Hop, Hop, Hoppy

German Hops Association exhibit at the April Craft Brewers Conference

German Hop Growers Association exhibit at the April Craft Brewers Conference in Portland, Oregon

We hop heads love our IPAs. No offense to lager lovers, but the first sniff of a pilsner can’t compete in the aroma arena. Even a nicely roasted, chocolatety stout doesn’t inspire the same passion as a fine citrusy, floral, spicy or piney IPA. And that’s the thing: with over a hundred hop varietals, the olfactory combinations are nearly endless. Then, there’s that first sip, and the particular beer’s unique world of bitterness that opens up.

India Pale Ales are American craft beer’s most popular style and, as with all craft beer, brewers are constantly attempting to create The Next Big Thing. Craft brewers typically eschew the cost-lowering adjuncts (like rice and corn) used in macro beers like Budweiser and Miller. For some beers, craft brewers use fruit or spices, but basically, it just water, malted barley, hops and yeast. Hops are the multi-purpose workhorse, providing bitterness, aroma, all sorts of taste nuances and helping preserve beer and stabilize the head.

Sierra Nevada's Hoptimum

Sierra Nevada’s Hoptimum

As for bitterness, I suspect that, like me, most IPA enthusiasts can enjoy only so much of Sierra Nevada’s Hoptimum (100 IBU, 10.4% ABV, 5 hop varieties) or Green Flash’s Palate Wrecker (100+ IBU, 9.5% ABV, 3 hop varieties) in one sitting. Or, as Green Flash describes it, Palate Wrecker will “challenge and stun hop heads with an aggressive hop-forward attack. Your palate will recover, but you will remember that last round forever.” By comparison, a Budweiser has 12 IBUs, or International Bittering Units, and 5.0% Alcohol by Volume.

Regarding aroma and flavor, hoppy craft beers these days often contain at least two or three hop varieties. Add more than five or so, and the result is a lot like mixing a bunch of water color paints. So, most popular IPA recipes follow the Goldilocks formula: not too hoppy but not too bland; not too harsh but not too boring—and sales continue to rise.

Green Flash's Palate Wrecker

Green Flash’s Palate Wrecker

But, where do all those hops come from? And are there enough to supply the increasing demand? Germany, England and Australia are major hop-producing areas. In the U.S., the Pacific Northwest has been the primary hop-growing area since the onset of the craft movement. However, as Ann George, executive director of the Washington Hop Commission, notes in her December, 2014 article in The New Brewer Journal, hops are now grown increasingly in the Great Lakes, Midwest, Northeast and East Coast. Homebrewers in moderate climates sometimes grow their own hops.

The supply-and-demand balance of perishable hop cones is a delicate one. Before they plant, hop growers must anticipate the varieties that will be most in demand, something that has shifted dramatically in the last five years, according to George. Bittering hop demands have decreased, while aroma hop demands have increased. Mother Nature has a say, also. Too much heat (in the Northwest in 2014) can increase irrigation needs, scorch hop fields and raise production costs. Too much rain and cooler temperatures (in parts of the Northeast in 2014) can bring on downy mildew and devastate crops, as happened in the early 1900’s in New York State and in the 1950’s in Hopland, California.

A young Cascade hop plant in Leslie's garden

A young Cascade hop plant in Leslie’s garden

In an ideal world, each brewer would simply order his or her desired hops as needed. However, the harvest season, primarily August and September, is short and availability uncertain. The macro players like Anheuser-Busch and Miller-Coors forward contract much of their supply, assuring hop growers of a buyer and set price before they ever plant. Craft brewers who can are increasingly forward contracting, too, but the process isn’t simple and many must spot contract, taking what’s available and often paying high prices.* In The Brewers Association Forum Digest, a Monday-Friday email, almost every day, some brewery asks for hops help. Even Stone Brewing’s well-known and well-connected brewmaster, Mitch Steele, requested help with hop supplies in last Friday’s digest.

For now, the supply of certain hop varieties is tight, and no one knows what the future holds. The next time you sit down with that lovely, fragrant craft IPA–or that Miller Lite (12 IBU, ABV 42%)–take time to smell the hops and appreciate them.

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*For more in depth and technical information on the topic, see “How to Estimate for your Forward Hop Contracts,” by Teri Fehrendorf.

Check out Northern Brewer’s video about Hopunion Hops and Brew School!

 

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