Part 3: Hops, the bitter spice & soul of beer
Hops, what a love/hate relationship I have with thee. At the best of times, you are light, floral, fruity, spicy, piney, aromatic and provide balance to an otherwise sweet malty beer. At the worst of times, you are a heavy handed, onion, garlic, cat piss, overly bitter mess that ruin an otherwise great beer. Now, I swear, it isn’t always your fault, despite the way it seems. There are heavy handed brewers who at times lack any subtly, there are hop farmers that harvest their hops too early and lead to aromas of cat piss, and there are hop processors that store you in less than ideal conditions. We won’t focus on your misuse here, as that is something that is out of your control. What we want to highlight is the wonderful ability you have to impart nuanced flavor and balance to a beer.
Hops are an agricultural product and therefore their flavor varies from harvest to harvest and region to region. Grapes are the prime example of the various flavors you get from region to region and year to year and is expressed in various vintages of wine, but all agricultural products have that same feature of terroir. The number one factor on the influence terroir is climate followed closely by the soil. The pH, the minerals present, the bacteria common in the soil, drainage, parent material, and accumulation of matter all directly influence the final flavors found in various hop cultivars. The U.S. is a huge country and because of that, we have a wide variety of different soil types. The U.S. currently has one major hop growing region, the Pacific Northwest. However, in times past, New York State was the primary hop growing state. New York has a vastly different climate and soil type than the Pacific Northwest. Other states have started to see big upticks in hop production as well. Ohio, while vastly underserved, is beginning to pick up some major steam. New York with their farm brewery bill, has seen a huge spike in the number of local hop farms. This leads to differences in flavors from region to region even within the same hop cultivar.
Research is limited in regards to growing region and the effect his has on specific hop cultivars. Rumor has it that New York produces hops that are more on the herbal and piney side while the Pacific NW generally produces flavors that range from intense fruit & citrus to catty. New Zealand, much like their white wines, produces hops with flavors of white grapes, grass, and melon. In our experience, Ohio, has been producing hops with fantastic floral aromas.
The thing that gets us most at Urban Artifact is the potential for research in the future in the effects terroir has on hops. Imagine three of the same single hop pale ale but with the same hop sourced from three different regions. The ability to critically analyze these different possible flavors is going to open a whole new world of possibilities for hop flavor and customization in craft beers, allowing brewers to even more precisely decide what flavors and components they want in their beer, all thanks to the wonderful influence nature has on our naturally fermented beverage of choice.
Bret Kollmann Baker
Chief of Brewing Operations