Red, White, and Brewed: Does Heat Affect Taste?

The theory that bitterness in hops affects the perceived heat of spicy food has been long-held by brewers. Earlier this year, Samuel Adams released Rebel Rider Session IPA and Rebel Rouser Double IPA, which joined Rebel IPA in the Rebel Family of West Coast-style IPAs. “With these three brews of varying bitterness available to craft beer drinkers nationwide, we set out to test the theory once and for all – and had a lot of fun in the process,” says Jennifer Glanville, Samuel Adams Brewer and Director of Brewery Programs.

They partnered with The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) for the study. “I traveled to the CIA’s Hyde Park, NY, campus to join a group of distinguished chefs and culinary experts in a sensory tasting panel.” As a group, they sampled the three Samuel Adams West Coast-style IPAs alongside Buffalo wings that could be described as ‘medium hot.’ “Our goal was to specifically test how a beer’s International Bittering Units (IBUs) and alcohol by volume (ABV) affect the perceived spiciness of spicy foods.”

The Buffalo wings, which served as the constant, were tasted in comparison with each Rebel brew in ascending order of ABV and IBUs. “We first tasted the wings with Rebel Rider Session IPA, then moved on to Rebel IPA, and finally Rebel Rouser Double IPA.” After each pairing was tasted, they held a group discussion and wrote down their observations. “As one of the panelists said ‘Same meat, different heat!”

They concluded that together, the greater IBUs and higher the ABV does increase how taste buds perceive spiciness. “However, how the mouth perceives ‘heat’ depends on other characteristics in a beer, like the hops and malt.”

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Overall, the three Rebel brews had significantly different interactions with the Buffalo wings. “Rebel Rouser Double IPA produced the highest spiciness rating and dramatically increased the heat intensity of the wings. This pairing is perfect for hop heads and spicy food lovers.”

Rebel Rider Session IPA has a lighter body and lower alcohol content, which allowed the beer and wings to complement each other nicely. “With this pairing, the heat lingered a little longer on the palate compared to the other brews, likely because of Rebel Rider’s lighter malt profile and refreshing interplay between the piney, citrus hop notes and the spiciness of the wings.”

Rebel IPA showcases a balance of malt and hop flavor rather than aggressive bitterness, and was the most complementary pairing. “Rebel IPA’s big citrus, piney and resinous hop flavors accentuated the sweet, meaty taste of the chicken and just the right amount of heat from the Buffalo spice.”

How Hops Affect Heat

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The study showed that the higher the IBUs and alcohol level, the perceived spicy flavor was increased. “However, ‘heat’ also depends on a number of other characteristics, including the type of hops used and the beer’s malt profile.”

Different palates interpret the interactions between hops and food in different ways, so to a certain extent it what food pairs best with hoppy beers depends on personal taste. “For me, the pairing of Buffalo wings and Rebel IPA in this study was a great one.” She says that the beer’s malt character ensures that the hops and the wings’ spiciness never overpower one another. “Instead, they allow both the bitterness and heat to really be evident on their own.”

Aside from Buffalo wings, another pairing she enjoys with hoppy beers is carrot cake. “It might sound crazy, but the hop bitterness cuts through the icing and brings out the sweetness of the carrots. IPAs also pair well with a dish like beer-battered fish and chips.”

Can a Beer Be Too Hoppy For Spicy Food?

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“The idea of “too much hoppiness” is really a matter of personal taste,” say Glanville. “For example, Rebel Rouser Double IPA, which has 85 IBUs, produced far and away the highest spice rating and dramatically increased the heat intensity of the Buffalo wing pairing.” This “freight train” of heat and hops, as one panelist referred to it, might be overwhelming for some people, but delicious for others.

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