Hops: Blending and Pairing

Smart and effective hops pairing is a front-end, preproduction skill that every brewer should work to develop because pairing, blending, and mixing hops increases the odds of getting what you want out of your recipes and beers.

Josh Weikert Sep 29, 2018 - 12 min read

Hops: Blending and Pairing Primary Image

It all started like this: I just couldn’t brew an award-winning Bohemian Pilsner. For those who might not be aware, the Bo Pils (Czech Premium Pale Lager, whatever we’re calling the style these days) is characterized by a clean fermentation character, very soft water, and an almost alarming amount of Saaz hops.

In keeping with tradition, I brewed mine with soft water and shoveled in what I thought was a big addition of Saaz. Upon completion, I sampled it, and the Saaz just wasn’t coming through. It smelled floral, and the malts were shining, but it lacked that herbal punch. So, I increased the hopping—no real change. I shifted the hopping around—later in the boil, multiple dry-hop additions, whirlpooling for varying lengths of time—no real change. I brewed this beer four times in two months, and every time I got what amounted to a damned-near perfect Pre-Prohibition American Pilsner, but not a Bo Pils.

Then one day, I replaced a small portion of all of that Saaz with Styrian Goldings. Nailed it. The next competition I entered it in, it scored a 44/50 and won a gold medal.

That was the day I fully realized the value of pairing, blending, and mixing hops to increase the odds of getting what you want out of your recipes and beers. The answer isn’t always “more.” That was undeniably true in my Bo Pils, and it’s generally true in any beer style that relies on a certain hops profile to make it “work.” Smart and effective hops pairing is a front-end, preproduction skill that every brewer should work to develop. Now, let’s discuss some points to get you started on finding your dream hops-matches.

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Simpler Isn’t Always Better

Much as it pains me to write it (I am, after all, the guy who writes the Beer Simple blog), simpler isn’t always better. Adding ingredients adds complexity, and I don’t just mean in flavor: more ingredients mean more to investigate if something doesn’t turn out the way you want in your beer. Having said that, I’d also point out that there are outcomes that can only be had through making things more difficult. You shouldn’t make your beer complicated for no reason—but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make your beer more complicated for a good reason. There are three warnings I feel obligated to give before we go further because if you’re going to complicate your recipes, you should know what you’re getting into.

We simply don’t know enough about how hops work.

I mean, we know how they bitter things (isomerized alpha acids, oxidized beta acids), and we generally know why they smell like they do, but that’s like saying we know how an internal combustion engine works just because we can drive a car. Breweries, historically, have had no particular incentive to study this if what they were doing was working, and if it wasn’t, they’d often just trial-and-error it until it did. Then, when science and research started to creep into the process, those same breweries had very little incentive to share what they discovered—why give away a trade secret? We’re only now starting to see regular academic research into the practical, molecular-level functioning of hops in beer, and it’s just going to take some time for those lessons to be fully elaborated and learned.

This isn’t as simple as adding more salt to make something saltier.

Hops combinations and additions aren’t simply additive. This isn’t as straightforward as “if I take this hop that’s heavy on the myrcene and combine it with this one that’s lousy with caryophyllene, I’ll get something that smells exactly like a pine cone!” The oils in hops combine, dampen, amplify, mute, and maybe even mutate when run through the brewing process together. Like it or not, this is a “try, then trust” situation.

This is easy to overdo.

Overloading your recipe with lots of different hops can be a bit like coloring with all of the crayons: you can end up with a brown blotchy mess.

There’s more to review in this vein than we have time for here. For a good summary of the “state of knowledge” of hops, what they’re made of, and how what they’re made of generally works, let me recommend you read Stan Hieronymus’s For the Love of Hops and his excellent article on beerandbrewing.com, “Hops Oils & Aromas: Uncharted Waters.” They’re both great references and will further arm you to use the following to improve your beers.

Matchmaking for Effect

There are three general strategic goals to be serviced when it comes to pairing hops: amplifying, supplementing, or complementing.

