In Pursuit of Hop Magic to Broaden the Reach of Craft

Has craft beer reached its apex? We’re confident that the answer is an emphatic No! Many people have yet to find a beer that they feel was made for them. Hop varieties abound; however, a broader array of hop profiles (both in flavor and structure) will help brewers reach these untapped consumers.

Indie Hops (Sponsored) Apr 3, 2024 - 14 min read

In Pursuit of Hop Magic to Broaden the Reach of Craft Primary Image

Ever wonder about the method to the madness of new hop R&D? We’re happy to daydream out loud about why we might feel a particular new genotype is more likely to be useful to brewers than thousands of other hops that come through our program.

Watching craft-beer markets evolve over the past 15 years has been fascinating. We’re from Oregon, the “Pioneer State,” and Oregon has certainly been a pioneer in craft beer. A change of state law in the early ’80s opened the door, and Oregonians’ entrepreneurial spirit combined with their love of local food and beverage did the rest. Oregon quickly became a national leader in per capita craft-beer consumption.

In 2008, we had been craft-beer nerds for some time already, and Jim had been sucked into the homebrewing vortex with eight varieties of hops growing in his home garden to fuel the obsession. We decided to do some research into the potential for Oregon-grown hops focused on craft brewing. The research convinced us of the following:

  • Oregon was a window to the future of craft beer across the United States. State laws would gradually get out of the way, and people would rally around fresh, flavorful beer brewed in their own town or neighborhood.
  • Hop R&D efforts were 100 percent focused on macro brewing, and by far the greatest focus of these efforts was on alpha-acid production for inexpensive bittering. The race for varieties with 20 percent alpha-acid levels and yields of 20 bales (4,000 pounds) per acre was in full swing.
  • Oregon was a unique hop-growing region, well-suited to supplying craft markets. As the only hop-growing region on the western side of the Cascade Mountains, we had abundant water yet also a dry growing season. Proximity to the Pacific Ocean kept temperatures moderate and the hops happy. Macro brewers leaned toward Oregon for their “aroma” varieties.

There’s something magical about hops. Only hops could have drawn these prospector’s attention away from gold.

In 2009, we decided to start a hop business based on the vision of a much larger craft-beer market across the United States in the future, and we made two strategic moves:

  1. We started a hop R&D program that was 100 percent focused on craft brewing (hops for flavor and aroma rather than for high alpha).
  2. We built Oregon’s first hop pelleting facility, specifically designed for low temperature milling to preserve hop oils. This let us hit the road and drum up brewery customers for Oregon-grown hops.

Here we are 15 years later. Craft beer has expanded even more dramatically than we thought it would. And the U.S.-inspired craft-beer movement has spread to many markets around the world. On top of that, the expansion has been spearheaded by hop-driven beer! You couldn’t ask for more as a hop supplier.

But recently, craft markets have stalled for multiple reasons: a global pandemic has been disruptive; people have been in an exploratory mood that includes dabbling in other alcoholic-beverage offerings; and inflationary pressure has hit most economies.

Has craft beer reached its apex? We’re confident that the answer is an emphatic No, and our reasoning is that from a hop-profile standpoint, there is another factor contributing to craft beer’s stall—the hop-driven focus that has powered craft beer forward has been narrow and deep.

For context, it is interesting that most of the hops used in craft beer today were not intended for craft brewing at all. They are by-products of high-alpha breeding efforts—a very narrow focus. A simple fact of plant breeding is that a narrow genetic focus produces a relatively narrow band of offspring. Clearly, there are some amazing offshoot varieties that resulted (Centennial, Simcoe, Citra, for example); there just aren’t a lot of them. Craft brewers have worked a handful of varieties very creatively during the most recent growth spurt, and millions of people who love those profiles have responded and supported the growth in craft. However, we may have already reached the majority of those people.

We’re hop specialists, so of course we think hops are at the center of the universe! However, we do realize there are many other ways to bring great flavors into beer—the popularity of fruited sours being a great example. But let’s face it, hops are the center of the universe when it comes to craft beer, and they are likely to remain the primary sensory attraction that draws people to craft. People are nuts about hops, but people come with an array of preferences, so we think a broader array of compelling hop profiles is needed to reach more people.

What might this look like? You never know what Nature is going to throw your way, but given the view of craft-beer markets as they stand today, we can share some general thoughts about what we’re looking for in our efforts to bring new hops to market.

Experimental plants give a pre-harvest peek of what they’re loading into the hop cones.

General Sensory Characteristics That We Lean Toward

Distinctive—but smooth and approachable—flavors. Many of the varieties that came from high-alpha breeding efforts tend to “take it to 11” in an aggressive, sharp manner. God bless the Spinal Tap fans out there—they love intense hoppiness—but distinctive flavors that are smooth and approachable reach a broader array of people. And, those Spinal Tappers just might like some variety from time to time.

Fresh and bright flavors. There are plenty of hops that bring overripe fruit and/or the weedy sort of “dank” character, and there are plenty of hop heads who love this, but most of them are already firmly planted in the craft-beer space and are well served. To draw more people into craft beer and keep offerings interesting for existing enthusiasts, we think fresh and bright is the way to go.

