There are many ways to broadly categorize hops: genetics, typical uses, prominent flavors, regional availability and history to name just a few. It’s an exciting time to be a beer enthusiast as contemporary hop breeding and development programs are thriving. While we here in the US happily welcome newer trademarked hops like Amarillo® and Simcoe® into the canon I think it’s a great time to throw a look back to the original gangster hop group, noble hops: Hallertauer, Tettnanger, Saaz and Spalt.
What do these hops share, and why are they important? Well, for starters, these four are some of the earliest types cultivated for the brewing industry and as such have significant cultural and agricultural weight for the regions and history of beer itself. According to Stan Hieronymous, author of the extensive book For the Love of Hops, the term “noble hop” was only popularized in the 1980s. I would assume that it became an important distinguishing term as American craft beer (featuring new American hops like Cascade) really took off. Regardless, the term now truly refers only to the four kinds of hops when they are grown in the region they represent–much like an appellation designating terroir like Champagne or Burgundy. And indeed, although all these hop varietals can be grown in other regions, they are slightly different products as such. Though there are many American hops that embody similar characteristics to noble hops (such as Willamette or Mt. Hood), there really is no replicating a noble hop’s presence in a traditional style.
All noble hops are considered to be primarily aroma hops as they are low in alpha acid (as opposed to many of the higher-alpha types grown in the Northwest today for IPAs and high IBU beers). Noble hops also have low levels of beta acids which are not isomerized during the boiling process but instead oxidize into a number of other flavors later on. Many German brewers consider these flavors to be highly desirable when in balance. The ratio (about 1:1) between alpha and beta acid levels is important in categorizing noble hops. This ratio is not shared by the majority of other hop types.
So what’s a “noble like quality” hop do for beer, and how do you as a drinker recognize it? All four varieties are said to have a spicy, lightly floral aroma and flavor, which make them ideal for many German and Belgian styles of beer like pilsners, weizens, tripels, and bocks. The Pilsner from Bellingham’s Chuckanut Brewery would be a great place to start, as would Ninkasi Brewing Co.’s Helles Belles Lager, or Silver City Brewery’s Cold One Pilsner. There are a number of other European hops that are considered “nearly noble” for their similar makeup: Fuggles, East Kent Goldings, Hersbrucker and Styrian Goldings usually top that list. Flavors in the “nearly noble” group are different but not secondary in any way and are widely used in many traditional English ales. Seattle’s Machine House Brewery uses mainly English hops in their traditional English-style cask beers.
I adore the noble and nearly noble varieties as well as our big bold piney and fruity contemporary hop friends. The nobles have persisted as important hops for hundred of years now, mostly by the efforts of traditional European landrace hop growers and brewers, producing and brewing high-quality and rooted beers. I commend the American and global brewers who appreciate and utilize these hops in their beers as well and hope that they’re safely set as standards for generations to come. Try a few of the beers above and I’m fairly sure you’ll agree.
If you’ve been perusing the grocery beer shelves much this season, you’ve probably noticed a lot of fruit flavored beer. Fruit beer isn’t a new concept– macro producers, a few US craft breweries and of course Belgian ales have made some flavor combinations common, but there’s been an exponential increase in selection recently. Why all the fruit these days, and what does the trend mean for the market?
Let’s back up for a moment and talk about some of the different ways fruit is incorporated in beer. At its most simple concept, fruit beer is just that– beer + fruit. When and how said fruit is introduced means a very different end product, however. To get into the nitty gritty of it, beer yeast is really at home working within an environment of malt sugars–that is, those that malted barley, wheat, rye, and oats contribute. In an anaerobic environment (like beer fermentation), yeast consumes these malt sugars and in turn produces our friend ethanol. Beer yeast changes a syrupy sweet liquid into a flavorful, alcoholic one. It’s awesome. Malt sugar (maltose) is longer and a more complex arrangement molecularly speaking than glucose, fructose, or sucrose. So when those types of simpler sugars are added to fermentation, yeast takes the easy way out. Our human bodies react similarly when we’re hungry–processing simpler sugars takes less energy, so it’s an obvious choice. Thus, brewers often wait until the majority of fermentation has taken place before adding large amounts of other non-malt substances like juice or whole fruit. Yeast can tire out or perform poorly otherwise.
Depending on timing, the yeast will convert some or all of the fruit sugars when added post-primary fermentation. And of course, there are yeasts that enjoy working with other types of sugars: wine yeasts, cider yeasts, mead yeasts, and mixed or wild yeasts. But when we’re speaking of beer with fruit flavors, it’s typically done with beer yeast and uses a solid malt backbone with some fruit elements on top that mesh well with the whole product. Sour or mixed fermentation beers like Belgian lambics often have fruit added along with their wild yeasts for an extensive secondary fermentation (months to years), producing a really unique product. That’s one end of the spectrum which involves long aging time and careful blending skills. Far simpler is just beer with juice or fruit flavor added. An example of this is the radler (aka shandy), usually a mix of beer and fruit soda popular in Europe. Fun fact: the word radler means cyclist in German, perhaps indicating that after a long ride, a light, somewhat sweet and refreshing beer is the most delicious choice. It only makes sense then, that Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland (a bike focused brewery) makes a radler in 16 oz. cans.
