Experimental hops take brewers to next frontier of IPAs

Like grapes do for wine, hops — tiny green flowers dangling from the darker-colored leaves of a perennial plant — contribute enormous character to beers.

Although hops have been a primary element of our oldest alcoholic beverage for hundreds of years, contributing bitterness and balancing the other ingredients of malt and yeast, they’ve never been showcased better than in the past few years as brewers figure out there’s more to them than aroma and flavor.

One of those brewers is Joe Mohrfeld of Pinthouse Pizza, a local brewpub that specializes in hop-forward beers like the Man O’ War IPA, with bold notes of tropical citrus, grapefruit and resinous pine thanks to the Citra, Simcoe, El Dorado and Chinook hops added at more than 5 lbs. per barrel. Most of these hops have only come out within the last 10 to 15 years as hop growers in the Pacific Northwest and abroad in countries like Germany scramble to meet demand.

These newer hops are the reason the IPA (short for India Pale Ale) has become the most popular beer style and has dominated the craft beer renaissance. Hops tend to be plentiful in this style.

“If it weren’t for some of the hop growers today, trying out new types of hops and finding ways to best produce current ones, we wouldn’t have the IPAs we have today,” he says. “We’d still be making the ones from 1995.”

That’s a sobering thought. Although yeast and malted grains are essential ingredients as well, hops have drawn many a recent convert to the dizzying array of aromas and flavors that beer can have: everything from ripe mango to lychee to black pepper to zesty lemon. American hops are most known for characteristics of citrus and pine, while European hops, Brock Wagner of Saint Arnold Brewing says, tend to be more floral and earthy.

On both sides of the Atlantic, hop growers are hard at work making sure their thousands of brewery customers have the hops they need — no easy feat, with factors like pests, weather and disease determining whether the harvests will be enough. To help offset demand and continue their education about these versatile flowers, the growers have been introducing new cultivars alongside trusty staples like Chinook, Cascade and Centennial.

The most experimental of these hops originally are just given numbers rather than names. Once growers and scientists have tested them out, making sure they’ll stand up to pests like downy mildew and can produce viable quantities, they’re passed off in small batches to brewers, who have to make sure these hops pass the biggest test of all — the consumers.

One way to do that is by brewing up a single-hop beer, as Saint Arnold did with its most recent Icon Green, the 7220 Pale Ale. (Most beers tend to have multiple hops for balance and complexity.)

Wagner, the founder of the 22-year-old Houston brewery, gets about a third of Saint Arnold’s total hop usage from Germany and the Czech Republic (an unusually high amount for a U.S. brewery, he says) and makes a yearly trip to Europe to confer with the producers there.

“One of the things the hop growers would have us do is check out the experimental hops they’re working on,” he says. “They’d select ones they thought we would be interested in, and every once and awhile, I’d rub a hop and find one I’d like to brew with. That’s what happened” with the hops in the 7220 Pale Ale, “which at the time didn’t have a name, just the number 7220.”

He noticed that 7220 — which has since gotten an official name, Ariana — had “a tutti frutti mango note to it. I thought it would be an interesting hop to brew with because it had the tropical mango trait of Mosaic but more delicate, more fruity. That’s been the feedback we’ve gotten from people as well. We wanted to crowd-source the feedback for the hop growers.”

Now that Ariana has been named and gotten a positive response from drinkers, it’s a little closer to becoming a more widely requested hop like Mosaic. But for brewers like Hops & Grain’s Josh Hare, who features Mosaic in his American-style IPA called A Pale Mosaic, another hop receiving the firestorm of support Mosaic has gotten is hard to imagine.

Hare, like Mohrfeld, gets the majority of Hops & Grain’s hops from the Pacific Northwest, not from Europe. And Mosaic is chief among them, along with hops like Simcoe, Citra, Amarillo and El Dorado. They’ve all got one thing in common: “These are all varieties that have come out of breeding programs in the last four to five years,” he says.

Although the old reliable hops of Cascade and Centennial make a great base, the newer ones — both Hare and Wagner called them “the cool kids” — add nuance to a beer; Hare prefers to layer them in.

Because Hare also likes to play with experimental hops, Hops & Grain is one of four breweries nationwide receiving tester hops from Oregon State University, a school focused on developing new varietals. Hops & Grain played with eight of them last year for a taproom-only special, brewing the same base beer and then dry-hopping it each time with one of the experimental hops. The brewery will do that again this year, providing Oregon State with valuable feedback.

Another new hop (though not quite as young as Ariana) is Eureka. Both Hops & Grain and another local brewery, Independence Brewing, have gotten some of it and are still figuring out how best to show it off.

“Eureka resembles the hops in Stash,” Independence’s IPA, head brewer Brannon Radicke says. “Real dank and earthy. But we would want to design a new beer for it.”

He notes that some of the experimental hops ending up in brewers’ hands “are nothing to write home about.”

The ones that are exceptional and get named, however, are helping both well-established and fledgling breweries find new ways to brew with hops, which U.S. hops farmers are forecasting to be at their highest-ever bounty this year. According to Mohrfeld, aroma and flavor, including hops’ characteristic bitterness, aren’t all hops are good for.

“A lot of breweries now are focusing on the more juicy IPAs, the ones that have the nice, full, round mouthfeel,” he says. “We can take the oils from the hops, so that instead of just tasting a malty body that finishes bitter, you’re getting nice stone fruits or tropical fruits or citrus throughout the beer and a resinous character that we never really had before. … It’s been a lot of experimentation on the brewers’ part.”

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