With the recent passing of National IPA Day, here is the promised second part of a two-part introduction to hops. Last week, we looked at hops in general, but now we will break down the varieties and growing regions which give different hops their unique purpose in certain beer styles. The hop flavor and aromas you will be enjoying in your IPA on Thursday are carefully selected from a wide variety of hop strains grown primarily in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, England, Germany, Czech Republic, and (increasingly) New Zealand.
When breaking down hop varieties, the major distinction is between “alpha” varieties and flavor or aroma varieties. Alpha varieties are bred to express a high percentage of alpha acids, are added to the sweet wort to help balance the flavor. The higher the alpha acid percentage, the less hops needed to achieve the same level of bitterness in a beer, which means less money spent on hops by the brewer. The majority of hops grown worldwide are considered alpha varieties, but the alpha varieties constitute a small percentage of all hop varieties grown. In contrast, for aroma and flavor varieties, the alpha acids are of little concern, and the brewer is interested in the qualitative properties of the hop. You will remember from last week’s post that the later in the brewing process that hops are added, they contribute less bitterness (in the form of alpha acids), but more in terms of flavor and aroma. It is the flavor and aroma of hop varieties that is expressed differently in different parts of the world, and gives the beers of each country a particular flavor profile.
We should note in passing that the distinction between alpha and aroma drawn above is not absolute. A brewer of course, is free to use any hop variety whenever he likes. And some alpha varieties, such as Columbus, are frequently used to provide flavor and aroma.
It is in Germany and the Czech Republic where our tour shall start. Germany is famous for what they call the “noble” hops. These four varieties — Hallertau, Tettnang, Saaz, and Spalt — are prized by German brewers for providing smooth bitterness and herbal flavors and aromas to beer. It’s unclear to me where the term “noble” originated, but for those brewing lager beers in the German style, such as Pilseners and Oktoberfests, it is considered essential to use these hop varieties (although American brewers are often willing to ignore these restrictions). As to whether these hops truly impart a more “noble,” smoother bitterness in beer? A palate more discerning than mine can judge that.
In Britain, the two most famous hop varieties are the East Kent Goldings and Fuggles variety. The Goldings variety in particular is grown throughout England and other parts of the world, but the ones produced in East Kent are highly prized. It is these two hops which feature in English Pale Ales and IPAs, the progenitors of our American versions. However, someone raised on American West Coast IPAs will be surprised at the flavor of these hops. They have a deeply earthy, floral, flavor and aroma. I particularly enjoy these hops, and they can present subtler notes of anise, raisin, and currant depending on how they are employed.
From these two hop-growing traditions are where most New World hops got their start, yet different breeding and growing conditions have created a class of hops with distinct flavor profiles. The first hop to make Oregon and Washington famous was the Cascade hop. It is still the principal hop in Anchor’s Liberty Ale and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, two of the beers which first defined the American Pale Ale as a separate beast from its British inspiration. Interestingly, Cascades were produced by breeding English Fuggles hops with a more obscure Russian variety. The result, though, produced a very resinous (think pine trees) and citrusy flavor and aroma. Almost 30 years after the Cascade was developed, it seems tame in comparison to some newer hops (Simcoe and Citra hops being the most notable), but the Cascade still sets the signature flavor profile which made gave America a beer that it could really call its own, rather than a reproduction of a British or German beer.
I already mentioned New Zealand in my post last week, and it is in the position now that America was in about 30 years ago — creating unique, exciting hop varieties that may define it as the fourth great hop growing region. Hop breeders are constantly experimenting with new varieties with a wide range of results (I read somewhere of an experimental hop reminiscent of watermelon). So the IPA of the future may evolve into something that will not resemble the one in front of you right now.