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Amplifying refers to the goal of increasing the absolute impression of some particular hops flavor. If I want a tropical-fruit flavor in my beer, I might use a lot of Citra. But maybe there’s something particular to the blend of oils in Citra and/or my other ingredients that’s causing an interaction effect and muting the tropical fruitiness I should be getting. In that case, increasing the amount of Citra won’t do much to get me where I need to go, but blending in another tropical-forward hop or two (Equinox, Galaxy, even something such as Polaris that has a prominent pineapple nose) will have a better chance of turning up the volume.

Supplementing would be using flavors in the same neighborhood on the flavor wheel to create a great perception or evocation of a certain flavor. Suppose your goal is (let’s just stick with tropical fruits, since we’ve already invoked them) a mango flavor. If you select a hop known to express that flavor and go all-in on it, you may or may not get the mango flavor—but let’s assume you do. You’re still not out of the woods because you’re also counting on the person tasting your beer to accurately perceive and/or identify it! Help them out: add hops that express papaya, peach, pineapple, or other tropical-fruit flavors. Ask people what rhubarb tastes like, and at least a few will say “berries.” It doesn’t—but rhubarb pie is often made with strawberries and cranberries, so people believe it does. Blending hops can make it easier to service the flavor expectations of the people drinking your beer.

Complementing is different again: it’s all about setting up effective contrasts for your flavors. We don’t generally use only pale malt and chocolate malt to make a stout because we want some complementary toasted and caramel flavors to give a more “complete” malt expression. In that same vein, we don’t necessarily get our best hops expression by hitting just one hops flavor. Fruit pairs well with grass. Orange pairs well with herbal notes. Pine pairs well with the woodsy mint of Northern Brewer. Complex, complementing flavors can provide your beers with a more sophisticated flavor profile.

From whence do these blends come? You can certainly keep good brewing and tasting notes and develop your own. I’ve also included some pairings that have worked well for me over the years. You can also take advantage of preblends such as Falconer’s Flight or Falconer’s Flight 7C’s. However, they come together, though, be advised that not every pairing or blend works the same way for every brewer. Try, then trust.

A Matter of Time

When we talk hopping in almost any context, we are likely to discuss time. In this case, it’s worth a moment to consider how we’re blending. We could be working with a specific blend of hops that we build at the start and divide into its appropriate weights and add at specific points in the boil. We might also be “blending” within the recipe, in the aggregate, by adding unpaired/unblended charges of hops at discrete times. For example, if I’m doing a Simcoe-Amarillo blend in my IPA, I could either blend two ounces of each and then add an ounce of that blend at each of four times throughout the boil and whirlpool, or I could add two ounces of Simcoe in the middle of the boil and one of Amarillo at five minutes and in the whirlpool. For me, it’s a question of why I’m pairing.

If I’m in the situation outlined at the beginning—my woeful attempts to amplify some Saaz flavor—then I’m blending the Saaz and Styrian all into one big pile and cutting it up into additions. If I’m complementing by adding a contrast flavor, then I generally add each hop independently at a unique point in the process. If I’m supplementing by adding a “close enough” or perception-triggering flavor, then it’s a bit of a crap shoot: I might do either. Whether you do a consistent blend throughout or add the hops en echelon is largely a matter of experience and preference: I can’t lay any specific claim to scientific knowledge here. It is, though, something to think about and keep track of as a potentially crucial variable.

One thing that I do have some systematic data on, though, is dry hopping. I get a clearer, brighter expression of hops blends by adding each hop independently, with one to three days between them. You can leave previous additions in the fermentor as you drop in each new hop, but dry hopping with a blend always seems to leave me with a muddled set of aromatics. Ah, the mysteries of hops!

Learn Your Own Lessons

I’m a big believer in nailing down process and changing one variable at a time, then assessing the results and rebrewing. My wife can attest to that: she recently made me clear out eight years’ worth of competition scoresheets from one drawer of our filing cabinet. When it comes to hops matchmaking, this is especially true: you’re going to need to learn your own lessons, and that’s almost impossible to do if you don’t have a stable process, take good recipe and process notes, and get systematic feedback.

It’s never a bad idea to learn from the successes and failures of others. When it comes to hopping, though, the issue is that there’s only so much you can learn from them. Your beer is your beer and never more so than when we’re discussing hops. So put down the magazine and get into the brewery, and start making your own mistakes! Just be sure to take good notes while you do. You’ll lock in your own best-hops pairings in no time.

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