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Session 77 – IPA: Why it’s a big deal

The SessionToday the topic for The Session is “IPA: What’s the Big Deal?” What follows is based mostly on what’s occurring in the United States, although IPA Madness doesn’t stop at the U.S. borders, which you’ll see by visiting today’s posts (look for the links at the bottom of the announcement).

Nearly eighteen years ago, beer author-brewer-consumer Randy Mosher presented a travelogue of a recent trip to the world’s largest hops growing regions to listeners at Oldenberg Beer Camp in Kentucky. At one point he tilted his head back as if he were taking a big drink, reaching his hands into the air and grabbing fistfuls of imagined hops, then bringing them back down to his mouth.

“Americans have been starved for hops so long,” he said, “that right now we’re just shoving them down our throats.”

The implication was this would pass. It has not. I’ve cited this from Hop Culture in the United States before, but 140 years later it is still relevant:

“The brewing industry is not exempt from the influence of fashion. A careful survey of the types and descriptions of beers in vogue at different times will show that fashion has had something to do with our trade,” the author wrote. He described changes in beer dating to back before hops became an essential ingredient, and considered what might be next in England. “We will not further refer to the threatened introduction of lager beer into this country, than to say fashion takes strange freaks, and it will be well for brewers to be prepared for all eventualities.”

At the beginning of 2008 pale ale was the best selling craft beer style in supermarkets, followed by amber ale, amber lager, wheat beers, and then IPA. Yes, wheat beers, then IPA.

In the four years between the end of 2007 and end of 2011 sales of IPA increased 260 percent and it became the No. 1 craft style. The next year sales increased 40 percent again. This gets harder to measure, because now we have Black IPAs, White IPAs, Belgian IPAs, Session IPAs, and Cider IPAs.

And late Thursday, Harry Schuhmacher passed long the boldest of predictions.

All this reflects still growing interest in aromas and flavors being discovered in hops — or more accurately, created during the brewing process. IPA has become a synomym for hops. When Mosher made his 1995 Hop Tour these are a few of the varieties that weren’t yet commercially available: Amarillo, Apollo, Bravo, Calypso, Citra, Galaxy, Mandarina Bavaria, Mosaic, Motueka, Nelson Sauvin, Riwaka, Saphir, and Simcoe. For starters.

More than once last week at the National Homebrewers Conference I was asked what the next hot aroma/flavor would be? My best guess is more variations on this theme. No doubt there will be new varieties released, maybe touting a little more gooseberry, a lot more blueberry, a subtle melon, more lime, even coconut. But, and I hope I am not just being pie-in-the-sky optimistic, brewers also have an opportunity to blend varieties already in hand — often rich in compounds that breeders and farmers worked to keep out of hops as recently as 40 years ago — to create something new.

As Alex Barth, president of hop merchant John I. Haas has pointed out, “This love craft brewers have for hops refocuses attention on the plant.” IPA deserves some of the credit. It hardly seems likely it will fall out of fashion soon, but that’s no reason to be pissed off about the attention it is getting.

Two examples. The popularity of Union Jack India Pale Ale has helped fund expansion at Firestone Walker, which is why you can get Pivo Hoppy Pils, dry hopped with generous portions of Saphir. Likewise at Marble Brewery in New Mexico. Its IPA drives growth, so beers like Marble Pilsner — brimming with perfumey Old World Hersbrucker hops — end up getting packaged. These are good things.

I seem to have wandered off topic. Hops will do that. Lord know what I’ll write about on IPA Day. Maybe coffee-infused wood-aged extreme saison IPAs.

What would you ask a hop queen?

Mona EuringerNo, seriously.

Next week judges stream into Chicago to taste their way through 3,500 or so entrants in the World Beer Cup and soon they will be joined by thousands of brewing industry members for the Craft Brewers Conference.

I expect only the toughest will make it up Saturday morning for “Brewing Belgian White and Wit Beers,” the panel I’ll be moderating. Fortunately there will be many more exciting moments. First up, Wednesday afternoon is a chance to meet the Hallertau hop queen, Mona Euringer. She’ll be in Chicago along with members of the German Hop Growers Association.

She’ll give a brief talk about life on a hop farm and also be around for the trade show Thursday and Friday. Last year the hop growers caught some grief when it was suggested Nicol Frankl, the previous hop queen, was invited along only because she has a pretty face.

Not true. “To be elected hop queen, you have to have grown up and helped work on a hop farm all of your life, you have to know hops, hop farming, and all the machinery involved,” said Eric Toft, brewmaster at Private Landbrauerei Schönram, who doubles as a representative of the hop growers.

I promise to find out just how much she knows. So if you have a question you want asked please leave it as a comment. As long as it’s not rude I’ll ask her.

The hop growers will also be serving a variety of beers. Toft wrote the recipes and Victory Brewing in Pennsylvania made the beers. They will include three different Belgian-style pale ales — each brewed with a single German aroma hop varieties: Hallertauer Mittelfruh, Smaragd, Hersbrucker — a new Bavarian-style pale ale, and a tripel hopped with Saphir.

