These Hops Were Made for Lager

Brewers today are used to choosing punchy hops for their IPAs. However, great lagers require a different approach and a different kind of bitterness—yet, they need not copy the classics. Here’s how some new varieties are pointing the way toward lagers that still taste like lagers, “but with a twist.”

Stan Hieronymus Jul 25, 2022 - 9 min read

These Hops Were Made for Lager Primary Image

Photos: Matt Graves

In looking for a great lager hop, Oregon’s Indie Hops wasn’t looking for a plant with the exact attributes of well-known European varieties such as Saaz or Hallertau Mittelfrüh. “That’s like bringing sand to the beach,” says cofounder Jim Solberg. Instead, they were after a hop that could exhibit less of the “classic” herbal character and a bit more of the fruity-floral flavors that have made new American varieties such as Citra so popular.

It began several years ago, when Shaun Townsend—who heads a hop-breeding program funded by Indie Hops—inoculated a Sterling female hop plant with pollen from a male plant of German heritage. Out of the cross, he collected about 2,000 seeds that would begin a harrowing series of agronomic tests.

“Seven or eight made it to sensory,” Solberg says, perhaps saying a prayer for the other 1,992. They named the chosen hop Lórien, with a nod toward The Lord of the Rings. Other recent releases also have leaned into an Old World theme, such as Contessa (“a title given to a woman of nobility”) from Hopsteiner, and Adeena (meaning “noble, gentle, and delicate”) from the Association for the Development of Hop Agronomy.

However, even if these hops emerging from U.S. breeding programs don’t punch like Citra or Mosaic, they do tend to have an American strut.


The OGs

The Beer Judge Certification Program style guidelines suggest European pale lagers should be brewed with Saazer-type hops. Brewers Association style guidelines specify “Noble-type” hops. In either case, they’re describing what hop scientists call “landrace” varieties, which often take their names from the regions where they have been grown for hundreds of years. These include Saaz, Tettnanger, Spalter, Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, Hersbrucker, and Strisselspalt.

These cultivars share certain attributes with each other. Just as importantly, they’re less likely to contain compounds found in hops crossed with those of American heritage (Humulus lupulus var. lupuloides or var. neomexicanus).

Landrace varieties—and newer ones bred to emulate them, such as Hallertau Tradition or Akoya—are less likely to contain oxygenated and sulfur-containing compounds responsible for fruity, tropical, and the other aromas and flavors driving interest in hop-forward ales. (For more about these compounds, see The Complex Case of Thiols.)

They do, however, contain higher amounts of auxiliary bitterness compounds (ABC), which encompass all the bitter compounds in hop resins that end up in beer and are not iso-alpha acids. Sensory research in Germany has found that these auxiliary compounds serve to reduce the lingering character of bitterness, making a positive contribution to the quality and harmony of bitterness in the beer. A well-brewed, properly bitter pilsner with high drinkability is an ideal example of what these compounds can do.


These compounds are not easily measured, but the hops most likely to contain them have relatively low alpha acids (3 to 6 percent) along with beta acids equal to or more than the alpha. The beta-to-alpha ratios of Saaz, Mittelfrüh, and Strisselspalt are between 1.3:1 and 2.4:1, and they all have higher levels of ABC. In contrast, Citra (1:3), Mosaic (1:3.5), and Galaxy (1:2.3) have higher amounts of alpha and lower amounts of ABC.

The tale of the tape for Contessa (3–5 percent alpha, 5–7.4 percent beta, 0.8–1.9 ml/100 g total oil), Adeena (3.5–5 percent alpha, 3–4 percent beta, 0.8–1 ml/100 g total oil), and Lórien (4–5.5 percent alpha, 6–7 percent beta, 1.8–2 ml/100 g total oil) reveals ratios similar to those of classic landrace varieties.

An American Twist

Chuckanut Brewery in Washington state does not regularly make IPAs. Instead, to attract more drinkers to pale lagers, Chuckanut began brewing a series of beers using hops that IPA brewers already knew. The recipe was basic: pilsner malt and some spelt, a hopping schedule borrowed from Mitch Steele’s IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale, and fermentation with a 34/70 lager strain.

Quite often, says Chuckanut lead brewer Rick Burns, the result tasted as much like an IPA as a lager. That wasn’t necessarily bad; the one hopped with Centennial was pleasantly memorable. In contrast, the one brewed with Strata—the first hop from Indie’s breeding program and an unqualified success in IPAs—was not.


That series is how Chuckanut discovered Adeena. “It was the most Noble-like, but you could tell it wasn’t a German variety,” Burns says. “It was definitely floral, a little citrusy, but not like an American IPA.”

The Adeena pilsner, he says, “tasted like a pilsner. I’d describe it as a pilsner with a twist.”

The distinction between old and new isn’t always easy to describe, but Landon Swanson at Pueblo Vida in Tucson agrees that it’s important. Swanson is a “sucker for Saaz and Tettnanger. They have that spicy black pepper, and they can come off very floral, herbal.” He once worked for the National Park Service, and they remind him of stinging nettle. “It’s such a distinctive aroma, like catnip, spicy,” he says. “That’s what I get, sharp spiciness.”

Swanson began brewing with Lórien when it was still called IH033. “A lot of new-school hops, everybody wants fruit, and to avoid earthy,” he says. “The reason I like Lórien is the muted lime, citrus.”


He first used it in a dry-hopped lager named Willa, named with a nod to the Willamette Valley where the hop is grown. “If you could taste like a citrus blossom smelled, that would be it. I was scared it would be very modern,” he says. “But it is a little bit of old school, with more fruity oils, less dried herbs—where I wanted to go, new but not scary.”

More on the Way

Odell Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado, was an early supporter of Lórien, and COO Brendan McGivney is equally excited about an experimental from the Hop Breeding Company, HBC 1134. Odell is sponsoring an acre of 1134, which means that the brewery provided funds to expand production from a few hills to an acre.

“There’s a spot for these hops in the industry,” McGivney says. “I know we’re not the only ones brewing these beers.”

Unlike Lórien and landrace varieties, HBC 1134 contains 11 percent alpha acids. “It is really unique to have a Yakima hop that is 11 percent and this delicate,” McGivney says. “It gives this beautiful floral aroma, some spiciness, a kiss of lemon.” That description may bring to mind Loral, an HBC hop released in 2016 that also tends to have around 11 percent alpha acids.


HBC 1134 is central to a new Odell brand, Lagerado, a 5 percent ABV lager developed after multiple R&D trials. “It’s a brewer’s beer, a real pleasure to drink,” McGivney says. “And it’s connecting with a wide range of drinkers. This mouthfeel piece—it’s assertive, but with clean bitterness—is important.”

Odell uses nine hops in its IPA, and “all serve a role,” McGivney says. He appreciates how less expressive hops can complement each other in the same way in lagers. Lórien “is a little [fruitier], a little more rounded and soft, more similar to Halltertau [Mittelfrüh], but it’s fresh.” HBC 1134 also delivers a bright, fresh punch on the rub. “It smells like it would be more impactful, but it settles down in the beer, incorporates well,” he says.

When Sterling became publicly available in 1998, it was marketed as a replacement for Saazer-type varieties, designed to replicate well-known flavors. It still does that very well. However, today, brewers think differently when designing IPAs and choosing hops for them.

This would seem to suggest there is room for new American-flavored hops that will end up in new American-flavored lagers.

“I think Lórien fits the American palate in the world of IPA,” says Swanson, who could also be talking about a hop that doesn’t even have a name yet. “I love a lager that is super-Euro, but I feel like there is a middle ground to be had.”