One thing you can say for sure about the home- and craft-beer revolution is that it has elevated hops from a bit part to a starring role. Whether the hops are spicy, floral, piney, resinous, citrusy or herbaceous, American brewers just love hops to pieces, and are constantly finding new ways to showcase them in all their bitter and aromatic glory.
American brewers just love hops to pieces, and are constantly finding new ways to showcase them in all their bitter and aromatic glory.
I used to think this was just a phase: “Starving Man” syndrome, I called it, an expected overcompensation for the indignities of a century of declining beer bitterness. For 20 years we’ve engaged in a veritable lupulin arms race, with more and more hops jammed into the beers, keeping right up with changing consumer and homebrew tastes.
Okay, I was wrong on this one. Massively bitter beers are here to stay.
This resiny madness has topped out at about 100 International Bitterness Units (IBU), the chemical limit of solubility of the bitter substances in hops. Fortunately for our palates, something else is going on. It’s no longer just about the raw power of gum-peeling bitterness. Brewers are applying a more finessed approach, finding more subtle ways of showcasing our favorite beer herb.
At the same time, hop horticulture has made real progress, especially from a drinker’s point of view. Before 1900, hop breeding focused mainly on disease resistance, agricultural qualities, and above all, squeezing more and more bitterness out of the little cones, character be damned. As these high-alpha varieties were destined mostly for the commodity extract market, this made economic sense. (Editor’s note: Alpha acid is the resin in hops that contributes to the bitterness of beer. The higher the alpha percentage in the hop, the more potential bitterness can be extracted from it.) But today, hop growers seem to have an interest in creating new hops with pleasant aromatic qualities as well.
I used to think I had a pretty good handle on hop varieties, but lately it seems that I find a new one every time I turn around. This makes it hard to feel I’m staying current. I suspect I’m not alone. One way we homebrewers familiarize ourselves with new hop varieties is the single-hopped ale. We take a relatively straightforward recipe for a hop-centric brew, such as an American pale ale, and dope it up with just one kind of hops; this lets the true hop character shine through.
This method, of late, is being used by pro brewers as well. And aside from its educational aspect, it ties beer to the land and the seasons. It creates excitement among consumers, which is just a fancy way of saying the beers sell well. A similar sense of excitement with single-hopped beers is percolating among British craft brewers.
So which new hops are we talking about? Here are a few recent American varieties for your consideration.
Amarillo.This privately developed hop has been around a few years. Loosely in the Cascade mold, it has a “floral, citrusy” character all its own. Lovely for American pale ales and IPAs. 8 to 11 percent alpha acid.
Glacier. Introduced in 2000, it is broadly in the Fuggle family, but I’d call it more of a “super Styrian.” At 5.5 percent alpha, it’s great in Belgian-style ales—like saison—that display some hop character.
Santiam. Introduced in 1997, with Tettnang + Halletau parentage and character. Alpha is low, between 5 and 7 percent. Clean noble hop character for any Germanic beer.
Simcoe. A real hop blast, introduced in 2000. With 12 to 14 percent alpha, this has become a darling of the double IPA brewers. Said to have a “unique, pine-like aroma.”
Sterling. Introduced in 1998, this hop has a lot of spicy Saaz-like character. Great for Belgian ales. 6 to 9 percent alpha.
While many of these hop varieties have been around for years, it takes growers some time to ramp up production to the point where they’re really available. Also, many sell out relatively quickly, so if you have your heart set on one, order it this fall or risk missing out for another year.
You’ll find more information on these and many other varieties in the Hopunion Data Book, available as a (free!) PDF download on the Hopunion web site, hopunion.com. USAHops.org also has some interesting material on their site, including a live Hop Cam.
Brewing with Wet Hops
Another technique gaining in popularity is “wet-hopping.” This is the use of fresh hops right off the vine. Of course, this means you have to have access to the plants, as only dried hops are available commercially. Many California breweries are harvesting the cones off plants grown on their own property for this purpose, and you may have to do the same thing. Such is the enthusiasm for these beers that the California brewers even held a Wet Hop Festival in San Diego last November. Wet hop beers are supposed to have fresher, “greener” aromas and a certain just-picked briskness.
If you decide to brew with wet hops, you’ll have to use a lot more (by weight), as dried hops, cone for cone, weigh only 7 to 10 percent as much as they did when they came in from the field. This means roughly 10 times as much hops as you would otherwise use. Note that the recipe below is for dried hops, so adjust it if you’re using wet ones.
Formulating a recipe for a single hop is easy; doing one that will encompass the range of varieties shown above is a little trickier. So, I’ll give a range of hop quantities, the low end calculated for 5 percent alpha; the high end for 10 percent. With a little interpolation/extrapolation, this should give you some idea of quantities needed for whichever hop you’ve chosen. And, of course, remember the homebrew maxim, “When in doubt, add more.”