What is beer without hops? Well, it would be a big, sweet mess, that’s for sure. While hops have not always been used as a bittering agent, they have played a crucial role for many centuries at this point. And, while the noble hops varieties like Saaz and Tettnanger are definitely still in use, particularly when brewing up a traditional German beer, there are many other options out there.
In fact, hops growers routinely experiment with new breeds and crosses in an attempt to achieve different flavors and aromas. The hops industry changes a great deal from year to year, and as an informed drinker, you should keep your finger on the pulse of those changes.
Why Are New Hops Developed?
Like new malting techniques, new hops varieties are bred every year. Only a fraction of those go on to see any sort of commercial use. Why is there so much experimentation, though? Actually, there are quite a few reasons, including the following:
Disease Resistance – Back before Prohibition, Maine was the leading US producer of hops. However, an outbreak of downy mildew destroyed harvest after harvest, decimating the state’s economy and hops production. A great deal of what goes into hops breeding programs is designed to help create types that are resistant to diseases.
Drought Tolerance – Hops are pretty picky about where they grow. Maine and the Pacific Northwest are ideal growing areas. The rest of the country? Not so much. Sure, you can grow some types in a number of different geographic regions, but they’re pretty limited due to their need for lots of water, and their aversion to prolonged sun exposure. Some breeding programs are designed to help increase drought tolerance in hops to make it easier for them to be grown in a wider range of geographic areas.
Higher Alpha Acids – When used for bittering (as opposed to flavor and aroma), the percentage of alpha acids within a particular type of hops is critical. The higher the percentage, the greater bittering potential there is. This is important for many reasons. The ultra-hoppy IPA trend remains strong, and brewers are constantly seeking newer, better bittering hops. However, there’s also the fact that higher alpha acid levels can allow brewers to use less hops in the boil, theoretically saving money.
Flavors and Aromas – While hops were originally used mostly to add balance to the sweetness of malt, things have changed today. Most of the aroma of a beer comes from hops added late in the boil, during the whirlpool or dry hopped while the beer is in the fermenter. If they are not boiled, hops do not add appreciably to a beer’s bitterness. Rather, they create unique flavors and aromas that lend to the beer’s character.
Hops to Watch in 2017
So, what are some of the newer hops varieties that you should be watching for in 2017? There are quite a few, and they run the gamut from riffs on classic noble hops to truly interesting varieties that bring something new to the table.
Azacca – Azacca isn’t really all that new. It’s been around for a few years at this point, but 2017 should mark a high point in its use. Azacca brings a taste of the South Pacific to the table, with flavors of tropical fruits like papaya, orange, grape fruit and pineapple to name just a few. Azacca makes an excellent single-hop beer with a decent amount of complexity, but it also pairs well with many other hops varieties.
Idaho 7 – If you’re more of a traditionalist when it comes to American hops, Idaho 7 might be one for you. It offers mild piney notes, combined with stone fruit flavors. It can be combined with options like Azacca, but also works with more established hops like Centennial.
Cashmere – This hop bridges the gap between tropical and piney. It offers up notes of pine, mango and more. As such, it can be used in West Coast or East Coast IPAs, as well as a range of other beer styles.
Comet – Dubbed “Citra’s little sister”, Comet is not a proprietary hop, like Citra, Mosaic and the like. It’s a public hop variety. It’s not really new, and was developed back in the 1960s. However, the high alpha acid craze of the past decade or so meant that Comet was largely overlooked by brewers. Expect to see it play a large role moving forward. Citra brings tropical fruit and citrus to the table.
Jester – Jester may or may not be to your liking, depending on your preferences. It delivers notes of black currant and grapefruit, as well as lychee. It’s a UK-grown hop, so there is a little underlying earthiness, as well.
Mandarina – A quick look at the beer market will show you there are several brewers already using Mandarina. It offers, you guessed it, flavors reminiscent of Mandarin oranges, as well as other citrus fruit. However, it can also bring a musty flavor to the table. In some ways, Mandarina is very much a “love it or hate it” type of hops.
Loral – Also named HBC 291, Loral is a proprietary hop that combines floral notes, earthiness, and citrus into a single package. In a way, it bridges the gap between UK-grown hops and US West Coast hops.
These are just a few of the hops you might encounter out in the wild. Don’t be leery of trying a new beer just because you’re not familiar with the hops that went into its making. Experimenting can be one of the most enjoyable things about drinking craft beer.
What are some of your favorite hops? Do you lean more towards traditional, noble hops, or maybe some of Yakima’s favorites? What new hops varieties are you most looking forward to trying in a beer this year?