The bitter truth

Whether single or blended, the many varieties of hops bring different flavors to your beer

Photo By luckystarr

To experience all that is famous about the hop, that bitter, aromatic blossom so integral to beer, is as simple and easy as breathing in the flowery fragrance of a fresh IPA.

But to understand hops—Humulus lupulus in taxonomic talk—and just how they affect beer is another thing altogether—a matter of chemistry, art, agriculture and marketing. Almost countless varieties of hops exist, grown on vines in vast orchards in the Pacific Northwest, Central Europe and several other important regions. Dozens of varieties are commonly used in brewing, and in most beers several occur together as carefully crafted blends. Thus, hops may provide a potpourri of fruity aromas familiar to anyone who has ever knocked back a few craft brews, but as individual varieties, hops—even just their names—are almost entirely unknown.

That may be changing, though, and just as grape varieties like Merlot, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir have become familiar to even the most novice wine drinkers, hop varieties like Cascade, Zeus, Simcoe and others are gaining the respect they command as essential ingredients in the beers we drink. Recently in the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. taproom, two experimental beers each featuring a single hop offered pub-goers an educational glimpse of individual hops at work. The beers, which bottomed out in late-June, were built upon the malt base of Sierra Nevada’s classic pale ale, and the only element differing was the hop used in each to provide aroma. Tom Nielsen, research analyst for the brewery, could not divulge the names of the hops, as they are both experimental breeds undergoing sensory evaluation and market potential, but he says they may one day become regular ingredients in the brewery’s beer lineup.

As a general rule, Nielsen says, hops are best blended.

“A lot of hops are fairly one-dimensional,” he says. “They do better in blends where you can play down certain qualities or fill in gaps using other (hop) varieties.”

But such is a matter of opinion, and some brewers feel that blending hops only dulls each variety’s unique characteristics. Sonoma County’s Bear Republic Brewing Company’s brewer Peter Kruger feels that, while blending may create a “well-rounded” beer, a brew made with just one hop retains “more personality and angular flavor.” Kruger has recently made beers for his taproom featuring, one at a time, Simcoe, Cascade, Centennial, Columbus and Amarillo hops, each of which has its virtues. Columbus, for example, can reek of marijuana (a plant in the same family, in fact—Cannabaceae—as hops). Amarillo is well-known for its sharp grapefruit odor. Simcoe is a very citric, fruity, acidic hop. In spite of their unique virtues, hops are generally blended. Most of Sierra Nevada’s ales, for example, contain two to three varieties. Other beers contain a dozen or more, like Shmaltz Brewing Company’s (makers of He’brew, “The Chosen Beer”) 13th anniversary beer, Jewbelation, which contains 13 hops—plus 13 malts and an alcohol content of 13 percent.

While the bulk of the brewing industry depends on just a small handful of widely planted mainstream hop varieties, many rare and unusually aromatic breeds cling to existence on small farms where growers receive a premium from brewers who can find these breeds nowhere else. Rare hops also live at the United States Department of Agriculture’s Corvallis, Ore., collection, where hundreds of varieties are preserved in a carefully maintained hopyard that might well be likened to a botanical Noah’s Ark. Several varieties, in fact, exist nowhere else.

It’s a rare beer drinker well-versed in the names of the bitter blossoms without which beer would barely be beer. But a movement occurred in the American wine industry late last century which brought words like Gewürztraminer, Muscat and Carignon to the tips of our tongues. Today, beer fans are learning to understand and appreciate the aromatic qualities of hops like Zlatan, Fuggle, and Hallertau Mittelfrüh. Someday we may even remember their names.