The first thing a lot of newcomers "know about craft beer" is that the beers are hoppy. Hops though, are not a simple ingredient to pin down a single flavour to. Bitter, Fruity, Tropical, Spicy, Floral, Earthy... the list goes on. Plus, when you're shopping for beers, and IPA in particular, you probably also see a lot of names of hops being thrown around. Names like Citra, Mosaic, Saaz, Riwaka and Nelson Sauvin. You might also see national characteristics being listed as NZ, US, German and English all of which have distinct characteristics, but what does that mean for you? We're here to break down what to expect when you see these terms and names on your beer to help you make the best choice.
What are Hops?
Hops are the cones of the hop plant Humulus Lupulus. First recorded in Germany over 1000 years ago they quickly took over from Gruit (a varied blend of herbs and spices) as one of beer's key ingredients. They provide bitterness, flavour and aroma to beers along with acting as a preservative.
Bitter or Fruity?
It's easy to get confused with hops since the two main characteristics they impart (bitterness and fruitiness) are so drastically different. It's all about the boiling. When hops are boiled, over time their fruity oils are lost or converted into bitter compounds. When added to the beer later in the brewing process the bitterness doesn't come through as much, and when added after fermentation (dry-hopping) they give off maximum aroma.
So in an overly simplistic nutshell:
Early hopping = bitterness
Late hopping = flavour and aroma
Dry hopping = aroma.
The German or "Noble" hop varieties hold a special place in beer tradition. With these classic varieties predating any others regarded as pivotal in creating the modern world of beer as we know it, showcasing a range of floral, spicy, earthy notes.
- Hallertau - One of Europe's most famous hop varieties. Hallertau is gentle and floral, with peppery and woody edge.
- Tettnanger - Zesty and grassy with a touch of citrus.
- Saaz - Ok, I cheated here as Saaz is Czech but it's an incredibly popular hop widely used in classic Pilsners and is known for its assertive earthy spiciness.
- Other Notable Hops: Spalt, Mandarina Bavaria, Perle
If there is one ingredient that you can put firmly at the heart of the modern craft beer revolution it would have to be American Hops. These shook up tradition when they developed intense citrus, pine and stone fruit characteristics. Today, as a result of decades of intensive research and development there are a huge spectrum of characteristics available in these hops.
Cascade - The hop credited with kickstarting the American craft beer revolution. Floral and packed with zesty, pithy grapefruit flavour this is the hop behind such iconic beers as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Anchor's Liberty Ale.
- Citra - A modern favourite packed with citrus flavor, Citra has taken the brewing world by storm since its 2009 release. Alongside its citrus character is a punchbowl of tropical mango, passion fruit, and pineapple.
- Mosaic - Mosaic is another popular newcomer, packed with fruity notes of tangerine, pineapple, and peach with some resinous pine
- Simcoe - Simcoe is the go-to hop for a classic west coast pine characteristic with supporting notes of grapefruit and tropical fruit.
- Other Notable Hops: Chinook, Centennial, Columbus, Amarillo, El Dorado
Recently New Zealand has taken off as a hop producer as demand for their unique characteristics has exploded. Often featuring sharper tropical fruit flavours than their American counterparts showcasing white wine, lychee, melon, and gooseberry flavors.
- Nelson Sauvin - Named for its aromatic similarity to the Sauvignon Blanc wine grapes that are grown alongside. Sauvin is the archetypal NZ Hop showcasing those huge lychee, melon, and gooseberry flavours
- Riwaka - Riwaka is an aroma hop with a floral, grapefruit and passionfruit like flavour.
- Motueka - Motueka has some light spiciness with a bright lemony pop and undertones of a melange of tropical fruits.
- Other Notable Hops: Moutere, Taiheke Wai-Iti
Hops from the UK tend to have a narrower range of uses than their colonial cousins. Tending towards grassy, floral, lemony, woody, or tea-like they are most often showcased in English style real ale, dark beers and traditional pale ales.
- Challenger - Challenger has a tea-like, earthy tannic character alongside a citrus pith fruity bitterness.
- Fuggles - Fuggles are a well regarded classic with flavours described as earthy, woody, minty, and floral
- Goldings - Goldings (particularly their regional variant East Kent Goldings) have been a mainstay in real ales for over 200 years with their earthy, peppery, and lemon-like character.
- Other Notable Hops: Northern Brewer, Bramling Cross
As well as these there are also hundreds of other varieties from all over the world so you'll just have to get amongst and try as many beers as you can to find out all the flavours out there! It's hard work, but someone's got to do it...