Known as one of the “three C” hops along with Cascade and Columbus, Centennial hops are a thriving example of the combination of innovative and diligent Washington state breeding programs and supportive, creative craft brewers. You’ve most certainly tasted the hop in dozens of beers spanning a variety of styles, and it wouldn’t take much to remind you of its taste: warm, floral, citrus-heavy and delightfully bitter.
Cascade hops were released to market in 1972, and just two years later the breeding program for Centennial was under way, although they took until 1990 to make a final entrance. At the time the hop was frequently called “Super Cascade” due to some similar plant ancestry and a familiar citrus taste, but Centennial has its own identity–less grapefruit, more flowers. It was named after the centennial celebration of Washington state just earlier in 1989, and the hop remains rooted in its hoppy homeland. But it wasn’t instantly popular product. In the early ‘90s there weren’t yet quite enough large craft breweries to guarantee the hop remain in demand. With its higher alpha acid levels (great for bittering IPAs and the like) macro breweries weren’t too keen on bringing it on board either. So Centennial had a period of initial floundering, but as more craft breweries bought into the continuing IPA craze, its place on the hop sheet became more solid. In fact, Centennial acreage has risen substantially in the previous several years. Why? Here’s a few reasons why from both a brewing and farming perspective.
It’s Dual Purpose
Centennial is considered a dual purpose hop, meaning two things: first, that it contains enough alpha acids to be used to easily bitter a beer. Added near the beginning of the boiling process, these acids isomerize and gift the beverage with the majority of its IBUs. But, bonus! Dual purpose hops can also be used as aroma hops, added near the end of the boil or to the fermentation tank as dry-hops, not contributing a lot of IBUs but more aroma and intricate taste. In a nutshell, less boiling time means the hop keeps more of its volatile oils and thus more flavor. So Centennials have appeal for multiple parts of the brewing process and could be applicable to different styles which is a potential perk especially for smaller American breweries who are attempting many brands. Buying more of one hop is similar to buying bulk products for any other industry–it generally becomes cheaper per unit with greater quantities purchased. This makes it a good financial plan for breweries to cross-utilize hops (and other products).
Resistance and Storage
Centennial hops are considered moderately resistant to downy mildew, a highly problematic fungus that blights hops in damp, mild weather. Downy mildew has been known as a major issue for hop growers since the early 20th century, and breeders now select carefully for the most resistant varietals, though every season provides new challenges for farmers. Storage ability also matters greatly to growers, processors and brewers. As agricultural products, all hops will degrade over time in the presence of heat and oxygen, but some manage to hold out a little longer than others. Cascade hops, for example, are very poor for storage, while Centennials are considered fair. If this sounds like a tiny difference, it is–but it can really matter to flavor and overall utilization, especially to breweries releasing product for large-scale distribution. Consistency is king!
Flavor of a Movement, Flavor of a Place
American craft brewers latched onto Cascade for some of their most iconic products. Centennials do share a floral citrus flavor/aroma and are still heavily associated with a certain wave of IPAs–bold, citrusy and piney aromas that are strongly reminiscent of many iconic west coast products: the verdant green forests of the Pacific NW and the Mediterranean-climate of California: citrus, flowers and warmth. Centennials have a history that’s consumable.
Bottoms Up: For Midwestern readers, Bell’s Two Hearted Ale uses exclusively Centennial hops. If you’re in Oregon, try Ninkasi’s Quantum Ale, featuring Crystal and Centennial hops. And a personal favorite is Seattle’s Fremont Brewing’s Universale Pale Ale that also uses Simcoe™ hops.