Breeding new hops varieties is a time-consuming process, and a typical year might see a few varieties (at most) reach commercial markets. But 2014 was a bumper year for the bitter flower, with no fewer than thirteen new hops varieties making their debut at the 2014 Craft Brewers Conference.
Gene Probasco, who started the first private hops-breeding program in the United States at John I. Haas in Washington’s Yakima Valley, learned something long ago that speaks to the challenge brewers face today when evaluating a widening range of hops varieties: It is not enough simply to rub and sniff hops flowers to learn what they will smell and taste like in beer. As part of a project for a brewery client that began in 1990, Probasco created about 150 potential cultivars, and the client produced single-hopped beers with each of them. He tasted more than 100. “It was a real eye opener. Some of the beers were just bad,” says Probasco, who is in charge of farm and agronomic services as well as breeding at Haas. “Some of them were very, very good. Some varieties had a nice smell, but they made bad-tasting beer. There weren’t many that smelled bad, but some of those made good beer.”
When private and public breeding programs combined to release one or two new varieties a year, it was relatively easy for brewers to get to know them. “You actually have to brew with hops to figure them out,” says Vinnie Cilurzo at Santa Rosa, California’s Russian River Brewing Company. Making batches of beer with a single hop “rarely yields a beer that could be an actual ongoing recipe, but it does teach you which components of the hop work and which do not work.”
Crystal Ball Gazing
However, in just the past year, more than a dozen distinctly different newcomers have emerged. Last April, vendors at the Craft Brewers Conference in Denver, Colorado, poured beers showcasing many of the varieties to give brewers an idea of what they taste like in beer. An alternative is to find beers brewed by early adopters, sampling them while thinking about what flavors might be a result of those hops and what other beers they could work in.
Until the past decade, when brewers talked about desirable aroma they used adjectives such as “mild” and “noble.” Favored hops usually had relatively low amounts of essential oils. Now brewers clamor for hops rich in oil and varieties that smell of melon, pineapple, coconut, white pepper, peaches, peppermint, lychee, gooseberries. . . .
Hops breeding, never simple, has become more complicated. “Each brewer has his own specific idea. He wants to test it in his own brewery, to use his own water,” says Anton Lutz, who is in charge of breeding at the German Hop Research Center in Hüll. “You have to have a lot of aroma types ready, but you must wait for brewers to come to you with their ideas. Then you can tell them, ‘I have it.’ ”
Breeders must be thinking years ahead. To cross-pollinate two plants, they collect pollen from a male hops and add it to the female’s pollen sleeve. Males are useless except in breeding and are kept out of production fields because only female hops bear cones brewers find useful. In the fall, breeders collect the seeds and the following spring plant seedlings in the greenhouse. They must evaluate hundreds of thousands of prospects to find one that will be released to farmers, usually after it has proved itself during eight years or more of testing.
Lining Up for New Releases
In 2012, the Society for Hop Research in Germany began licensing the rights to grow four new varieties that Lutz developed: Mandarina Bavaria, Huell (Hüll) Melon, Hallertau Blanc, and Polaris. They are bolder and more like New World varieties than anything previously available in Germany. Although they were developed primarily for German farmers to produce hops to sell to German brewers and supplies so far are limited, American brewers were the first to line up to try them.
Paso Robles, California’s Firestone Walker Brewing Company Brewmaster Matt Brynildson used both Mandarina Bavaria and Huell (Hüll) Melon in Easy Jack, a 4.5 percent ABV hops-forward (45 IBUs) beer the brewery released for the spring and summer. He knew almost from the outset he wanted to use Mandarina as a signature hops “if [they] could get enough of it.” He particularly likes its fresh orange notes, which stand out in a blend that also includes several New Zealand hops and Mosaic. “Because it’s German, that makes it different,” he says.
When Brynildson smelled Hallertau Blanc, he immediately thought about using it in a saison—dry-hopping Opal, another release from Firestone Walker, with the Hallertau Blanc. Eric Toft, who has been in charge of brewing at Private Landbrauerei Schönram in Bavaria since 1997 and probably knows these new varieties better than anybody, also considers the Hallertau Blanc an excellent hops for saisons.
Toft, a Wyoming native, writes the recipes for the beers the Hop Growers of Germany have served each of the past eight years at the Craft Brewers Conference, always showcasing new German varieties. They are made at Pennsylvania’s Victory Brewing Company and Colorado’s Odell Brewing Company. Toft brews both very traditional beers, two of which won medals in the recent World Beer Cup, and others new to the south of Germany, such as an IPA hopped with American varieties.
Likewise, Chad Yakobson of Denver’s Crooked Stave Brewery, needed little time to decide how he’d use Equinox, the newest release from the Hop Breeding Company (HBC). HBC was created in 2002 when Haas and Select Botanicals merged their breeding programs. Its previous releases include Citra (HBC 394) and Mosaic (HBC 369). Yakobson was one of several brewers to experiment with HBC 366 before the company named it Equinox in April. He first used it in Wild Wild Brett Violet, then in an early batch of Hop Savant.
