It shouldn’t come as any surprise that craft brewers are a little obsessed with hops. The dominant (in terms of production and consumption) beer in the craft world is IPA. Hops present easily identifiable (and desirable) flavors. The hops cone is in many ways the symbol of beer, at least in the modern era. When it comes to hops, though, the times (bines?), they are a-changin’. Hops are being used in new ways, the hops themselves are changing, and the role of hops in the development of styles and flavor profiles is now a defining feature of the industry. Even more than weather, the large and increasing role of hops in defining and guiding the craft-brewing universe is worthy of scrutiny.
Putting Hops to Work
If you started brewing—home or craft—any time before, say, 2012, you probably got a pretty standard education on how hops are used in beer. Add a certain amount at 60 minutes for bittering, a certain amount at 30 minutes for flavor, and a certain amount at 10 minutes for aroma. Some radicals even went so far as to dry hop their beers.
Today, hopping has become a recipe playground for brewers. In addition to the tried-and-true methods, many brewers are relying more and more on late-in-the-boil hops additions. The advantage, of course, is that you increase your hops flavor and aroma while still adding the same level of bitterness. While some drinkers might enjoy a nice 120-IBU hops bomb, they’re probably not going to enjoy more than one of them; if I hand you a beer with the same hops flavor intensity but without the teeth-ripping bitterness, you’re much more likely to order another. Some also claim that the character of the bitterness is different, with large late-hops additions imparting a softer-feeling bitterness than an equivalent IBU load from an earlier addition.
While this might result in a higher ingredient cost, the difference doesn’t seem to be holding back very many brewers. “More” and “later” seem to be the watchwords of modern hops additions, with many beers now seeing not only massive late-boil hopping but also multistage dry-hopping regimens as well.
It isn’t all just a question of timing and volume, either. The last few years have seen a substantial increase in the number of wet-hopped beers. Adding hops just minutes or a very few hours after picking, devotees claim, imparts a fresh-hops character and flavor profile that simply can’t be matched by dried hops.
It’s safe to say that the old 60/30/10 dogma is, if not dead, then certainly no longer as robust a norm in brewing.
New Sources, New Hops
Where we get hops is rapidly evolving as well. While hops production has fluctuated in both the United States and Europe depending on the year, weather, and demand, both production and demand for “down-under” hops (New Zealand and Australia) have been increasing, with the two countries now producing more hops than all but the United States, Germany, the Czech Republic, and (oddly) China. Moreover, the hops themselves are highly sought after by many breweries looking to distinguish themselves from the crowd with hops that are unfamiliar, but intriguing, to craft drinkers’ palates.
Other breweries are going “local.” This can include hops from local farms which, in addition to being a great marketing tool, lets you get into the “wet-hopped” beer game. Brewers are also engaging in unique programs to “crowd-source” hops. Hardywood Park Craft Brewing’s “community hopping project” gave away almost 1,000 hops rhizomes to local beer geeks and offered to provide support and assistance in growing hops at their homes. In exchange for their home-grown hops, program participants receive brewery merchandise, a share of the wet-hopped beer produced with their hops, and (of course) the surplus hops grown from their rhizomes!
Where do hops go from here? The honest answer is, no one knows. Hybrid and experimental hops take about 8 years to reach the marketplace, and with the major expansion of hops breeding dating to about 2007, there’s no telling what will catch on in the next couple of years! We’ve already seen the impact of the influx of bright and tropical hops such as Citra and Equinox, with flavors that have come to dominate American styles (and creep into others—more on that in a moment). High-alpha noble hops variants are becoming more common. Varieties with very low cohumulone levels are designed to smooth and soften the perceptions of bitterness. Who knows what’s next? Especially when we consider that (according to the Hop Growers of America) the acreage devoted to experimental hops increased by 1,000 percent between 2013 and 2015 alone. There are undoubtedly great (and new) things on the horizon.
Same Hops, New Uses
Hops usage in terms of recipe building is changing, too. It’s becoming much more common for brewers to confound traditional styles by taking advantage of different hops and hopping techniques, challenging our perceptions of what each beer and style really is. We’re seeing dry-hopped sours, European styles made with citrusy American hops, and hopped ciders and meads. Some beers once considered too “American” in their hopping to be considered “classic” examples have proven to be simply ahead of their time (Victory’s Prima Pils leaps to mind).
Single-hopped beers continue to be quite popular, not only for their intrinsic simplicity and the clarity of their flavors, but also as a way to educate craft drinkers on the differences between the presentation and flavor of different hops. Despite this (or maybe even because of it?), we’re seeing a resurgence in the popularity of classic American “C” hops such as Cascade and Chinook, as well as Amarillo and Simcoe—what’s old is apparently new again.
One brewer even mentioned to me that the pendulum might be swinging the other direction, and that hops are about to take a back seat to beers that showcase specialty malts…but I’m not going to hold my breath.
Hop Futures and Hops’ Future
What seems clear is that although farmers are producing more of the kinds of hops that do more than just add bitterness, brewers are buying it all. Brewers Association Chief Economist Bart Watson recently noted that the acreage devoted to flavor and aroma hops has more than doubled since 2009, and yet a surplus has not appeared. This can be attributed not only to the changes noted earlier regarding the timing of hops additions but also to the increase in the number of breweries in the market and their increased production overall: more hops per batch, more breweries, more beer. Breweries sign contracts for hops long before they need them, knowing that rarer varieties will serve as a useful currency in a secondary trade/barter market. I have no idea if you can trade in hops futures as a commodity, but if you can, it might be worth looking into!
The future of hops—not just the current trends—truly cannot be predicted with any great certainty. It’s reasonable to expect that the availability of new experimental varieties will produce new trends. It’s also reasonable to predict that a lack of availability will likely create advantages for breweries that are lucky or prescient enough to secure sufficient quantities of the most promising varieties. Somewhat less likely (but still quite possible) is that broad availability of heretofore rare hops might dull their luster somewhat as a jaded consumer base eventually tires of the tropical fruit flavors that predominate in the marketplace. If so, expect a comeback in the herbal and floral hops of Europe and a new British Invasion as Fuggles and Goldings IPA sweep into the marketplace (a guy can dream, right?).
Rarely in the history of hops has so much effort, science, and demand gone into them. With roughly one in three beers in the marketplace an IPA, the dominance of hops is evident and is unlikely to abate any time soon. IP-Everything has proven to be a useful marketing tool, and many breweries are cranking out incredible hops-driven beers to meet and exceed the hype and the demand.
All that’s left now is to hope for good weather.