Exploring the Distinction: Hoppy and Bitter Flavors

Exploring the Distinction: Hoppy and Bitter Flavors

When it comes to craft beer, there are numerous flavors and aromas to be enjoyed. Alongside the wide array of tastes and smells come just as many ways to describe them. However, too often the same words are repeated. One specific term that is overused is “hoppy.” Most people use this term to refer to the bitterness of a beer. Let’s compare “hoppy” vs “bitter” to see if these terms are being used correctly and how we can improve our vocabulary and expand our thinking.

While much of this discussion centers around IPA, these terms apply to many other beer styles. But let’s start with the “hoppiest” beer style: the IPA.

The Good And Bad Of The IPA

The India Pale Ale (IPA) has revolutionized the craft beer industry. It is, by far, the most popular style and has paved the way for the explosion of new breweries and beers in many ways.

However, this style has also led to confusion and misunderstanding. Any beer with a hop-forward profile is often referred to as some variation of an IPA. There’s an entire discussion about what an IPA once was and what it has become, but that’s for another time.

For now, let’s compare the two terms most often used to describe IPAs: “hoppy” vs “bitter.”

In taprooms across the country, you often hear someone saying that they “don’t like hoppy beers.” But they probably mean that they don’t enjoy beers with strong bitterness. This misuse has led to a great misunderstanding that assumes all craft beer is inherently hoppy and therefore bitter.

However, this topic isn’t limited to IPAs because all beers contain hops. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that IPAs are the style most associated with these terms.

While the IPA has increased awareness of strongly flavored craft beers, it has also created confusion about the role of hops in beer.

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The Basics Of Hops & Beer

This is not a lesson in brewing beer or the science behind hops, but it is important to acknowledge a few key facts.

1: All Beers Have Hops

Hops are one of the four basic ingredients of beer. So even a beer that doesn’t taste “hoppy” still contains hops.

2: Hops Provide Balance

Without hops, beer would be overly sweet. It is the balance between bitterness and sweetness that most people seek in a quality beer.

3: Hops Add Bitterness

Yes, hops contribute to the bitterness of beer, but the level of bitterness can vary greatly depending on the type of hop, amount used, and how it is used.

4: Hops Have More to Offer

Beyond bitterness, hops bring a range of additional qualities to beer, such as aroma, flavor, and preservation properties.

Hoppy Vs Bitter

All of this brings us to our main topic: Hoppy vs Bitter. What is the difference, and does it matter?

These terms are often used interchangeably, but the reality is that beer is best described when they are defined separately.


A hoppy beer highlights the flavor and aroma of hops.

Hops can enhance beer in amazing ways. From fruity to piney, earthy to floral, hops offer a wide range of flavors. These flavors are often associated with the geographic region where the hops are grown.

In many cases, hops are used to provide bitterness, especially in IPAs. However, the two are not necessarily connected. In fact, with the rise of New England IPAs, bitterness is becoming less synonymous with hops than ever before.

This is because brewers intentionally use brewing methods that minimize hop-induced bitterness. They add hops late in the brewing process, where they contribute only flavor and aroma.

Modern beers are known for showcasing the immense flavors of hops while keeping bitterness so low that it is often undetectable. Some argue that these beers would be better if the balance between hops, bitterness, and malt sweetness were improved.

Therefore, “hoppy” simply means you can taste and/or smell the characteristics of the hops, which can be fruity, earthy, citric, floral, piney, etc., depending on the type of hop. It does not always indicate that the beer is bitter.


Do you remember the “bitter beer” commercials? Those ads taught a generation that beer shouldn’t have any perceivable bitterness, but craft beer has helped correct that misconception.

However, many still shy away from beers with any level of bitterness, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Nevertheless, most people find moderate bitterness quite enjoyable.

After years of being told that bitterness is bad, we also decided not to use the term “bitter” to describe our beer. So, we defaulted to saying “hoppy.”

Beer can and often should be bitter. Bitterness offsets the sweet grain flavors of beer. However, it’s essential to understand that bitterness has a wide range.

International Bitterness Units (IBUs) are used to measure the bitterness of beer. It quantifies the isohumulone content in beer, which is an acid imparted by hops.

The scale starts at zero, and the higher it goes, the more isohumulone is present in the beer. A beer with over 80 IBUs is generally considered to be on the higher end of the scale.

But hold on, just because a beer has a high IBU doesn’t mean it will be bitter. Confused yet?

That’s because we must consider relative and perceived bitterness.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to craft beer, there will always be styles that you prefer over others. However, that shouldn’t stop you from continuing to experiment and try different versions of the same style. It’s the best way to learn and expand your enjoyment of beer.

When discussing hoppy vs bitter, try to understand the terms and how they apply to what you’re drinking. All beers contain hops, but their impact on the beer can vary significantly.

While hops contribute to bitterness, the level of bitterness is variable. Moreover, hops add amazing flavors to beer that cannot be found anywhere else. Embrace learning about hop varieties and the unique characteristics they bring to a beer.

If we all use “hoppy” vs “bitter” in more precise ways, we can ensure that future beer drinkers won’t be afraid of hoppy or bitter beers.

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