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.