as the "2008" vintage. After trying it, both Des and my initial reaction was that it's essentially a de-hopped amber ale pitched as being in the British brewing tradition of balance over bitterness. (Frankly, I pictured them standing in a near-vacant hops warehouse and trying to figure out how they were going to be able to brew enough of their bread-and-butter SNPA for a summer's worth of barbecues and baseball games.) But oddly, its (uncited) entry on Wikipedia lists it as almost 10 IBUs higher than the iconic pale ale. What gives? Of course, my taste buds could also be shot - the best use we found for the ESB was in a cream sauce for some chicken cordon bleu - but still, Des' nose never lies.

Of course, it's probably not wiki-vandalism at work, but rather the concept of hop bitterness perception versus actual IBUs. Could it simply be the crystal malts masking the hops, or a difference in water treatment, or even just a different level of carbonation?

So while I haven't yet found the smoking gun to prove my theory on the move to reduced hop usage, one interesting point did crop up in the research on the ESB [and please, people, it's extra special bitter] that Sierra Nevada's offering as its spring seasonal: The hops used - English Challenger & East Kent Goldings - are imports, rather than varietals from the West Coast's Yakima Valley stable. And it's even dry-hopped! Maybe the winds of change are already blowing...

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