HERE’S how geeky America’s passion for hops has gotten: Brewers are now using experimental varieties that are so new and untested, they haven’t even been named. Instead, the hops are known by a series of digits and letters – No. 01210, or HBC344, or whatever.
That’s not the nerdy part, though.
Hops-obsessed beer drinkers have become such wonks, they know the codes and can rattle them off like Professor Frink-wannabes in “The Simpsons.”
Blogs, online news groups and beer publications echo with chatter about the fruity character of this newfangled variety or the peppery kick from that one. Homebrewers brag about getting their mitts on them, then offer treatises on their arcane qualities.
Which is actually the point of experimental hops. Hops producers have found that the best way to bring new varieties to market is to brew with them and see if the lab mice – I mean, beer drinkers – like them.
That’s what’s happening at Stoudt’s Brewing in Adamstown, where brewer Brett Kintzer has been toying with experimental hops as part of his yearlong Fourplay series of single-hop India pale ales.
Kintzer brewed four mid-strength (6 percent alcohol) ales with identical malt bills that were equally bittered to 60 international bittering units, or IBUs, with just one hop variety each. (Normally, beer is brewed with a blend of two, three or more hop varieties to produce complex aroma and flavor.)
The first two batches were made with Apollo and Bravo hops, both relatively new varieties.
The third batch was made with unnamed experimental hops known only as No. 06300. The brew is available around the city in bottles and on draft right now.
The fourth, to be released next month, contains experimental hop No. 01210.
“I wanted varieties that Stoudt’s hadn’t used before, because we wanted to make an IPA that didn’t taste like the Double IPA we already make,” Kintzer said. “So I asked our supplier for hops that were either extremely new or experimental, and this is what they came back with.”
That supplier, Hopsteiner, is one of the world’s largest hop growers and is well-known for developing new, unusual varieties. One of its latest, Calypso – a hybrid between Nugget hops and a U.S. Department of Agriculture variety simply known as 19058M – produces telltale aromas of pear and peach. You can taste it in the likes of Yards Cape of Good Hope and Philly Beer Week’s Manneken-Penn.
Phillip Davidson, Hopsteiner’s regional craft sales representative, said that many brewers eagerly participate with experimental hops because they can make a beer that no one has ever tasted before.
“It’s about being new, about uniqueness,” Davidson said. “It gives them an opportunity to provide their customers a new experience.”
The consumer taste test is the final step in developing new hops, a process that can take a decade or more, he said.
Remember, this is agriculture, so it all starts with thousands of tiny seedlings, only a handful of which will be planted and examined for their ability to grow, resist disease and be harvested.
“Beyond that,” Davidson said, “we’re looking for their brewing characteristics.”
Some of those characteristics – alpha acid content that provides bitterness, for example – can be quantified in lab tests.
But aroma and flavor are largely subjective. For example, get a load of the descriptors that accompany No. 06300: dill, herbal candy, cocoa, anise, tropical, Saltine cracker, mint tea, peach, stone fruit, Jolly Rancher, passion fruit, caramel, toffee, vanilla, chocolate, watermelon, cocoa, butter and coconut.
Sly Fox brewer Brian O’Reilly, who brewed with the new hops earlier this year, described the flavor as “woody.”
Kintzer said that he picked up coconut and chocolate notes.
I tasted orange.
Clearly, no one really knows what hops No. 06300 tastes like, yet. That’s why they call it experimental.
I asked Kintzer if he was hesitant about brewing an entire batch with a largely unknown ingredient. “No,” he said. “If it tasted like sour milk, [Hopsteiner] obviously wouldn’t put that out and cultivate it.”
Will Stoudt’s continue to use No. 06300? Beer drinkers will get a vote.
Stoudt’s will serve all four batches of Fourplay side-by-side at its Micro-Fest on Oct. 19, and patrons can choose their favorite. The winner goes into full production in 2014 as part of Stoudt’s core lineup.
After that, the only thing remaining is to name the new hops. A random number just won’t do.
“Hopsteiner asked me if I had a name,” Kintzer said. “I haven’t given it much thought. . . . My job is to make the beer, not name the ingredients.”