Change For The Bitter: Can You Learn To Like A Flavor You Hate?

It was just one word, but it cut right to the bone.

A few months back, I was talking with my buddy Matt, a beer connoisseur who lives down the street, and we got on the topic of our favorite locally brewed beers. He rattled off about a half-dozen, and then I jumped in. "Krankshaft is good, too," I said, referring to Metropolitan Brewing's kölsch.



Then he looked at me with an almost-sad half-smile, like I'd just said "Jeremy's iron."

"Yeah..." he said. "Krankshaft is a good... basic beer."

Basic. Ouch.

Thus my fears were realized: My beer tastes are pedestrian. Prosaic. Humdrum. Even, apparently, basic.

I like me some lagers, pilsners, wheat beers, and kölsches. But IPAs? You can keep 'em, as far as I'm concerned.

And therein lies the rub: I just don't like the taste of hoppy beers. I find them bitter and Lysol-like. I don't enjoy them.

But I want to like hoppy beers. When I go to bars and breweries, there are typically dozens of hop-centric beers with kick-ass names like, Hop-splosion! Hop-nado! I Need A Love To Keep Me Hoppy! Shiny Hoppy People! I'm Only Hoppy When It Rains! and so on.


Meanwhile, despite some people's love for craft lagers, lighter beers still seem like they've been shunted off in the corner with names like Well, We Guess It's Not Quite Budweiser and Don't Feel Bad Dork-Ass, This Beer Is Kind Of Good. Certain beer people treat them as afterthoughts at best, passing them over so they can talk about the 17 types of hops squeezed into their double IPAs.

I wanted to join the club. I wanted to sit at the table with the cool kids. I wanted to like hoppy beers. But could I acquire this acquired taste?

My first step was to call a scientist to see if this was even possible. I know that some poor souls are physiologically predisposed to hate cilantro. Maybe I have that issue with hops?

Probably not, says Catherine Forestell, associate professor of psychological sciences at the College Of William & Mary, who theorizes that I was likely reacting to the bitter taste as an inborn way of wanting to, you know, stay alive.

"We're all genetically predisposed not to like bitter because it's associated with toxins," she says. "But we all have different tongues and different taste receptors. And children who are exposed to bitter taste earlier can learn to like it."

In other words, to bring it back to the subject of beer: "Through increased exposure, and the social learning that happens when you drink with friends, you will probably like hoppy beers a little more. You may not ever love them, but that's okay. Personally, I don't like hoppy beers either, but I can always find something else I like."


Yeah, me too, but here we are.

Next step was to head to Beermiscuous, a chill Chicago "craft beer cafe" that sells more than 350 bottles and cans of beer. There, I met with Austin Harvey, a Beermiscuous employee who'd earned the rank of Advanced Cicerone (essentially a beer sommelier). He's one of those people who talks about beer with rabid enthusiasm, tossing off words like "polyphenols" and immediately defining IBUs (International Bitterness Units, not I blast UFO, unfortunately).

Right off the bat, Harvey assured me that he too began his beer career not liking hoppy brews. "The first time I tried Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, I hated it," he says. But slowly, he came around.

"People typically like sweet more than bitter—at first," Harvey says. "But once they get used to it, they start to enjoy it more."

The reason people become bigger fans of hoppy beers, he says: "They have more flavor than your typical lager. The hops can be herbal or tea-like, grassy, or tropical."

The idea of those taste profiles didn't exactly set my loins aflame: "Ahhh, now to sit in front of my grill with a nice, tea-like beer." Not typically my jam.

Nevertheless, Harvey sent me on my way with a carefully curated roster of beers, starting from least to most hoppy. In a cruel twist, his choice for least-hoppy beer was... Krankshaft. Must you mock me, oh fates?


That night, my hoppy-beer–loving wife and I began the arduous task of drinking beer in the name of science. She reluctantly sipped at the Krankshaft and the Revolution pilsner, which had exactly what I want in a brew: malty, light, and easy to drink. The next beer up the list was the Middle Brow Art Brut IPA, a brut IPA that was right on the edge of too citrus-y for me.

But the next step up was a revelation: Maplewood's Crushinator, a session IPA . It was a lightly hazy, orange-colored beer with a clean, grassy flavor and a notable—but not overwhelming—hoppy taste. This was where I would focus, I decided—not the over-the-top IPAs, but the mid-level hopped beers. Then, I would try to expand upward.

Over the next several days, I stayed away from my beloved pilsners and lagers and explored IPAs I previously would have avoided like you sidle away from the locker-room bully at your high school reunion.

And a funny thing happened: I could feel my taste start to change. A few nights later, I had a Krankshaft—it still felt like my wheelhouse, and maybe always will. But I started to find the kölsch style a little thin. Too easy. I wanted something with more complexity, more... range, for lack of a better word.


Some beers were just too hoppy, and I couldn't see myself ever coming around on them. Stone IPA tasted too citrusy and pine needle-y. Two of the most popular hoppy Midwestern beers, 3 Floyds Zombie Dust and Bells Two-Hearted, were still too grapefruit-y for me, as was Big Sky Shake-A-Day IPA.

But over time, I became increasingly enamored with lighter hoppy beers, like "hazy" New England IPAs (the new, hot thing in beer) that most people describe as "juicy."

Perhaps the biggest epiphany was Whoppy, a hoppy wheat IPA made by One Well Brewing in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It combined citrusy hops with the soft, malt body of a wheat beer, and it was a jam. I wouldn't have come near it a few weeks ago, but standing around the fire at a neighborhood get-together, it was all I wanted.

Another interesting development: Once my hoppy experiments kicked off, people started offering tips about beer, repeatedly. Not in an obnoxious, patronizing way—more in a "Hey, if you like this beer, you might like that beer." This interaction seems to be the norm among beer aficionados, but as someone whose beer perspective was fairly narrow, I had never been part of it.

Unlike the righteous fury that meets me when I let it slip that I don't like meatloaf or haven't seen The Sound Of Music (Jesus, I'll get around to it!), people earnestly wanted to educate me as a hoppy newbie. And thus I learned about the bitterness of the typical American IPAs and the different ingredients that create the fruitier, smoother New England IPAs. Every time my quest came up, I got thoughtful advice, which led to some great conversations.


I don't want this to be some cornball "and the most delicious beer I drank was the friendship I made along the way" story. But I started to see how drinking isn't just a social lubricant because it lowers your inhibitions, but it becomes something—like baseball, or cars, or Phish bootlegs—that people intensely bond over.

My conclusion: I definitely started to like hoppy beers more than I did before. Pilsners, wheat beers, and kölsches—like North Coast Scrimshaw, 3 Floyds Gumballhead, and Metropolitan Krankshaft (you'll always have my heart)—may always be my favorites. And I don't think I'll be ordering Hop You Like A Hurricane! anytime soon.

But at least I've expanded my palate, and can enjoy some IPAs without wincing like a 13-year-old trying his first cigarette. And, perhaps most importantly, my beer taste is no longer "basic"—to me, anyway. I may not quite be as into it as more experienced hop-heads, but I'll proudly take a big, brave swig of almost any hoppy beer now—something I wouldn't have dreamed of doing a few months ago.