Beer Sensory Skills 101 | Hops | Hop Burn

This article is part of a series of lessons and exercises that focus on enhancing your sensory skills to better recognize and address brewing problems. By training your sense of smell, taste, mouthfeel, etc., you will have a better understanding of identifying off-flavors/aromas and their causes, which can greatly assist you when looking for solutions to these problems. This blog series will come in many parts dealing with Yeast, Hops, Malt, Water, Infections/Contaminations, and Miscellaneous issues. 
Each lesson includes an exercise in a separate tab to assist you in developing your palate and other senses to better detect these flavors, aromas, etc.

Lesson 2.2- Hops: Hop Burn - When Your Hazy is too Harsh

This lesson focuses on an off-flavor that is more common in a specific style of beer - IPA. However, as of this writing, this style is currently a hot trend among beer drinkers, and there are many sub-styles (Hazy IPA, NEIPA, Brut IPA, West coast IPA, etc) so it's worth adding to this blog series. Also, while it's most common in IPAs and hazies, it can also occur in any beer with significant hop bitterness.


What is Hop Burn?

Hop burn is a sensation experienced when consuming beer with high levels of hop bitterness. It often manifests as a lingering, sometimes uncomfortable sensation of heat, burning, or severe astringency in the back of the throat or on the palate after swallowing the beer. This sensation can be similar to the burning sensation caused by spicy foods or strong alcoholic beverages.

Hop burn is primarily attributed to the presence of alpha acids in hops, particularly when they are added late in the brewing process or during dry hopping. These alpha acids contribute bitterness to the beer and can also impart a perceived heat sensation due to their interaction with receptors in the mouth and throat. The intensity of hop burn can vary depending on factors such as the type and amount of hops used, the brewing techniques employed, and individual sensitivity to hop bitterness.

To mitigate hop burn, brewers may adjust their hopping techniques, use different hop varieties with lower alpha acid content, or balance hop bitterness with malt sweetness and other flavor components. Additionally, beer drinkers can minimize the sensation of hop burn by choosing beers with lower hop bitterness levels or by acclimating their palates to hop-forward styles over time..

The Chemistry:

The chemistry behind hop burn primarily involves the interaction between alpha acids in hops and receptors in the mouth and throat. Alpha acids are a group of compounds found in hops that contribute bitterness to beer. The most prevalent alpha acid in hops is humulone, which undergoes isomerization during the brewing process to form iso-alpha acids, the primary source of hop bitterness.

When beer containing high levels of hop bitterness is consumed, the iso-alpha acids interact with taste receptors on the tongue, particularly the bitter taste receptors known as T2R receptors. These receptors are responsible for detecting bitterness in foods and beverages.

While moderate levels of hop bitterness are perceived as pleasant and desirable in beer, excessive levels can lead to a sensation of hop burn. This sensation is characterized by a lingering, sometimes harsh bitterness that may be accompanied by a heat or burning sensation in the back of the throat or on the palate.

The exact mechanisms underlying hop burn are not fully understood, but it is believed to result from the activation of T2R receptors by high concentrations of iso-alpha acids. Additionally, individual sensitivity to hop bitterness and variations in receptor activation may contribute to the perception of hop burn.


Avoiding Hop Burn:

To avoid hop burn in beer, brewers can employ several techniques during the brewing process:


Hop Selection: Choose hop varieties with lower alpha acid content or consider using hops that have been bred specifically for their aroma rather than bitterness. Lower alpha acid hops will contribute flavor and aroma without overwhelming bitterness.

Hop Addition Timing: Adjust the timing of hop additions during the brewing process to control the release of bitterness. Adding hops earlier in the boil will extract more bitterness, while later additions or dry hopping will emphasize aroma and flavor over bitterness.

Hop Utilization: Monitor and optimize hop utilization to ensure that the desired level of bitterness is achieved without excessive extraction of harsh compounds. Factors such as boil duration, wort pH, and hop particle size can influence hop utilization.

