For several thousand years, brewers made beer without hops. But truth be told, hops are what separate beer from wine, sake, mead, whiskey, tea, cider, brandy and most other beverages that count on one basic ingredient as a flavoring agent. And for the majority of the time since the Bamberg Beer Purity Law was proclaimed in 1489 mandating that beer use only barley, hops and water, most brews were single hop affairs.
Historically brewers relied on local hop farms to produce the bittering agent they needed to balance the sweetness of the malt in their beers. Farmers planted the type of hops traditionally grown in the area; the ones best suited to local soil and climate conditions. Even today you expect a Czech pilsner to use Saaz, a German lager to contain Hallertauer and English pale ale to be made with East Kent Goldings.
So important were certain hop varieties that countries guarded them as national treasures. In Bohemia, King Wenceslas II declared that anyone caught trying to remove hop cuttings from what is now the Czech Republic would face the death penalty.
Things are a bit different today. Thanks to global agriculture markets, modern transportation and technology making hop pellets and extracts possible, most American brewers look at hops as a musical scale rather than a single note. It’s common for beers to have three or four hops in their recipe. In fact, Matt Brewing in Utica, NY, uses a total of 10 different varieties of hops—to go along with 10 different malts—to make Saranac Imperial IPA.
According to Ralph Woodall, director of sales with Hopunion in Yakima, WA, there are approximately 120 different hop varieties commercially utilized around the globe at any one time. The number fluctuates as new hybrids are created—such as Simcoe and Amarillo—and others fall out of favor with brewers, such as Ultra.
Woodall points out the type of hops used define the beer. “In the early days most brewers only had one type of hop available, so they used what they had,” Woodall says. “Even in the industrial days of brewing before the craft movement, hops were pretty much used just for bitterness—it was one dimensional.”
Brewers started blending hops as they recognized that some hops offered bitterness for flavor, while others served up more aroma notes. But like Bordeaux, a mixture of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot and malbec grapes, the nuances of the single varietal are lost to the blending. Now some brewers are going back to hop’s past and making a case for pale ales made with a single hop variety.
Triple Rock Brewing in Berkley, CA, has been taking its customers on a hop voyage since the middle of 2009. About once a month a new hop variety is used in the brewery’s Single Hop Experience Pale Ale.
My goal is to educate people about the impact of hops,” says Rodger Davis, head brewer at Triple Rock. The experiment has already featured Chinook, Challenger, Ahtanum and Amarillo. “Sometimes it works out nice. I personally think that Amarillo is a nice hop by itself. Even when it does not work as well, we may use the hop again down the road as part of a blend.”
The goal should always be to brew a great beer,” says Brock Wagner of Saint Arnold Brewing in Houston, TX. The company makes Elissa IPA, a single hop beer that employs Cascade. “You can have intellectual exercises about the different elements of single hops, but in the end it should be about making a great beer.”
To that end, Saint Arnold Elissa IPA did not start off as a single hop ale. The brewers made several test batches that used a blend of hops, but they kept coming back to the grapefruit and soft bitterness qualities of Cascade.
I’ve been a fan of Cascade and I always wanted to make an IPA,” Wagner says. “Cascade’s flavor really shines through, but it’s important to recognize this beer is not all about the hops. We were looking for the complexity of the malt and the yeast to come through.”
Colorado brewer Oskar Blues has just released GUBNA, a March-to-October seasonal that uses three malts and Summit hops in a 9.5 percent ale that registers 100 International Bittering Units. “It comes from our culture in general, to challenge the norm,” says marketing director Chad Melis. “We’ve created something really complex out of simple elements.”
Peter Kruger, head brewer at Bear Republic Brewing in California, has been making Rebellion Ale using a different single hop with each batch. So far, at least eight hop varieties have been used. “Some that we like we come back to, while there are others we don’t want to revisit,” Kruger says.
The reaction has been really positive. It took three batches for most customers to get their heads around what we were trying to do,” Kruger says. “It gives us a chance to take a peek at what the flavor of hops is all about. It’s sort of a controlled experiment. The beers have been remarkably different.”
Even when Bear Republic returns to a hop it had used previously, there can be flavor variances. Because hops are an agricultural product, there are differences from one growing season to next.
We’re not striving for the same exact flavor year to year, we just want to make the best possible beer,” Kruger says. “We will adjust the amount of hops in each batch of Rebellion to achieve our target of 55 IBUs.”
The experimenting at Bear Republic and the other single hop brewers is certain to continue. Kruger says on a trip to Washington’s Yakima Valley last September he purchased Citra, Newport, Mount Rainier and Palisade. “We specifically bought hops we didn’t know much about and we’ll send samples of the beer back to Yakima, which helps them evaluate the hops.”
Your Next Beer might just be a single hop pale ale, so you can do some evaluating of your own.
Rick Lyke is a Charlotte-based beer writer and founded the Pints for Prostates campaign in 2008 to reach men through the universal language of beer with an important health message.