I'm going to go off on a little ramble here for today on a topic that has been covered by many a beer writer before me and will continue to be a topic long after and that is on hops, or more specifically, the perception of what people might describe as "hoppy"
I have to assume that almost everyone reading this is in some way familiar with what a hop is but just in case I will quickly explain. Beer needs hops for two reasons.
Firstly to counteract the residual sugar that did not ferment. Without hops, beer would be rather sweet and as a result a little stomach churning after a few.
The second and perhaps most important reason for adding hops is that they are a natural preservative. Adding more hops to a beer usually means it lasts longer, though with all the hop heads (me included) the opposite is true. The more hops, the more we want to drink so the beer does not last all that long but you get what I mean.
Of course hops are a relatively new development in beers several thousand year history. Hops have only been a staple ingredient in beer for a few hundred years. Before that, different plants were used to bitter the beer such as heather. Just a little bit if useless info, Hops are related to Cannabis but you can't get high off them.
Anyway moving swiftly along to the point of todays write up. Hoppiness (or happiness for some). Read any beer blog or review site like Beer Advocate and Ratebeer and you will see many beers referred to as "hoppy" but what is hoppy? Well it can mean many things but it seems that among many American beer lovers the word "hoppy" means that it smells and tastes like grapefruit and pine which is what you get from Pacific Northwest hops like Cascade and Amarillo etc. Don't get me wrong, they are fantastic hops and I love my American IPA's but often I am bemused to read a description of a beer (lets say an English Pale Ale or IPA) and am warned that the beer is not hoppy at all or there are almost no hops.... I read the ingredients of the beer (if available on the brewers website) and see there are no American "C" hops, in other words no pine or grapefruit. The fact is, the beer in question might have far more hops than an average American Pale Ale but because it does not have the expected aroma, it means it is not hoppy at all. It might also be far more bitter than the equivalent pale ale.
This brings us on to IBU and Perception. Again, if you don't know what IBU is then I will summarise. IBU = International Bittering Unit . It is the unit of measurement we use to tell how bitter a beer is going to be. Let me give you an example. One of the most popular beers in the US is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. This has an IBU of 37 which is sort of mid range. Since the finishing hop is Cascade, you get the grapefruit and pine you expect from an American Pale Ale.
A poll on a website* (don't remember which but fuggled mentioned it) posed the question, which is more hoppy (perhaps more bitter)? Sierra Nevada or Pilsner Urquel (Czech Lager). Needless to say that Sierra Nevada was the hands down winner of the poll. Also needless to say is that everyone who voted for Sierra Nevada was wrong. Pilsner Urquel (bog standard mass produced lager) has an IBU of 40 making it 3 IBU higher than Sierra Nevada. The problem is, it has no grapefruit or pine, no real hop aroma as such but it is more bitter. A simple taste will tell you that, or perhaps not (see perception).
It is also not as clear cut as IBU because we now come to perception. We mere humans can reportedly only taste up to 100 IBU. Anything more is lost on us. I myself have brewed a 106 IBU double IPA and tasted a number of commercial offerings of more than 100 IBU.
Different hops have a different sort of bitterness though. A 100 IBU double IPA of the American style is not all that bitter to be honest. Sure there is a lot more residual sweetness in an double IPA but I find that American C hops have more aroma than true bitterness. I have had many English pale ales that are far more bitter than a 100 IBU American style pale ale and they have far less IBU's behind them.
All that said, this is just me and perception plays a large part. Other people I am sure will see things differently.
Perhaps just remember that if you are describing a beer, please do not just use the word hoppy. Describe it better. Floral? Earthy? Tropical? Citrusy? Ass Juicy???
All of this is my own opinion and therefor subject to being wrong.
*Al from Fuggled reminded me he ran it himself on his site and posted the link.