Many beer drinkers are still hesitant to choose a fruit beer. Why? Firstly, there’s a concern over the sweetness level. Some of the most predominant examples of fruit beer (usually macro products) in the last decade have been fairly sweet and unbalanced. But fruit beers don’t have to end up sweet, and the complexity of floral and fruity elements in combination with aromatic hops can make for a really interesting end product. Also: the gender factor. A lot of those same overly sweet beers have been marketed toward either novice drinkers or female drinkers, who’ve been told essentially their whole lives that they should always lean to sweet flavors and avoid bitter. It’s unfortunate, but it is changing. The concept here is that someone might gain or lose peer respect by their beverage choice. Not entirely crazy, but it overlooks personal preference, which should be more important in my opinion. Especially because now we have big fruity and hoppy IPAs, challengingly complex fruited sour beers, exotic fruits, and new flavor profiles. No one should be afraid to try new things.
Craft brewers want to stand out, be new and different and bring higher levels of flavor to consumers. It’s really tough to catch a shopper’s eye these days, and we as American consumers love experimentation and newness. There’s some speculation within the industry that the fruit trend is somewhat in response to the changing availability of certain newer trademarked hops–especially the most popular fruit-forward hops like Citra® and Mosaic®. It’s certainly a plausible analysis, but trends take on their own momentum and create their own submarkets so quickly it’s hard to be entirely conclusive.
Regardless of the reasoning, fruit beers are pushing consumer perception and challenging drinkers’ palates this season, which I think can only be positive industry-wide. As with all beer, there are going to be excellent, carefully crafted examples and shortcutted, uninteresting examples. Be discerning when tasting as always! If you’re overwhelmed, try one of the following fun examples: Uinta Brewing’s tangerine version of their Hop Nosh IPA plays with citrus and tropical hop and fruitiness. Seamstress Union, a dry and extremely refreshing seasonal raspberry wheat beer by Schooner EXACT Brewing Co. is lovely in the sunshine. Or for a more European-style mixed-culture example try Pfriem Family Brewers’s Oude Kriek, a lambic with Hood River cherries added. I’m interested to see how this trend develops over the next year’s product lines and if it continues on into fall and winter styles. You never really know here and now. It’s an exciting time to be a beer enthusiast, wherever your tastes lie.
Like any craft beer drinker, you’re probably accustomed to seeing International Bitterness Units (IBU) posted on chalkboard menus and printed on cans and labels. American brewers love their hops, and American consumers love their amped-up IBUs, especially here on the West Coast. In fact, the craft beer market share of IPAs increased nearly tenfold since 2008, diversifying into subcategories like Session IPAs, Belgian IPAs, Imperial IPAs, and Black IPAs. Novice or cocksure drinkers often make the mistake of assuming that the higher the IBU, the better the beer or the more “intense” or bragworthy their choice will be considered. But there’s a lot more that goes into how bitterness and hoppy flavors are perceived, achieved, and explained.
Hops bring a lot of different elements into beer: a huge variety of flavors and aromas in addition to anti-bacterial properties and of course, bitterness. Everything depends greatly on how and when the hops are added during the brewing process. In order to gain bitterness, hops must be added early during the boiling process, where they undergo isomerization, a process that rearranges atoms within a molecule. In simple terms, the bitter alpha acid compounds are effectively dissolved into the wort, which they wouldn’t normally do in plain cool liquid. It takes a certain amount of time exposed to high heat to achieve this. Conversely, many of the other compounds responsible for flavor and aroma are heat-unstable, meaning that they are driven off with evaporation during the boil. Thus brewers typically add hops at different intervals to achieve a desirable balance of hop bitterness and hop flavor/aroma. Adding hops to an already fermented beer (dry-hopping) for instance, will not add any bitterness to a beer, but it will increase the hop flavor substantially. A dry-hopped, high IBU beer can seem more bitter overall.
So how do you measure real bitterness? One bitterness unit is equal to 1 milligram of isomerized alpha acid in 1 liter of beer. Brewers use calculators to know how and when to add hops for the right level of IBU in each recipe. But beer styles vary greatly–malt character and sweetness level depends on style. Stouts are roasty and dark, Pilsners are dry and light, ESBs are malty and somewhat sweet. Sweetness and other flavors serve to balance a hoppy, high IBU beer. Barley wine, for instance is usually 2-3 times as bitter as a Kolsch, but you may not notice due to the residual sweetness and rich malt flavors. Without a lot of IBUs, a barley wine would be cloying, syrupy, and unbalanced. Beer is truly a balancing act between flavors, just like many sauces and recipes.
Instead of adding more hops near the end of the boiling process (or as dry-hop additions), some breweries use hop oils or extracts designed to contribute only flavor and aroma in concentrate (although, depending on method, there are also products that offer isomerized hop acids, which will add to IBUs). This is attractive to brewers for a few reasons. A huge volume of hops is required by some recipes to achieve the ideal flavor and aroma, and that in itself can present some issues. Some wort is always lost: absorbed by hops or lost while removing excessive hop residue. Additionally, grassy or vegetal flavors can accompany a large hop addition. After all, hops are green plant material. Furthermore, many current hop extract products are extremely shelf-stable and won’t deteriorate into stale or skunky flavors down the road. Trappist-style beers (low IBU) and Imperial-style IPAs (high IBU) are common styles that might benefit from utilizing these “downstream” hop products. The oils and extracts can offer great control for making precise beers with better flavor.
IBU is merely one way to predict the overall flavor of a beer. Some breweries have adopted a more comprehensive way to determine the understanding of bitterness in beer called the BU:GU ratio. This compares bitterness units (IBU) to gravity units (in this case, a measure of sugars present in the original wort). Most styles end up with a range of 0.3-1, with larger numbers indicating a more bitter beer. Of course, this method doesn’t take into consideration the flavor of the malt itself nor the final gravity of the beer (which could be sweet or dry). So if you’re using the ratio, be sure to apply it in context with style in mind. And that’s just what I hope to underscore: context. No number used to measure beer will determine how delicious it is, how well-made it is, or how much you enjoy it.