If there is one thing that can be said about many craft beer lovers it is they desire flavorful beer regardless of style. This is what propells many brewers into a variety of directions to ensure they’re brewing impactful and flavorful beer. The one ingredient that has truly risen above all others to help? The glorious hop.
Not too long ago some macro brewers developed commercials featuring the dreaded “bitter beer face” as a bad thing; oh, how wrong they were. Craft beer drinkers are constantly on the quest for deliciously bitter and hoppy beers. This has made the IPA the most popular style in the craft beer market.
What are hops?
Hops are plants and are bines. They are green and cone-like in shape. One of the closest plants in the family of hops is cannabis sativa, commonly known as marijuana. The taste and aroma of hops changes wildly between specific breeds.
When macro beer ruled the beer world, hops were essential but were used more as a means to balance the beer and not as a showcase within it. Hop farmers were forced to grow hops not for a variety of flavors and bitterness, but more in a uniform manner to impart a non offensive similar flavor.
As the craft beer boom has grown, hop farmers are now able to grow a huge and ever-growing variety of hops. Hops are now crossbred to bring forth an unending array of flavors and aroma. The bittering ability of hops continues to grow and beer lovers’ palates adjust to hops and their tolerance grows with it.
Hops can be brewed in their natural shape and form straight from the bine, this adds a bit more hop oil to the beer, but must be used in higher quantities and can get a bit messy. When used in this manner they are typically referred to as fresh hop bee. Hops also come in pellet form, this is more of the form that brewers use as they have a longer shelf life.
Now on to the beer and the ever-changing IPA style. Initially as IPAs grew in popularity they were classified as either East Coast or West Coast. The West Coast styled IPAs were generally more aggressive and bitter featuring beers from Stone Brewing, Russian River and Ballast Point. These were generally the beers that true hop lovers turned toward as a baseline for IPAs.
East Coast IPAs were generally more balanced with a bit more malt presence. Beers from brewers such as Dogfish Head, Smuttynose and Victory Brewing led the way. These beers were still bitter, but had a more balanced approach to the style for an easy drinking beer that did not fatigue the palate.
The East Coast vs. West Coast debate lingered long but has now been tossed aside with the introductory of the popular New England style IPA. This style is unfiltered, extremely hazy, and features a juicy quality not part of the original IPA discussion. Breweries such as Tree House, Hill Farmstead, and our own local Sole Artisan Ales have showcased this style with resounding results.
Prior to the craft beer boom, hops were relegated to being a basic ingredient in beer but they have rightfully claimed their place as a true showcase in any beer. The hop varieties are expanding seemingly daily.
Hop lovers will forever be chasing the “next big thing” to challenge their palates and expand their flavor senses. There are craft beer lovers who still have not found a hoppy beer they love, but with the continuous expansion of flavor possibilities it’s just a matter of time. In the meantime, the best way to keep up with the expanding hop market is through sampling.
Derek Warren is a beer fanatic, avid homebrewer and beer historian. Derek can be heard weekly on the Beer Geeks Radio Hour at noon on Sundays on WILK 103.1 FM with past episodes available on iTunes.