Speaking of hops

HopsThe Wall Street Journal has a feature today on fresh hop beers. (it’s a subscription site, but the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a version of the story that works in a pinch).

The story alone is good enough reason to pick up WSJ if you don’t subscribe. One highlight:

The hop infatuation has resulted in a game of chicken among brewers, who have continued their effort to out-bitter the next guy – as evidenced by beer labels that boast mixed hops, extra hops or triple hops. Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, Calif., calls its Stone Ruination India Pale Ale “a liquid poem to the glory of the hop!” Delaware’s Dogfish Head has pioneered a pair of hop-enhancing technologies, including a “continuous hopping machine” that adds hops gradually over up to two hours of brewing instead of throwing some in at the beginning, middle and end, as is customary. The brewery also invented a method for delivering a final hoppy hit to kegged beer by running it through a hop-stuffed chamber before it hits the pint glass. Dogfish Head calls the device Randall the Enamel Animal, and some bars and beer stores have also started serving “Randalled” beers.

As much as I enjoy geeky hop talk – let’s argue for a moment about if the importance of co-humulone level is overrated – this is a terrific story because it gives the average person an idea of why the flavors are different in such beers.

Randy Mosher, a beer author and instructor at Siebel Institute of Technology, a Chicago brewing school, says there’s little historical precedent for using hops within a few hours of picking. “What people are trying to do with craft beer is put people in touch with their food again, and remind them that they’re drinking an agricultural product,” he says.

Since it is popular sport in the beer press to pick on factual problems with stories from the non-beer press, kudos to this story for reaching out to both the hop experienced and beer novice.

A fresh-hop beer can often, in fact, be less bitter than a corresponding version with dried hops, and instead is powered by floral, citrus tastes. The retained oils line the inside of the mouth and have a tinge of greenish, vegetal flavors. (Many brewers recommend drinking their wet hops with a glass of water.) It’s easy to taste the difference between a normal brew and a fresh-hop version — though that isn’t always a good thing. “If you’re not careful you can end up with a beer that tastes like lawn clippings,” says Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery.

At the end it notes Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher’s Tastings column will return to this space on Sept. 8, indicating this story ran in place of one of the best – and best-read – wine columns in the country. It was written with similar sophistication, the sort of approach that wine afficiandos who talk about “hang time” expect.

Pete Brown’s Top 10 beers

Why should you care about a list from Pete Brown headlined The Ten Best World beers? (Since you might be asking yourself, who is Pete Brown?)

Maybe because he’s written two beer related books – Man Walks into a Pub: A Sociable History of Beer and Three Sheets to the Wind: One Man’s Quest for the Meaning of Beer – that are just plain good reading.

Or because his list, obviously intended for the UK audience, appeared in the The Independent. You’d want to read a similar list if it appeared in the New York Times. (Quick aside, it appears the Times’ next beer feature will be about wheat beers.)

The article isn’t available online, but Glenn Payne of Meantime Brewing was nice enough to send along a copy (I asked him; he wasn’t promoting Meantime, which made the list).

The 10:
– Budweiser Budvar (Czech Republic)
– Badger Golden Champion Ale (UK)
– Brooklyn Lager (USA)
– Gonzo Imperial Porter (USA)
– Meantime Grand Cru wheat beer (UK)
– Asahi Black Lager (Japan)
– Cooper Extra Strong Vintage Ale (Australia)
– Goose Island IPA (USA)
– Deus (Belgium)
– Duvel (Belgium)

Of the Badger Golden he writes: “This is the taste of summer evenings captured in a bottle.” And of Duvel: “Let it rest on your tongue for a while and the citrus flavours come out from behind the alcohol like a lover re-entering the room after slipping into something a little more comfortable.”

Kind of a new way to think about Duvel, eh?

Goose Island IPA is on a bit of a tear in the UK. Jeff Evans gave the IPA his only “9” (Editor’s Choice) in the April/May edition of Beers of the World. Evans wrote: “One of the world’s great beer aromas, with big, juicy, fruity hops leaping out of the glass. Earthy resins; deep citrus and pineapple notes” and “Astonishingly fresh tasting, outstanding pale beer. Will a UK supermarket please put it back on the shelves?”

Brown described the IPA this way in The Independent:

It can be confusing when beer is described as “hoppy” if you don’t know what hops are like, so this beer is an object lesson in the delights of the multi-talented little plant. The depth of its piney, grassy, citrussy bouquet rivals any sauvignon blanc. That, plus the zingy bitterness that follows on the tongue, is what hops are like.

An object lesson in the delights of the multi-talented little plant. Indeed.

Wimpy Midwest beers?

It would appear that this column with the headline “Yo, Johnny Budweiser: You can’t handle our bold microbrews” disrespects Midwest beers.

If sports rivalries are about more than just the teams, then Seattle vs. Pittsburgh in Detroit is also about the sometimes preposterously Epicurean Pacific Northwest vs. meat-and-potatoes land. The culture clash beneath this Super Bowl extends to Chad Microbrew vs. Joe Sixpack. Since beer is an indisputable part of football (Pyramid Alehouses report five times the normal business in their beer gardens during the two weeks of playoffs), it makes sense to check out our liquid lineup.

Here’s the premise:

There’s a reason for the bitterness in this rivalry, according to Shannon Borg, a writer for Northwest Palate and other food-and-drink publications: “Northwest brewers have basically learned from each other and have developed the ‘Northwest style’ of beer — not German, not English. Those beers are definitely more wimpy. Northwest style is very hoppy, and I think there’s a testosterone thing going on — they try to out-hop each other.”