Exceptional versions of citrus and tropical fruit. These profiles are already well served, but who wouldn’t jump at a sexy new version with its own addictive twist?

Catchy flavors that surprise us. There are some profiles that are less common in hops but do show up from time to time. And they’re amazing in beer. Some examples include:

  • Guava. If we find a dependable and elegant version of guava in a hop, we’ll celebrate early.
  • Juicy red berries. Huckleberry, red currant, lingonberry.
  • Rhubarb. We love rhubarb.
  • Lilac, lavender, rose floral that can “stick” in an IPA. Plenty of “lovely” floral hops bring floral to lager beer, but it’s really hard to stick catchy floral in IPA. It’s fantastic though.

Hop Structure Considerations

We think a lot about how hops have been “engineered” by Nature. As we’ve mentioned above, there’s an abundance of high-alpha, high-oil hops that can be used in IPA, double IPA, and upward, but as you move down through the lower ABV ranks, these hops become unwieldy. We just returned from a trip to the United Kingdom where we found a tremendous selection of low-ABV, flavorful, hoppy beers to enjoy. This is exactly where many super-aggressive hops don’t work, and it appears to be an area where the U.S. market can attract people who want a little less intensity and less alcohol than what is found in the big, awesome IPA world.

So, from a hop “structural” standpoint, here’s what we’re looking for.

  • A bit less alpha. Meaningful flavor contributions that can punch through in IPAs but with less alpha, to give brewers more flexibility.
  • Repeatability of character. There is substantial variation from a repeatability/consistency standpoint from variety to variety. We need consistency.
  • Less resinous, piney hop character. We love it in certain beers, as many people do, but it’s also nice to have some hops that contribute expressive flavors without too much resinous character.
  • “Effective” oil. This is a term we use internally. It’s simply total oil minus the myrcene. There appears to be a limit to how much myrcene a beer can absorb, so that even a very low myrcene hop has enough myrcene to maximize this terpene’s contribution in beer. Consequently, the majority of myrcene in most hops is wasted. The “effective” oil gives us a hint at how effectively certain hops may express in relatively intense, hoppy beers.
  • And one very specific structural category—low-alpha, low-resin, squeaky-clean hops with contemporary flavors. In other words, hops engineered by Nature herself for classic lager beer. You just cannot take a high-alpha, high-oil hop and brew a classic lager. The hops hijack the beer, and you blur the line between hoppy lager, session IPA, and even cold IPA. Those are awesome beers, but they’re different from the classic lager, and we think there’s substantial potential to lure new drinkers into craft with seductive new hop character in this classic beer format.

Oregon State University students get in on small scale harvesting of our experimental hops to support brewing trials.

Hurdles to Clear

If we are lucky enough to find great new hop profiles for brewing, we still have major agronomy hurdles to clear! They include:

  • Natural resistance to pestilence and disease. Not only is this good for the planet by reducing fungicides, pesticides, etc., it is also good for hop quality and consistency.
  • A vigorous, strong root system. Climates everywhere are throwing some weirdness at people and plants! Vigorous hop plants with strong root systems are better equipped to deal with extreme weather events.
  • Solid yields. This, of course, is important to keep pricing competitive, but it also is a key factor in reducing the carbon footprint of hop growing.
  • Early harvest window. We love the early harvest window. It helps growers use their equipment and facilities over a longer harvest period, reduces chemical inputs, and avoids the riskiest late-harvest time period when mildews, mites, wildfires, and rain wreak the most havoc. This gives us a better chance to harvest quality hops.

New Genotypes

We’ve already come across some new genotypes that check a number of the above boxes that we’re looking for.

Strata of course is known to many, but because Strata was basically a pandemic launch, many breweries have yet to trial this hop. We encourage all curious brewers to brew a single-hop Strata IPA to experience the breadth of character Strata offers. It is punchy, but smooth and approachable, so it works well on down through lower-ABV beers (just don’t try to brew a classic lager … the pilsner malt will cry).

Lórien is a beautiful hop for classic lager with a contemporary twist. Lórien beers are steadily becoming favorites that people want available all the time.

Luminosa is a bright, fresh peach-lemonade with candied orange peel temptation that is almost void of resinous character, so it is proving very useful to brewers.

Meridian is a sweet-tart high-note hop that makes an excellent classic lager but also loves to brighten malt-forward IPAs as a role player. This hop is magical with dark roasted malts and with Belgian yeast flavors.

Audacia is our most recent release, from the 2023 crop. A “noble” hop with some attitude (Dad is a relative of Strata), Audacia may have the widest range of any hop we’ve seen to date, in that it is perfectly at home in a classic lager but then “punches above its weight” with a high “effective” oil that will not be denied in IPAs—even with heavy hitters such as Strata, Simcoe, and Citra.

Pilot brews help us understand a new hop’s contributions to beer. Here, Level Beer brewed a robust IPA with some known “heavy hitters” (Simcoe and Amarillo), which confirmed for us that our newest hop, Audacia, does punch through with juicy red berries and lavender/lilac floral in such an application.

We’re excited to see the magic of hops leveraged even further to bring even more people into the joys of craft beer. To see more of what we’re up to, watch our video below.