Unless you’ve been living under a sober rock, you’ve probably noticed a lot of beers focusing on a particular hop varietal: Citra®. Even if you haven’t noticed the hype, you’ve very likely consumed a lot of Citra® anyway. At 10 years on the market, it’s not really a “new” hop, but its quickly-growing popularity with consumers and brewers has influenced hop farmers to plant heavily. In fact, Yakima Chief Hops and the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service claim Citra® is the leading variety planted in the Pacific Northwest in 2018! And as you know, Washington state produces 75% of the nation’s hops–meaning that a whole lot of the nation is excited about Citra®. Why exactly has Citra® snagged the hearts and palates of millions?
Citra® was a mellow experiment for more than a decade before several large breweries gained interest and helped fund initial acreage. Starting in 2008, Citra® made its way to the beer stage thanks to Widmer, Sierra Nevada and Deschutes. This exposure caused smaller breweries to take note, most of them pursuing interests in the aroma hop for a fresh take on the West Coast IPA.
While many IPAs through the 1990’s and early 2000’s focused on more piney-resinous and citrus-forward hop flavors like Cascade or Centennial, Citra® and some of its friends (like Mosaic® and Simcoe®) offer a different aromatic composition. Citra® does indeed have some citrus flavors–hence its name–but predominantly showcases tropical fruit. Many consumers expect to experience a strong orange or grapefruit flavor, but it’s far more nuanced–lime, lemon, mango, pineapple. Especially when used alongside her fruity friends, Citra® can come across rather juicy and exotic. Notably, the hop’s levels of the monoterpene myrcene are quite high, contributing to an intense fruity, citrusy and herbal note.
These bright, punch-like flavors have become very popular in the past five years, especially with the “craze” of hazy or NE-style IPAs. This is probably partly a reaction to the “IBU race” of the mid-late 2000’s which pushed palate boundaries for bitterness–often without much focus on hop aroma. Because myrcene is highly volatile (driven off in the presence of heat), Citra®’s true fruity offerings are much reduced when used too early in the brewing process. This makes Citra® an excellent and preferred late addition and especially dry hop, though technically its alpha acid content is high enough to use for a bittering hop as well. But brewers tend not to–because so much of the flavor is lost, and what’s left can come across as harsh. And let’s not forget that Citra® is one of the most expensive hops on the market. One does not just toss it around mindlessly.
You’ve probably also noticed by now that Citra® hops are a registered trademark–they’re registered to the Hop Breeding Company, LLC–the team behind the development of Mosaic®, Ekuanot® and Loral®. Only licensed growers are allowed to plant and farm the hop and their production is carefully controlled. These proprietary hops are common now and have really changed the landscape of farming and purchasing options. There are thus essentially limits on what volume of harvest is available to brewers. Obviously with the high demand, farmers have responded appropriately by planting exponentially more over a short period of time: in 2012 there were 539 acres harvested–and in 2017 this skyrocketed up to 5,463. 2018 promises even more.
What’s next for Citra®? Agriculture is complicated–one year with a poor season can set harvests of entire varietals back significantly. Pests, viroids, mildews–there are so many variables to farming. For now the outlook is good and the production of Citra® remains at a steady increase. And, with its demonstrated popularity and market success, further development of similar hops forges ahead. Look out for what’s next!