Customers are searching for flavour – and that’s changed what is available at the bar. Jessica Mason discovers how the insatiable desire for big hoppy beers is changing the landscape for drinkers and hop farmers - and how terroir is starting to shine through
'The emphasis for hops over the past five years has really changed. Now, people are interested in flavour,' says Dr Peter Darby from Wye Hops, the research centre for the British hop industry. 'This interest came from America, but it is now an interest throughout the world. Some want novelty; others want something they haven’t tried before. But everyone is looking for distinct flavours.'
But why are people seeking hoppier beers? 'They call it hop creep in the US,' says Paul Corbett, MD of hop merchant Charles Faram. 'Hop creep is the way that our palates have developed by drinking very highly hopped beers.'
Just like imbibing in products with additional sugar or salt can make food and drink with reduced additives taste rather empty, hop creep has developed a desire for more shouty beer styles and readied people’s palates for intensity. Similar to the way 15 years ago the demand for tropical and increasingly heavily-oaked Chardonnays led to people seeking out more easy-drinking Pinot Grigios, hop creep may indeed lead to something more sessionable replacing the punchy IPA trend.
'Session beer is absolutely the next trend. Why? Because these highly-hopped IPAs are great, but we can only drink a small glass of them,' says Ali Capper, hop farmer and spokesperson for the British Hop Association. 'What Americans have worked out is that, to be commercially successful, they need to provide beer that you can drink glass-after-glass of. British hops are fantastic for session beers – we know this because we invented session beers in the first place.'
Loss of the word local
When the craft beer revolution started in America 'it was all about local, provenance and flavour', according to Capper, who laments that 'sadly, when the trend came over here that word "local" got lost along the way.'
'US hop varieties are in very high demand at the moment. The aroma varieties like Citra, Cascade, Simcoe, Mosaic are producing some of those very big IPAs and they give very intensely flavoured beers,' says Corbett.
'The US overtook Germany in 2015 and became the biggest world producer with 21,000 hectares compared to 18,000 hectares in Germany' Corbett adds, putting that into perspective by revealing that 'the UK grows hops on just under 1,000 hectares.'
'The US experienced a 17.1% increase in hop growing in 2016, which was equal to over 4,000 hectares of hops,' he says, but Capper points out that progressive British hops are in high demand with Britain enjoying 'an 8% increase in acreage,' in 2016 and a 4% increase already this year.
Research conducted at the BHA
In response to demand, research into creating different hops that can produce big flavours in beer has begun all over the world. According to Darby, there are three ways that the research is being conducted: 'The first is to look at the chemical composition of the hops.' The second is to 'look at what is in the beer and begin with brewing tests with trial hops to compare and contrast results' and the third is to 'take things right back to the genetic code and look for variation and then relate that to brewing performance.' Darby assures that 'the British Hop Association is using all three approaches' and according to Capper there are soon to be 'over 50 new styles coming through.' Six of these that have gained traction over the past five years are already available to brewers and are listed in the table below.
New progressive hops available
Endeavour – spice, citrus, red berry summer fruits
Ernest – apricot, citrus, spice
Minstral – spicy berries , orange, citrus
Archer – peach, lime, floral
Jester – grapefruit, tropical fruit
Olicana – mango, passionfruit, tropical fruit
Beavertown and Tiny Rebel have already used Jester. Burning Sky has used Ernest and Cloudwater has used Olicana, so there's no shortage of fans among the craft beer elite looking for local produce with flavours they might otherwise only acquire from across the pond.
But, as Capper says, it is not simply a case of growing what people want from elsewhere. In Britain, we have developed new styles that suit our weather.
'Hops tend to be country-specific because they have been bred to grow in that climate. Our mild maritime climate delivers a lower myrcene level (aromatic essential oil produced inside the hop cone). The word "terroir" is also important here because terroir is the combination of soil and climate and it has an impact on the aromas we can produce,' she explains.
Corbett agrees, pointing out that people understand how different locations impact on wine styles, but don’t think the same of beer ingredients and yet, really, it’s the same. 'If you look at grapes and the wine industry there are reasons why Cabernet Sauvignon grapes produced in France taste differently to those being produced in New Zealand and California – it’s the climate.'
To some extent climate plays its role in the intensity of flavours in hops, but not always in the drinkability of beer styles. And that is where there is an element of serendipity.
'The interaction with hops, malt and yeast is so different that sometimes the same variety within brews will produce different results,' says Darby. Simple ingredients can often create a wonderful complexity of flavour. As such, good brewers are often as intuitive as they are scientifically accurate.
'Brewing is an art,' he insists, after all. 'You can use a basic palette of ingredients but still produce a different picture every time.'
Jessica Mason was at the Hop Tales & Hop Tails seminar, organised by Hogs Back Brewery, which planted its own Hop Garden in 2014, has rescued the historic Farnham White Bine hop from near extinction, and aims to supply a quarter of its hop needs in coming years.