The year is 736 in southern Germany, and farmer Hans has decided this year to harvest a small, yet bitter flower cone that will go on to transform the history of beer – the hop. After good ol’ Hans, it would take the Germans another 300 years or so before hops found their way into the delicious, carbonated beverage we all love and enjoy today. Fast-forward to now, and we find an innovative world of beer populated by a wide variety of hops, with an even wider variety of flavors. Although these new and diverse strains give an unprecedented amount of choices when brewing beer, only four hold the crown for being the first cultivated hops. The noble hops of Germany – Hallertau, Saaz, Spalt, Tettnang – are prized throughout the world for their low bitterness and complex aromatic flavor. Many cultures, such as the English and the Czech, began to adopt the nobles’ unique characteristics after their introduction, while the American hop varieties kept to their bitter ways…until now.
The story of American hops began in 1972 when the first American hop, the Cascade, was released from its government-ran breeding program. Eight years later, after many successes for craft brewers, Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale introduced Cascade hops to the public and kickstarted the craft beer revolution. Beers created with Cascade hops were floral and bitter by nature, with slight citrus undertones. Many later strains followed suit and adopted a bitter foothold with a piney, resiny, or citrus notes. Nearly fifty years have passed since the arrival of Cascade hops, and the country still loves this classic American flavor. On the other hand, crafters of the European brews such as Kolsch, Pilsners, and Saisons often have to rely on noble hops (or their close cousins) due to the low bitterness and alpha acids1 within. This vast difference usually forces brewers away from American hops and towards noble hops when crafting European-style brews. While they are getting that classic noble character, there are some potential trade-offs that could be off-putting to some.
It is exceptionally difficult to have the best of both worlds with anything, and choosing hops to use in a beer is no exception. Noble hops are known for their earthy, spicy feel which, although pleasant, lacks variety. American hops, on the other hand, are known to have a plethora of flavors and aromas from pine, resin, citrus and even pineapple. You should also expect to dish out a pretty penny if you want to purchase noble hops, especially from their point of origin. American hops, such as Cascades or Mosaic, can be conveniently found online for only a few dollars which leaves the brewer more money for other critical ingredients. But what happens when brewers want the best from both sides of the pond – a low-bitterness European brew with that American hop flare (and price)? Instead of sacrificing the qualities of either, an American company situated in the Evergreen state has made it their mission to give brewers this Goldilocks balance between American and noble hops.
Yakima Chief Hops, previously known as YCH HOPS, has been connecting brewers with our favorite bitter plant for over 30 years. Situated within the Yakima Valley in Washington state, the hop center of the United States, Yakima Chief Hops are set to unleash a plethora of innovative strains to the American public when they open their doors in mid-October this year. Leading this charge is their new Cryo Hops line, featuring hops that have undergone freezing with nitrogen before separating the lupulin2 and low-alpha bract. The lupulin goes on and transforms into a hop product with twice the resin, giving brewers the ability to add the same level of bitter/flavor with half the product. On the other hand, the low-alpha bract helps to create Yakima’s newest product – American Noble Hops. As their name implies, these hops will give brewers that American Northwest hops flavor while having a lower alpha acid content and bitterness. Including their classic strains, Yakima is offering seven American hops in their new noble configuration – Amarillo, Cascade, Citra, Loral, Mosaic, Pallsade, and Simcoe.
As for now, the nobles are the go-to hops when brewers want to craft low bitter, delicious beer, though the advent of new American competitors may put their position in jeopardy. Only time will tell if cyro-innovation is just a passing fad or a trend that will threaten traditional noble hop production in the United States. Regardless, one thing is for certain: the battle for the crown is just heating up.
Hop Shock Glossary
1Alpha Acids – Resides in and is the main component of lupulin, the resin of a hop. Principal bittering agent of a hop. Expressed as a percentage of total weight of the hop.
2Lupulin – a resinous powder extracted from the female flowers of the hop plant.