Somebody needs to send this guy some beer from Three Floyds or Bell’s. (And, for you Midwest hopheads, those are but two examples.)

In defense of hops: Part I

Dear Abby:
I love hops, but my local brewpub is currently serving an IPA dry hopped with Simcoe and I’m wondering if it is polite to tell the brewer his beer smells a bit too much like a litter box badly in need of cleaning.
Yours truly,
A Hophead

I didn’t mail the letter. Not only because I made the part up about the local brewpub, but because there’s already enough hops bashing going on these days.

In November Lew Bryson wrote:

But there’s just so much more to the whole beer palate than the variety of flavors available from hops, and the enthusiasts, the people who should be reaching out to the future craft beer drinkers, largely aren’t getting it. They’re impassioned about the one flavor/aroma component of beer that is least likely to entrance newcomers: bitterness. Their passion is beautiful, but so narrow. Love beer, not just hops.

And this month, in his predictions for 2006, Stephen Beaumont began:

Although hops, hops and more hops will continue to be the dominant theme in American craft brewing, I suspect that by September or so, a mild case of “repetitive bitterness disorder” will set in, bringing with it a new appreciation for less “extreme” styles of beer, like British-style best bitter, suitably hopped with Challenger, Fuggles and/or Goldings hops, and Bavarian helles and weisse.

hopsThese aren’t some crazy hop-fearing wimps – they’ve been seen in public enjoying an over-the-top hoppy beer. (Beaumont wrote this about Russian River’s Pliny the Younger: “If this is a triple IPA, then I’m all for the further development for the style. Hell, let’s start a I3PA beer fest!”) They are reasonable and well-read commentators standing up for balance in beer.

Their points are well made, particularly when Bryson begins with a defense of the Bryan Pearson’s malt-accented beers at Church Brew Works. But I’m not ready to jump on the less-hops-is-better bandwagon for the simple reason that hop obsession has been one of the cornerstones of the American beer renaissance.

American brewers used hops – starting with Anchor Brewing more than 30 years ago – to make it clear their beers would be something other than imitative of European classics.

But they haven’t received as much credit for innovation as American wineries. Paul Lukacs frequently praises American innovation in The Great Wines of America, for instance writing this about John Alban of Alban Vineyards in California:

“Like so many American winemakers of his generation, he has learned to do more than mimic the practices observed abroad, so as to be able to fashion wines that taste individualistic rather than imitative.”

It’s not only that American brewers are willing to make beers more bitter than ever they’ve explored what happens to flavor and aroma when they use new varieties of hops and different methods in brewing with hops.

They’ve done this at a time when the German Hop Trade Association calculates the average amount of hops used in each hectoliter of beer produced worldwide continues to decrease. Blame the brewers of international lagers for much of that, but it’s happening to more beers than just the ones we label industrial.

For instance, other German brewers rushed “gold” beers to the market after Beck’s Gold proved to be a roaring success. All are sold in trendy clear bottles and are lighter than traditional Munchner Helles. For instance Paulaner Hell Gold is 4.5% abv and the bitterness units (IBU) are measured at 15, while the Paulaner Original Munchner Hell (known as Premium Lager in the U.S) is 4.9% and 20 IBU.

Spaten even lowered the bittering for its Munchner Hell (known as Spaten Premium Lager in the states) from 25 IBU to 20. “People come to Munich expecting a smoother beer,” said Josef Ernst, who was in charge of brewing at Spaten until recently.

Hopping levels are diminishing in beers we don’t even consider hoppy, like the “abbey” styles of Belgium. “The style has gotten smoother and/or sweet,” said Belgian beer enthusiast Carl Kins, who judged at the last two Great American Beer Festivals. “Actually, most breweries try to follow the market leader (Leffe) and make a beer that has less character so as to appeal to a larger market.”

LimetMarc Limet (pictured) of Brouwerij Kerkom, a farmhouse brewery in the countryside south and east of Brussels, is more outspoken. “There used to be 50 beers that made you go, like, ‘Whoa!’ and now you can count them on two hands,” he said. “Everybody brews beer to sell. We have to sell beer, but my problem I have with some other brewers is they are brewing nine to ten beers, and everything is the same. The good things all get thrown overboard, and the bad stays. That is what has happened with hops. I miss that little bitterness that makes it a beer.”

Limet took the opportunity to make a statement when he brewed a special beer for a local cafe, calling it Boecht van den Afgrond. “It means ‘rubbish from the abyss,’ “ Limet said, and the name designed to taunt drinkers who don’t care for hops. He calculates the beer’s IBUs at 50.

“It’s meant to fight the sweet beers,” he said.

This is not to imply Limet is the only continental brewer willing to experiment with hops, or to just plain experiment. For instance, we can hardly wait to taste what Cantillon does with the large package of Amarillo hops Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewery is sending in connection with the trip he and other brewers are making to Belgium.

And let’s give Beaumont credit for following his first prediction with this one:

In British brewing, on the other hand, I expect that more and more brewers will discover how much fun it is to play with American hops like Cascade and Centennial, much to the dismay of CAMRA traditionalists across the land.

Consider this: Centennial hops would have died in infancy were it not for American brewers (and Ralph Olson of Hopunion).

The point is that Americans aren’t just throwing more hops into their beers – OK, some are and the results sometimes suck – and that ultra hoppy beers pave the way for complexly hoppy beers.