Saaz in their eyes: Understanding hop varieties and what they do to beer

Imbibe Editorial

Imbibe Editorial

23 October 2018

Understanding hop varieties, what they do to beer and why is key if you are going to make the most of the craft explosion. Sophie Atherton tells you how to spot your dry-hopped Citra from your classic EKG

Whether you believe hops can change the world or you’re just looking for a New England IPA, it can’t be denied that hop knowledge is essential for working in the drinks trade. Where once all they did for a brew was make it bitter, it’s now the case that hops are to beer what herbs and spices are to food.

Although just one plant, there are dozens of different varieties. Some have subtle flavour differences from their relatives, while others have a radically different taste. The variation is in part down to the different biochemical make-up of each variety – differing levels of essential oils, acids and other compounds within the hop flower or cone.

But the differences are also caused by where the hops are grown. Hops have terroir, just as wine grapes do. For example, British and European hops tend to have subtle flavours, such as floral and herbal notes, or gentle spiciness (although this is changing thanks to hop development programmes bringing us new varieties and resurrecting forgotten ones). Hops from the USA and New Zealand, by contrast, tend to have bigger, punchier characteristics and often feature citrus and tropical fruit or resinous, piney flavours.

Hop flavour also depends on the point at which they are used in the brewing process. Used early in the boil (of the sugary liquid wort, created by soaking and rinsing malted barley, the base of beer) they provide the bitterness they are best known for. Add them later in the boil and they give aroma and flavour.

Then there’s dry hopping, where hops are added during conditioning, although they can also be added during fermentation, or even to the keg or cask so they remain at the point of service.

Understanding the difference between a citrusy American hop and a floral, softer Czech hop is really important for both sellers and drinkers

Jonny Garrett

Dry hopping is nothing new, of course. Apparently the British invented it back in the 1800s, when they used to shove a handful of dried hop cones into a cask about to be filled with pale ale. Like many other brewing techniques and beer styles, the Americans eventually discovered it, made it their own and effectively sold it back to us. Dry hopping can give beer huge, punchy hop flavours and aromas – think exotic fruit as per American varieties – but often without great bitterness.

Hops in action
The beer style of the moment, one that arguably wouldn’t exist without dry hopping, is the New England IPA (NE IPA), which Imbibe covered in more detail in its summer issue. NE IPA shouldn’t be controversial, given that the popularity of craft beer essentially surfs on an enormous IPA wave, but its appearance makes it a talking point.

Top of the hops – six important varieties

A proprietary variety developed by breeders in the US and released commercially in 2007. As its name suggests, it provides big citrus flavours in beers as well as elements of grapefruit and tropical fruits.

Another proprietary variety from the US, Mosaic arrived as a commercial variety in 2012. It brings truly vibrant flavours to beer in the shape of tropical fruits, especially mango and blueberries.

East Kent Goldings
British hop variety often referred to by its initials EKG. Although hops grown in the UK are known for their subtle flavours, EKG can bring bright, almost lemon and lime flavours to beer, but often imparts more of a spicy, peppery bitterness. One of very few hop varieties with a European PDO.

Huell Melon
Newish German variety that became commercially available in 2012 and is gaining interest from brewers, along with other new German hops. Said to bring notes of strawberry and apricot to beer, along with ripe summer melons.

Not exactly a new British hop, rather a resurrected variety originally bred by the late, legendary hop breeder Professor Ernest Salmon – hence its name. Can bring the aroma and flavour of mango sorbet, and also citrus and pineapple notes.
Very un-British in the power of its flavours. Only recently commercially available in small quantities, but if its early promise pays off, it’s destined to become more popular.

Proprietary UK variety from the Charles Faram Hop Development Programme, becoming a favourite with UK craft brewers. Offers much bigger flavours than many British hops. Expect notes of lychees, grapefruit and blackcurrant.

If you thought unfined beer brought out the anoraks, it’s nothing compared to NE IPAs, most of which resemble a fruit smoothie. The use of wheat or oats in the malt bill, along with choice of yeast strain and even water type, can all contribute to their cloudy appearance, while hops add to the haze. So how can something so murky be so popular? Because it’s a brew that’s more about hop flavour than bitterness.

‘With New England IPAs, it’s part of the style that they are less bitter and less challenging,’ says Will Rogers of hop merchant Charles Faram & Co. ‘They’re more like a tropical fruit punch – and so drinkers that are averse to traditional bitters are likely to be attracted [to them].

‘They’re also closer in bitterness to things like lagers, which historically have international bitterness units [IBUs] of only eight to 15 if you go for a macro-produced lager. So NE IPA, at 20 to 25 IBUs, is more accessible to somebody who’s been drinking lagers, but wants to move over to craft beers.’

Getting technical
Whether you’re a fan of the NE IPA or not, understanding hops is worthwhile. But what do you need to know?

