Our Love For Bitter

“Humans are the only species that enjoys bitter taste. Every other species is averse to bitter because it means bad news. But we have learned to enjoy it”.

So says Charles Zuker, a neuroscientist at the University of California School of Medicine at San Diego. “We drink coffee, which is bitter, and quinine [in tonic water] too,” he adds. We also enjoy beer too, I might add Mr. Zuker.

For many, drinking beer is not a case of love at first sip but a love that blossoms over time. It is an ‘acquired taste’, which means that as humans as we mature we desire more complexity of taste and ‘train’ ourselves to overcome any biological aversion to bitterness. In recent years, there has been renewed love for bitter tastes as part of our growing passion for complex tastes in gourmet food, coffee, and beer.

The rise of the IPA

In the craft beer world, bitterness in beer has increased in recent years, and the Indian Pale Ale, a style typified by its high levels of hop bitterness, is the darling of today’s microbrewery movement.

The IPA style has a rich history and the new American IPAs have taken the style further, producing hoppier and more bitter beers to challenge the taste perceptions of drinkers.

IPAs can be a tough sell to drinkers of mass-prouced lagers like Budweiser, which measure at only around 10 International Bitterness Units or IBUs, the standard for measuring bitterness in beers, and just don’t compare, in terms of bitterness, to a typical IPA, which is around 40-60 IBUs).

Extreme beers

The high bitterness in IPAs fits with the craft beer movement’s tendency for the extreme. For microbreweries to gain attention in a niche market they have enacted a strategy of hyperdifferentiation, where they prefer to be loved by a few than merely liked by many. This kind of mentality has been exemplified by the pursuit to create the world’s strongest beer led by Scottish craft brewer Brewdog and the battle for the world’s most bitter beer. The most bitter beer is the Flying Monkeys Alpha Fornication, clocking in at a straggering 2500 IBUs, though this is a theoretical number as humans aren’t even able to distinguish bitterness beyond 100 IBUs!

Interestingly, Australian microbreweries have thus far opted for a more subdued approach with the beers they produce and the space for mildly hopped pale ales and wheat beers is fast becoming crowded. Moon Dog are one brewery looking to differentiate themselves by sticking to extreme beers though, and the likes of Murrays, Feral and Bridge Road are doing a great job of mixing more extreme beers, with higher bitterness, for the beer geeks, with more approachable beers for the ‘less bitterly inclined’, and are thereby mirroring the path to success of American microbreweries such as Three Floyds.

Must-read beer articles

There were a lot of great articles linked to in this post. If you didn’t visit them already, here is the list for some further reading:

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