Beyond the IPA

Challenging the mighty hop for your beer’s flavor

IPAs still rule the beer shelves.

IPAs still rule the beer shelves.

The average supermarket beer aisle has never been more colorful. Two new breweries are opening every week in California, now home to nearly 600 brewing companies. On retail shelves, bottles with colorful labels vie for attention, often by advertising unusual fruit ingredients, high alcohol content, or—and probably most of all—hops.

The hop-heavy India pale ale has been the most popular beer style in America for years. Virtually no emerging craft brewery dares enter the marketplace armed with anything but an IPA as its flagship beer, and the style dominates most beer bar tap lines and retail refrigerators. The hop also has generated interest as a handy marketing tool easily incorporated into puns for beer names like Bitter End, Count Hopula, Tricerahops, Hoptical Illusion and countless others.

“IPAs are still all the rage,” said Steve Dresler, head brewer at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. “If you sit in a bar, people just talk hop-hop-hop.”

Dresler says the use of new hop varieties, with unique aromas and bittering qualities, have kept the IPA category interesting for brewers. He says he’s excited about a new variety that Sierra Nevada is using called the Comet hop. The brewery also has experimented recently with a new method of extracting aroma and flavor from hops by steaming the flowers in the field immediately after harvest, then distilling the resulting liquid. The water blows off as vapor, leaving behind a powerfully aromatic oil, as showcased in the brewery’s first beer to benefit from the process, Hop Hunter IPA.

The spotlight remains bright on beer’s most celebrated ingredient: humulus lupulus.

Photo by Melanie MacTavish

But now, some brewers are exploring smells and tastes beyond the uniquely aromatic Humulus lupulus flower (the common hop).

Brian Hunt, for one, thinks the focus on hops has made the craft beer world extraordinarily homogenous.

“Some people say, ‘Wow, the world of beer is more diverse than it’s ever been,” said Hunt, owner and brewer at Moonlight Brewing Co., located in the woods outside of Santa Rosa. But Hunt believes brewers have actually nosed themselves into a corner, becoming less versatile and imaginative while they come to depend more and more on a single flavoring ingredient.

Hunt points out that it wasn’t always this way. Long before hops became ubiquitous, plants of all other sorts were used to flavor beer. Hunt honors these traditions by using ingredients such as green redwood tips, incense cedar, bee balm, Labrador tea, yarrow, bay leaves and mugwort.

Other brewers are also exploring beer styles that rely less on the hop, getting different flavors by barrel aging or using souring microbes. Stouts, especially, have become a medium for experimentation.

Barrel-aging beer can bring about many desirable changes as new flavors develop from the extended fermentation as well as from the absorption of the inherent characteristics of the wood and the remnants of what was previously contained in the vessel (whiskey, brandy, wine, etc.).

Photo by Didriks (via Flickr)

“As a brewer, you can do a whole lot with a stout,” said Kevin Jaradah, owner of Spike’s Bottle Shop, home to hundreds of bottles of craft beer.

The stout is hardly anything new. The black and foamy brew, made famous first by Guinness, has been consumed for centuries in Europe.

But now, stouts have begun to assume a new identity. Most of the more remarkable renditions of the iconic dark beer are imperial stouts, distinguished as a style by their high alcohol levels—often 10 percent or 12 percent alcohol by volume. And the sturdy body and backbone of an imperial stout can withstand heavy creative touches. “It’s such a complex beer and it can stand up to so many flavors,” Jaradah said. “You’ve got coffee stouts, oatmeal stouts, gingerbread stouts.” There are also peanut butter stouts, white chocolate stouts and raspberry stouts. Stone Brewing Co. recently introduced a chai-spiced imperial stout, and many breweries age their stouts in bourbon barrels to lace the beer with almost irresistible vanilla and coconut flavors.

Dresler agrees that while hops tend to stir the most excitement in beer drinkers, some consumers are developing a particular taste for the qualities of malt, the grain-based sugar that forms the alcohol and structural properties of a beer.

“You’re seeing malt-heads now,” he said.

Moonlight Brewing Co. owner/brewer Brian Hunt uses more than just hops to spice his beers, adding everything from redwood tips to mugwort.

Photo by Michael B. Woolsy (courtesy of made local magazine)

Sour beers are another category that is encroaching, if just barely, on the popularity of the IPA. Sour beers very rarely feature a heavy hop profile. That’s because bitterness and sourness tend to clash in an unfavorable way (although “bitter sours” have been brewed). In fact, some brewers of sours use almost no hops at all and only make small additions during brewing so that the brews can still be categorized as beers.

Sour beer drinkers get their kicks from face-twisting, mouth-puckering acidity.

“Up until recently, people didn’t talk about acidity as a flavor component of beer,” said Ben Edmunds, the brewmaster at Breakside Brewery, in Portland. “It was all about malt and hops and yeast profiles and alcohol.”

By introducing Lactobacillus bacteria—the same critter that makes yogurt—to their beer, brewers are able to create sourness. Souring is usually done in barrels after fermentation. Since alcohol slows the activity of Lactobacillus, which creates lactic acid, barrel-souring takes months or years—corresponding to very expensive beers. Lately, however, a new method of souring beer prior to fermentation has been innovated. Called kettle souring, this method of adding souring bacteria to the brew kettle is much faster, turning an unfermented beer tart and tangy in just a day or two. As a result, sour beers are becoming more affordable to brew and buy. Track 7 Brewing Co., in Sacramento, is using kettle souring. So are Anderson Valley Brewing Co. and Sierra Nevada.

Around the country there are now about 3,500 breweries and counting—the happy fallout of an incredible economic boom that seems only to be accelerating. Craft breweries are, in fact, stealing sales from once dominant global beer companies, which are scrambling to maintain relevance. Nationally, craft beer now represents roughly 12 percent of the beer market—and in California, 25 percent, according to Tom McCormick, executive director of the California Craft Brewers Association. Big-name brands are reacting by brewing “crafty” knockoffs like Shock Top, from Anheuser-Busch InBev, and Blue Moon, from Coors.

The craft beer renaissance is beginning to spawn new struggles within the craft beer community, too, where fierce competition for ingredients and shelf space has the potential to disrupt the fraternal brewers’ community as the fight for shelf space has become as competitive as the real estate market.

Even Raley’s Supermarket, of which some locations carry 200 beers, doesn’t have enough room to carry all the new brands on the market.

“We get 50 calls a week from new breweries,” said Curtis Mann, Raley’s senior business manager for wine, beer and spirits. “It’s really a challenge. We only have a limited amount of space.” To make room for as many craft beers as possible while maintaining a presence of the big brands, Raley’s has done away with many of the packaging forms that giant lager brands have marketed as a way of claiming shelf space. “We want to make space for all the other more interesting stuff coming in,” Mann said.