‘On a basic level, knowing the difference between New World [Simcoe, Citra, Nelson Sauvin, etc] and Noble Hops [Saaz, East Kent Goldings, Fuggles] is key to understanding what aromas, flavours and levels of bitterness one should expect in a beer,’ says Eebria Trade’s Peter Kennelly. ‘To take it to the next level, understand what differing alpha acids [indicators of potential bitterness] mean and which hops are higher in [alpha acids] than others.

‘For example, Fuggles sits at 3.5-6.5% alpha acid, whereas Citra is normally 11-13%. What this means, on a basic level, is that using Citra hops in the boil will lead to a more bitter beer.’

That may sound technical, but if you can digest and remember such hoppy details, it enables better understanding of beer – especially when brewers share details of the varieties used, and at what point, in the brew. Armed with this hop knowledge, bartenders and beer servers are then better informed when it comes to answering drinkers’ queries or advising on what beer they might prefer.

‘Hops are a fantastic way to start talking about a beer,’ says Jonny Garrett, marketing manager at Cave Direct.

‘Understanding the difference in what a juicy, citrusy American hop can offer and, say, what a floral and softer Czech hop might impart to a beer is really important for both sellers and drinkers.’

Bringing hops home
Once you’ve mastered hop varieties, how they’re used and how they taste, it might be time to start thinking about what you can do with what you’ve learned – beyond making use of it for buying and selling beer. But how far can you go? Could you structure a beer menu around hops?

‘You’d have to be sure your customers know their hops. A better way might be to split the menu by region of hop, rather than region of brewery, so people can go for big American hops, more complex antipodean ones, or subtle and spicy European ones,’ says Garrett.

Eebria’s Peter Kennelly takes a more ambitious view. ‘I think [it could be done, but] it would need to be based around education and experience,’ he says. ‘Customers would need to smell fresh versions, in pellet and flower forms, of the hops in the drinks they’re having.

‘This would help them connect flavours and aromas together. A progression of bitterness, aromas and flavours in different beers styles would help highlight the importance of using different hops.’

‘It may also be interesting to showcase to customers that through dry hopping, big aroma does not necessarily mean big flavours or high abvs. There are so many amazing session IPAs that demonstrate this in the UK right now,’ he concludes.

Although Kennelly’s suggestions might be more practical for special events than everyday drinks service, they’re worthy of attention for those keen to make use of brewers’ and drinkers’ ongoing passion for hops – even just the rubbing and sniffing of dried hops is a great interactive and educational element for beer-tasting events. The world of hops never stands still – no pun intended. From the growers, breeders and developers bringing through new varieties, to the brewers experimenting with them and on to the beers they enrich, with such an incredibly wide range of flavours and aromas, there is a lot to understand.

Luckily, excitement about hops is pretty contagious; once you’ve learned a bit about them it’s easy to share the passion and increase people’s enjoyment of beer.

Bring on the cones
Five beers that showcase the versatility of the hemp family’s most drinkable relative

Siren Craft Brew, Suspended in Space

New England-style IPA that offers clean, fruity hop flavours untainted by the essence of artificiality that some seem to have. Leafy aromas of nettles, geraniums and hops entice the drinker into a fruit smoothie-esque beer with zingy, zesty and juicy flavours of passion fruit and mango. Hopped with Mosaic, Citra, Simcoe and Mandarina Bavaria.
6.5%, £47.23/24x33cl, Cave Direct, 01622 710339


Lervig, Tasty Juice

Although not described on the can as a NE IPA, Lervig’s Tasty Juice fits the profile. Double dry hopped with Citra, it drinks more like a hoppy lemonade than a beer, but will probably find favour with drinkers who enjoy the low bitterness alcohops trend.
6%, £74.72/24x50cl, Cave Direct, 01622 710339


Torrside Brewing, I’m so bored with the USA

As the name suggests, there are no US hops in this IPA from the Peak District. But it still manages to be a tasty, heftily hopped and punchy brew with flavours ranging from apricot and strawberry through to mango and melon from varieties including Jester (British), Huell Melon (German), Sybilla (Polish) and Hallertau Magnum (German).
7.4%, £36/24x33cl (subject to availability), Torrside Brewing, 01663 745219


Torrside Brewing, Pulawski

Many think single-hopped beers are more fun to brew than to drink. This one bucks that theory and has appeal for both ale and lager fans. Pulawski is a Polish hop variety which here gives a zingy, but subtle, lemon flavour with a dry herbal finish. Great for washing down fish and chips!
4.5%, £18/12x50cl (subject to availability), Torrside Brewing, 01663 745219


Time and Tide Brewing, Monster Soup IPA

There’s a riot of tropical fruit bitterness in this IPA from Kent – too much for it to be a NE IPA, even though the name suggests it might have the sort of super-hazy appearance typical of the style. Woody, resinous and pithy meets passion fruit and mango in a beer that shows off what US varieties Mosaic, Simcoe, Citra and Ekuanot can do. Extra points to Time and Tide for making the effort to include the names of hop varieties on their labels.
6.7%, £55/24x44cl, Time and Tide Brewing, 07929 404 246

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