I promise to ask questions first and drink beers later.

Hops – No. 3 with a bullet

The brewers at BrewDog have made a list of their six favorite (or should that be favourite?) hops. You can see why co-founder James Watt has said, “We like to think of what we do as U.S.-inspired Scottish craft brewing.”

1. Chinook
2. Amarillo
3. Nelson Sauvin
4. Bramling Cross
5. Simcoe
6. First Gold

Kissed by the hopsThree hops grown in the U.S. Northwest (Chinook, Amarillo and Simcoe), two in the U.K. (Bramling Cross and First Gold) and one from New Zealand. Nelson Sauvin, released only in 2000, seems to be a hop du jour.

Its character has been likened to Sauvignon Blanc, the grape and wine variety, and New Zealand Hops Limited emphasizes its cutting edge attributes.

From the brewer’s notes: “The fruitiness may be a little overpowering for the un-initiated, however those with a penchant for bold hop character will find several applications for this true brewer’s hop.”

And from the suggested applications: “Very much at home in the new-world styles such as American Pale Ale and Super Premiums. This hop is considered by some as extreme and certainly makes it presence felt in specialty craft and seasonal beers gaining an international reputation.”


Mr. Rock prefers that beer be the star

Jean-Marie Rock began brewing beer professionally in 1972. For the last 25 years he’s been in charge of the Orval Trappist monastery brewery. He understands brewing cred. Celebrity? Another matter.

He’s been to Kansas City twice recently. Posing for pictures, signing empty beer bottles, he found out quickly he wasn’t in Belgium any more.

“The biggest change is the contact brewers have here with the customers,” said Steven Pauwels, a native of Belgium who became brewmaster at Boulevard Brewing in 1999. When Rock agreed to collaborate with Pauwels to brew a beer he probably didn’t realize that 160 people would show up at a Lawrence, Kansas, hotel to celebrate the release of Smokestack Collaboration No. 1.

“The American people are so kind,” Rock said. “You cannot refuse to answer their questions.”

Rock, who is 61, oversees the production of a single beer, Orval. (The brewery also makes Petit for the monks at the monastery to drink and to sell at the brewery’s inn — that is simply a watered down version of the mother beer.) The ongoing production of special, or seasonal, beers is something that makes New American beers (I’m using that term instead of “craft” to see if it sticks) different. Likewise the notion brewers might be celebrities.

Rock, who visited Kansas City first to brew the beer and then again two weeks ago for the debut, left no doubt he found brewing something different just plain fun. When Pauwels suggested the possibility of the collaboration last year Rock knew immediately that he wanted to brew a strong pilsner using a hopping technique from 30 years ago.

Rock first worked for the Palm Breweries, then for Lamot in Mechelen, brewing lagers. At 8 percent alcohol by volume Collaboration No. 1 is about one percent stronger than the beer Rock was thinking of. Although it is labeled an “Imperial Pilsner” is does not resemble beers such as Samuel Adams Imperial Pilsner.

Hopped with excessive quantities of German Hallertau Mittlefrüher (as it is spelled where it is grown) Boston Beer brewed an 8.8 percent abv beer that had 110 International Bitterness Units (IBU).

Collaboration No. 1 is hopped entirely with Czech Saaz and brimming with hop flavor, although with 30 bitterness units it appears almost pedestrian compared to 110 IBU.

Where does the flavor and aroma come from? First wort hopping, a practice no longer used in Belgium. “No, no, no, no, no, no,” Rock said. “It doesn’t exist any more.”

A quick primer for those who aren’t homebrewers, commercial brewers or among those who spend too much time with either. Brewers boil hops a an hour or more to extract bitterness. In the process flavor and aroma are lost. That’s why brewers make flavor and aroma additions later in the boil.

In this beer two-thirds of the hops were added before the beginning of the boil (or “first wort”), but their flavor ended up in the beer. German also brewers used the method at the beginning of the last century (you can read much more here, including results of tests conducted in 1995.)

“It seems like a contradiction. You’d think you’d get more bitterness and less flavor,” Pauwels said. “It’s more subtle, almost crisper. Sometimes with late hopping it can get vegetative.”

These days many American brewers are experimenting with first wort, and even mash, hopping (recall at the steps Deschutes took in making Hop Henge). Additionally dry hopping (adding hops after fermentation is complete, sometimes shortly before packaging) to produce even more aroma is commonplace.

“You can try all the things you want,” Rock said. “A lot of brewers they are doing all they can dream. The dream is not always the reality.”

Rock is happy with Collaboration No. 1 (“Not just because it is our beer”). “It has a taste you don’t get when you use late hopping,” he said. “You get an old taste. That is my opinion.”

You know, old like the good old days. When a brewer could go to the store to buy a loaf of bread and didn’t have to stop to sign autographs.

(Photo courtesy of Boulevard Brewing.)



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