Do you hate IPAs? It’s because your genetics have programmed you to dislike bitter beers.

Even casual beer drinkers have probably noticed the meteoric rise of Indian lagers over the past decade, but the brew that steals the show can be polarizing.

Maybe you love IPAs, maybe you hate them. Either way, your strong feelings about this style of beer have origins beyond your control. Just as we react in different ways to the flavor of cilantro, our reaction to hoppy beers is based, in part, on our genes.

Here’s how it works: A major characteristic of IPAs is bitterness, and how humans react to bitterness is rooted in instinct and genetics.

Through evolution, we are born with an instinctive “blech” reaction to anything that tastes bitter. Our earliest ancestors were hunter-gatherers and a primitive reaction to bitterness helped them avoid poisonous plants. Today, that protection is rather irrelevant, notes John Hayes, director of Penn State’s Sensory Evaluation Center.

“A lot of poisonous things aren’t bitter, and a lot of bitter things aren’t poisonous,” says Hayes, who has a doctorate in nutrition. Plus, he explains, today we have regulatory bodies like the Food and Drug Administration telling us what foods are safe to eat.

“I’m not a hunter-gatherer, so I don’t need a taste receptor on my tongue to tell me to eat this plant but not that one. But those receptors drive food choices,” says Hayes .

Although we no longer depend on it for our survival, our “bitter = bad” perception has stayed with us.

“Every person on earth is born with innate preferences,” says Dr. Nicole Garneau, whose doctorate was in microbiology, immunology and pathology. “Babies don’t have a preference for sour or bitter; they like sweetness because of the milk, and they can sense and like umami because of the protein in the milk.


Beyond our instincts, our reaction to bitterness is in our genes. Garneau, who is curator of health sciences at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and director of its Genetics of Taste Lab, explains that humans have 25,000 genes that determine how our bodies work. Of those 25,000, two genes affect how we perceive sweetness, two affect umami, and a relatively huge 40 (25 confirmed, 15 hypothetical) affect bitterness.

The TAS2R38 gene has become a poster child for this group of bitterness. However, Hayes and Garneau say that’s only one piece of the puzzle. While TAS2R38 correlates with alcohol consumption, the hops in beer activate a different set: TAS2R1, 14 and 40, Garneau says. She explains how these genes control our reactions to tastes.

“The genes make a protein that’s in your taste buds, in the taste buds of your tongue, acting as a receptor,” she says. “Molecules in food sit on this receptor and send signals to your brain, and the brain can say, ‘That’s bitter. “”

Some of us have differences in these genes. Our genes are made up of codons, which are themselves made up of nucleotides. If these nucleotides are arranged in a different order for a particular codon, it changes the behavior of that gene. A different order for a tasting receptor gene changes the shape of the receptor, so that food molecules do not bind and the signal cannot travel to the brain: no bitterness is detected. Twenty-five percent of the population cannot detect bitterness.

Besides this simple contrast – 75% of us detecting bitterness, 25% of us not – keep in mind that there are 25 to maybe 40 bitterness genes at play in everyone. of us, and each of these affects the detection of bitterness in different elements. Hayes gives the example that he doesn’t like grapefruit but likes hoppy beer. Both are bitter, but he perceives and processes their bitterness differently.

Despite these genetic factors and our evolutionary tendency to dislike bitterness, many of us have come to rely on our daily doses of bitter coffee or our salads full of bitter cabbage.

“The role of learning is extremely important in food choices,” says Hayes. “It’s so multifactorial, from culture to cost to availability to parental modeling to positive social valuation to flavor consequence.”

For example, he says, “You can come from upstate New York and like Sichuan cuisine. We learn to love cuisines other than our own. That we do this is a function of personality, seeking out what is new rather than being afraid of what is new or different.

Both Hayes and Garneau emphasize the importance of taste consequence and conditioned taste aversion. We develop an aversion to a food if we have a bad experience with it, like getting sick. Then we don’t want to eat it anymore.

The taste consequence, on the other hand, can be positive. Hayes notes that almost no one really likes bitter beer the first time they try it. However, they drink it again due to social pressure or motivations other than taste. They obtain positive consequences after ingestion, such as having a good time with friends, and learn to associate this positive reward with this taste.

With the growing popularity of IPAs, it’s clear that the quest for great flavor has conquered our human aversion to bitter taste. We are ready to tolerate the risk of backing down from bitterness to try this first IPA. Twenty-five percent of us won’t even detect bitterness, so it’s all good from there. Of the 75% of us who do, some of us will decide it’s just not worth getting used to. Some of us will have other positive rewards aside from the taste and so will continue to drink IPAs, enjoying them more with each pint.

If you’ve written off IPAs because of their bitter punch, it might be worth trying the relatively nascent New England IPA substyle. NEIPA is characterized by its hazy appearance and juicy finish. While the beer is aggressively hopped, the varieties of hops used and the way they are added in the brewing process result in a drink that is juicier and less bitter – or at least perceived to be less bitter. This begs the question: were NEIPAs created in response to the fairly common aversion to bitterness?

“People’s taste buds have been bludgeoned by the bitterness of IPAs for so long,” says Sam Richardson, co-founder and brewmaster at Other Half Brewing Co., a purveyor of NEIPAs (among other styles) that have sparked a worship. “Humans are designed to like sugar. [NEIPAs are] not necessarily sweeter, but there is the perception of being sweeter.

Richardson says that until recently the goal was to make beers quite bitter – people wanted that in their IPAs. While there are still certainly plenty of imbibers looking for bitterness ― Other Half is one of many breweries that continues to brew more traditional styles ― a new focus in brewing is to create other IPAs which are low in bitterness but rich in hop and aromatic flavors.

Simply put, the bitterness in beer comes from hops. All About Beer explains that, in the brewing process, heat converts the alpha acid compound in hops to iso-alpha acid, “the primary compound responsible for bitterness.” Hops made their way into beer centuries ago to protect against spoilage, and brewers soon realized that they also added an element of bitterness that perfectly balanced the malty sweetness of the drink.

With the portfolio of flavors and bitterness levels in different hop varieties and how they are used by brewers, however, it is far from clear that the more hops a beer has, the more bitter it is.

The beer bitterness measurement scale, IBUs, is not as useful as one might think.

It stands for International Bitterness Units, and according to The Brew Enthusiast, it’s “a chemical measure of the number of bitter compounds, specifically isomerized and oxidized alpha acids, polyphenols, and a few other select bitter chemicals, that give your beer a bitter taste. “

However, these bitter compounds do not always result in a bitter end product. The amount of bitterness provided by hops is affected by each variety’s alpha acid content and how long the hops boil. Additionally, supplements that brewers add to introduce different flavors can temper perceived bitterness. And the formula for calculating IBUs is not accurate when the beer is dry hopped. Add to that how we all perceive bitterness differently and a standard measure of bitterness in beer seems somewhat out of place.

Understanding your instincts and genes means understanding your reaction to bitter beer. We all react based on our human makeup, but we all react differently, and we keep drifting away from our innate coding as we decide to try and get used to certain tastes.

The takeaway is getting busy sampling and trying to ignore those IBUs on the bottle. You might like bitter IPAs, you might prefer seemingly sweeter NEIPAs, or you might want to drink to your own biology with a fruity lambic.

The Huffington Gt

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