Bitterness Calculation: Calculate the expected bitterness level of the beer using brewing software or formulas such as the International Bitterness Units (IBU) scale. Aim for a balanced bitterness level that complements the beer's other flavor components.

Fermentation Control: Maintain proper fermentation conditions to ensure that the beer's flavors harmonize and mature appropriately. Off-flavors, including harsh bitterness, can sometimes mellow or dissipate during fermentation and conditioning.

Sensory Evaluation: Conduct regular sensory evaluations of the beer throughout the brewing process to assess its flavor profile and bitterness level. Adjust brewing parameters based on feedback from tastings to optimize the beer's overall quality.


By carefully managing hop selection, addition timing, and other brewing parameters, brewers can create beers with well-rounded bitterness and flavor profiles while minimizing the risk of hop burn. Regular experimentation and sensory evaluation can help refine brewing techniques and improve the quality of the finished product.


Yeast autolysis stages

Humulone Molecule

Detecting Hop Burn



Not Applicable: Hop burn primarily affects the taste and sensation in the mouth rather than the aroma of the beer. However, if hop burn is caused by excessive hopping or improper brewing techniques, it may result in unbalanced flavors that overshadow the beer's aroma characteristics. In such cases, the beer may exhibit an overpowering bitterness or harshness that masks the delicate hop aromas.



Bitterness Overload: Hop burn can result in a sharp, lingering bitterness that overwhelms the palate, masking the beer's intended flavors and aromas.

Harsh Sensations: Excessive hop bitterness can create harsh, astringent sensations in the mouth, reminiscent of biting into an unripe fruit or overly bitter herb.

Burning Sensation: Hop burn may cause a noticeable burning sensation in the back of the throat or on the palate after swallowing, similar to the heat from spicy foods or strong alcoholic beverages.

Unbalanced Bitterness: Instead of a pleasant hop bitterness, hop burn can manifest as an unbalanced bitterness that dominates the beer's flavor profile, detracting from its overall drinkability.

Lack of Complexity: Beers affected by hop burn may lack the complexity and nuance typically associated with well-hopped brews, as the excessive bitterness overshadows other flavor components.

Off-Flavors: In severe cases, hop burn can contribute to the development of off-flavors such as vegetal or medicinal notes, which detract from the beer's quality and enjoyment.


The manifestation and strength of hop burn can vary depending on factors like hop selection, timing of hop additions, and brewing methods. When appropriately incorporated into the beer's flavor profile, hop bitterness can enhance its complexity. However, excessive hop burn resulting in overwhelming or unharmonious bitterness is typically deemed unfavorable in beer.


Sensory Training:

Taste Different Beers: Sample a variety of beers across different styles, paying close attention to the presence and intensity of hop burn. Explore beers known for their pronounced hop bitterness, such as India Pale Ales (IPAs) or Double IPAs (DIPAs).

Conduct Comparative Tastings: Compare beers with varying levels of hop burn. Try tasting a beer with mild hop bitterness alongside one with a more pronounced hop burn to discern the differences in bitterness and overall flavor profile.

Taste Foods with Bitter Components: Experiment with foods that contain bitter components similar to hop bitterness. Dark chocolate, black coffee, and certain green vegetables like arugula or kale can help familiarize your palate with bitter flavors.

Experiment With Food Pairings: Pair beers exhibiting hop burn with complementary foods to explore how flavors interact. Consider pairing hoppy beers with dishes that have bold or spicy flavors, such as spicy Thai curry, sharp cheeses, or grilled meats.

By actively engaging in tasting exercises, expanding your beer knowledge, and seeking feedback from others, you can gradually train your palate to detect hop burn in beer with greater precision and confidence.

Recommended Beers For This Lesson

Hop bitterness can contribute positively to certain beer styles, adding complexity and depth to their flavor profiles. Here are some beer styles where hop bitterness is often considered acceptable or even desirable:

It's important to note that while hop bitterness can enhance the flavor profile of these beer styles when properly managed, excessive bitterness leading to hop burn is generally undesirable. Brewers must carefully monitor and control the brewing process to achieve the desired balance of flavors and ensure high-quality beer.