Equinox is a daughter of Warrior, a hop born in 1988. Jason Perrault, who grows hops at Perrault Farms and breeds them for Select Botanicals and the HBC, was in high school when he helped Chuck Zimmerman cross-pollinate several males and females “of interest.” Simcoe and Warrior both came out of those crosses. Simcoe is a mother to Mosaic, and the compounds in those two hops epitomize the bold aromas and flavors currently in vogue. Equinox is equally audacious.
Not everybody likes their hops so assertive, but Perrault points out that what some drinkers perceive as a negative others consider a positive. For example, when Chico, California’s Sierra Nevada Brewing Company brewed test batches of beers with Citra hops several years ago, female members of a tasting panel described “catty” aromas and males described tropical fruits. Equinox is particularly versatile because it is rich in essential oils—some of the 2013 crop measured as high as 4.5 percent, compared to usually one-third that in Cascade—allowing brewers to target a pungent finish or back off for something more mellow but still complex.
Perrault and Probasco have enough experimental cultivars far enough along in the breeding process that they could release multiple varieties a year, but they won’t. “It has to have special qualities,” Perrault says. Those might include exotic aromas brewers want, but breeders must start by eliminating plants that don’t grow well. He and Lutz talked about both agronomics and aroma late one evening during the Craft Brewers Conference. The event was particularly educational for Lutz, who last visited the United States in 2003.
He was struck by the enthusiasm for beers hopped with new varieties like Equinox and by some of the beers in which Mandarina Bavaria is prominent. “Next crossing season,” he says, smiling, “I will look for more extreme [aromas].”
A Baker’s Dozen of Newcomers
Equinox (14–15% alpha acids, 2.5–4.5% essential oils)
HBC 366 was prominent in the blend of experimental hops Loftus Farms and Hopunion provided for free to brewers who then donated some of the proceeds from sales of the beers they made to ALS research, so drinkers from Oregon to Georgia are already familiar with its character.
Mandarina Bavaria (7–10% alpha acids, 2.2% essential oils)
Mandarina Bavaria is showcased in Paso Robles, California’s Firestone Walker Brewing Company’s “sessionable” Easy Jack as well as beers such as Bend, Oregon’s Worthy Brewing Company’s Eruption Imperial Red Ale, an 8% ABV beer made with six pounds of hops per barrel and double-dry-hopped with Mandarina.
Huell (Hüll) Melon (6.9–7.5% alpha acids, .8% essential oils)
Like Mandarina, Huell (Hüll) Melon is a daughter of Cascade. The Germans chose the name to highlight the honeydew melon flavors it contributes.
Hallertau Blanc (9–12% alpha acids, 1.2-1.5% essential oils)
Hallertau Blanc is the third German daughter of Cascade but is surprisingly like some New Zealand hops and interacts well with spicy German and Belgian yeast strains.
Polaris (18–24% alpha acids, 4.4% essential oils)
Despite record-level alpha acids, making it very efficient for bittering, Polaris is already being used by several brewers for late and dry-hopping because of the equally high oil levels.
Azacco (14–16% alpha acids, 1.8–2.2% essential oils)
From the American Dwarf Hop Association (ADHA), Azacco has abundant tropical and citrus fruit qualities. Pennsylvania’s Victory Brewing Company featured it in its Hop Ranch Imperial IPA, and Munster, Indiana’s Three Floyds Brewing Co. used it in Space Station Middle Finger, a pale ale.
Jarrylo (14.75–17% alpha acids, 2.5–3.75% essential oils)
Also from the ADHA, Jarrylo will be available in the fall. It is specifically
described as “not an IPA hop.” It has spicy with notes of diced banana, pear, and orange.
Hopsteiner Lemondrop (5.5–7% alpha acids, 1.4% essential oils)
The description “Super Cascade” is tossed around a lot, but it is appropriate in Hopsteiner Lemondrop.
Citrusy notes are prominent, but there are also menthol, pepper, and mint. Bend, Oregon’s Deschutes Brewery’s Hop Henge Experimental IPA, which released last December, featured Lemondrop.
Medusa (4.8% alpha acids, oils not determined)
Medusa was bred in New Mexico from native American hops (most modern hops include American and European genetic material) and grown at CLS Farms in the Yakima Valley. Aromas include guava, citrus, and melon fruits.
Cashmere (6.4–7.1% alpha acids, 1.2–1.4% essential oils)
Public breeding programs released four varieties at the end of 2013. These are available for farmers anywhere in the country to grow, although rootstock may be limited initially, and there aren’t commercial beers to point to that use them. Cashmere is one of three bred at Washington State University. It is an offspring of Cascade that produces aromas including melon, citrus fruits, and coconut.
Tahoma (7.2–8.2% alpha acids, 1–2% essential oils)
Also from WSU, Tahoma produces aromas of grapefruit, cedar, and pine.
Yakima Gold (8.8–10.5% alpha acids, 1.9–2.3% essential oils)
A daughter of Cluster, which once accounted for 80 percent of the U.S. hops crop, Yakima Gold has prominent aromas of lemon zest and grapefruit.
Triple Pearl (10.2–11.2% alpha acids, 1.1–1.8% essential oils)
Triple Pearl was developed in Oregon. Firestone Walker’s Matt Brynildson suggests its orange zest and “noble resin” flavors might work well in a Kölsch, wheat beer, or lager.