Hybrid-hop Simcoe is hot

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FORGET Cascades hops. The newest beer craze is Simcoe.

Cascades, of course, is the classic West Coast hop, the small, vine-grown bud that gives beer its aroma, its bitterness, its spice. For 20 years, the fresh, aromatic, grapefruit-like Cascades virtually defined American-made craft beer, and it still reigns as one of the biggest sellers.

But six years ago, agriculture scientists in Washington State introduced a hybrid called Simcoe, and brewers have been boiling it big time ever since.

Yards Brewing, in Kensington, used it in its reformulated Philly Pale Ale recipe, and watched sales rocket. Troegs Brewing, in Harrisburg, adds it to Nugget Nectar Ale. In Delaware, Dogfish Head Brewing’s Sam Calagione said his brewers were using Simcoe before it even had a name, when it was known only as “Experimental Hop No. 555.” Today, he said, Dogfish Head tosses a “load” of it into 90 Minute IPA.

Even savvy homebrewers are onto Simcoe. “There’s a latent buzz around it,” said Jason Harris, of Keystone Homebrew Supply in Montgomeryville. “Simcoe’s made a huge impact.”

Simcoe is so hot, Weyerbacher Brewing in Easton just named its newest beer after the plant: Simcoe Double IPA.

What attracts brewers – and drinkers – to the variety is a distinctive citrus aroma combined with a high alpha-acid content that imparts a strong but pleasurable bitterness.

Because of those qualities, it’s an especially popular ingredient in the new wave of extra-hoppy ales known as Imperial India Pale Ales. It provides a nice kick without a harsh slap to the palate.

“It probably got the most fire going with it three or four years ago when it showed up in some of the lively hop monsters from the West Coast,” said Jim Boyd, general manager of the craft-brewing program at Yakima Chief, the Washington-based hops conglomerate that distributes Simcoe. “Almost every single one of them is using Simcoe.”

Indeed, you’d think that Simcoe was created especially for these hop-happy ales. But in fact it’s the big, bland lagers that drove its development.

The factory breweries that produce these beers don’t much care about the variety of hops they use. Sean McGree, vice president of the hop division at Brewers Supply, another hops producer in Yakima, Wash., said: “To them, hops aren’t flowers, they’re a commodity. They use computers to dose hop extract into brewing kettles. So they’re really just buying kilos of alpha acid… Often, the types of hops they use is a decision made by accountants, not brewers.”

The goal, then, was to develop a hop variety with high alpha-acid content to reduce the acreage needed to grow the fast-spreading vines. The problem, though, was that once they’re boiled in the beer-making process, high-alpha hops often produce harsh flavors.

Scientists at Select Botanicals, the Washington firm that propagated Simcoe, solved that problem by developing a variety with lower cohumulone, the acid responsible for the astringency of hops.

Jason Perrault, the company’s vice president of research and development, said it took 10 years of pollination, crop development, harvesting and analysis till Simcoe was ready to be released in 2000.

Perrault said the company is still waiting for interest to grow among the big brewers. But he’s heartened by the early acceptance by small brewers. “We’ve found that craft brewers are so much more willing to try something new, to give it a shot, to be a trend-setter,” he said.

Mostly, brewers use Simcoe in combination with other hop varieties.

Dan Weirback, of Weyerbacher Brewing, said he first used Simcoe when his brewery sought to reformulate its Hop Infusion Ale, a beer with seven different hops.

“Simcoe had this wonderful flavor of West Coast hops. It’s almost like a Cascades hop on steroids – it totally blew us away when we used it,” Weirback said. “We thought, ‘Man, wouldn’t it be great to make a beer that would be dominated by Simcoe?’ ”

That was the start of Simcoe Double IPA.

Naming it after the hop variety was a no-brainer, said Weirback, because Simcoe is already recognizable among savvy craft-beer drinkers.

And it may just be the start of a new trend. After all, winemakers commonly label wines with their grape variety (e.g., Chardonnay, Merlot). So why shouldn’t a brewer name his beer after its hops variety?

Especially when it’s something as flavorful as Simcoe hops.

A sampling of Simcoe

Want a taste of Simcoe hops? Here’s a sixpack of other beers that feature the distinctive flavor:

  1. Philly Pale Ale, Yards Brewing, Philadelphia.
  2. Pliny the Elder, Russian River Brewing, California.
  3. Big Fish Barleywine, Flying Fish, New Jersey.
  4. Dreadnaught, Three Floyds Brewing, Indiana.
  5. The Maharaja, Avery Brewing, Colorado.
  6. Titan IPA, Great Divide Brewing, Colorado.

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