IT WASN’T ALL that long ago that if you wanted to sound semi-intelligent on the wonkish topic of hops, all you had to do was remember a few key varieties.
Hallertauer is the perfect match for the soft water of Bavaria’s lagers. Cascades gives a grapefruit flavor to West Coast ales. And EKG is not a stress test – it stands for Britain’s East Kent Goldings.
Alas, in the past 10 years, dozens of new hop varieties have cropped up, and it’s almost impossible to keep them all straight.
Some offer high levels of resins known as alpha acids, the essential ingredient that provides bitterness to balance the sweet malt. Others boast assertive oils with unique flavors and aromas.
Brewers often experiment with new varieties, either to improve existing styles or to create something different. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s a drain-pour.
For example, I recently sampled a new India pale ale from Iron Hill (West Chester) made with the new Japanese Sorachi Ace variety. It was lemony, with just a touch of vanilla. The brewer described it as “a beautiful miscreant.” His assistant told me he’s “still trying to decide if I like that hop or hate it.”
To me, the variety seemed more appropriate for a Belgian-style farmhouse ale, one whose spiciness could play off the tart quality of the hops. But you never learn if you don’t try.
That was approach taken last year when Hopsteiner, a German company that’s produced hops for more than 150 years, began shopping around a new variety known simply as XP-04188. It was a hybrid made by crossing Fuggles and Cascades, with the idea of matching the earthy quality of the former with the citric, flowery character of the latter.
A handful of small breweries were given samples to see what they could do with it.
“They didn’t even have a name for it when I first heard about it,” said Charlie Cummings of Boston’s Harpoon Brewing. “I just wanted a chance to showcase it.”
Typically, brewers blend several hop varieties, combining the bitter qualities of one with the aroma or flavor of others to build what they call a “hop profile.” It’s a balancing act that requires both science and a refined palate.
The brewers at Harpoon liked the new variety so much, however, they decided they’d use only it in one of its limited-edition 100 Barrel Series brews: Harpoon Single Hop ESB, a malty, single-hop, British-style extra special bitter. “We loved the way it smelled,” Cummings said, “so we decided to go with it.”
It was a big success. The hops play off the complex malts of the ESB, giving the style a fresh aroma and a crisp, slightly bitter finish.
Thankfully, Hopsteiner eventually came up with a better name than XP-04188. It’s now known as Delta, and I expect you’ll see it shortly in other brands.
Meanwhile, here are a few other, new hop varieties to explore.
Apollo: Very high alpha acid content, used in bitter beers. Taste it in Otter Creek Alpine Black IPA (Vermont) and Harpoon Belgian Pale Ale.
Boadicea: Light and floral. Found in Left Hand 400 Pound Monkey (Colorado).
Citra: Fruity aroma with tropical flavor. Try it in Troegs Scratch #40 (Harrisburg), Widmer Sunburn Summer Brew (Oregon) and Sierra Nevada Torpedo (California).
El Dorado: Another very bitter variety. Pucker up with Flying Dog Imperial IPA (Maryland), Elysian Trip VII (Washington) and Cigar City Lil’ Warmer (Florida).
Nelson Sauvin: Grown in New Zealand, it reminds some of sauvignon blanc. Look for it in Alpine Nelson Rye IPA (California) and Stillwater Stateside Saison (Maryland).