A Basic Guide to Hops – With Examples

April 11, 2017

By Miles Liebtag, April 11, 2017

Since the IPA became craft beer’s archetypal style, it’s suffered endless permutations and, ah, innovations, some more gracefully than others. I won’t belabor the relative strengths or weaknesses of the various substyles, but will note that between 2004 and 2016, the Beer Judge Certification Program added six new IPA substyles (under the general style “Specialty IPA”), while retaining the styles American and Imperial IPA, and relegating the poor ancestor, English IPA, to the curious appellation “Pale Commonwealth Beer.”

The IPA has been twisted, molested, and reimagined countless times. A fledgling brewery can barely survive without one; the style and its rogues gallery of descendants account for more than a quarter of all dollars spent in the craft category. I know when I go out to sell beer on premise, I want the IPA draught line – or one of the many IPA draught lines. They just sell faster. 

Lately I’ve found that while the IPA means more and more, hop varietals seem to mean less and less – as more beer consumers become craft consumers, the lexicon has become somewhat diluted. And that’s perfectly alright – you needn’t know which hop varietals make an IPA full of tropical fruit flavors to know that you enjoy a fruity IPA. Although it can certainly help.

To that end, what follows is a brief accounting of some iconic hops and the beers that helped make them famous. 

Michael Kiser / Good Beer HuntingAt Elk Mountain Hop Farm, they work hard to splice hops and research new strains.

It’s worth noting that as with so many other flavor and aroma descriptors, the ones we use to describe hop varietals can be eminently interchangeable, especially when it comes to marketing copy or commercial descriptions. I’ve yet to meet the person who can discern Galaxy from Motueka due specifically to the presence or absence of say, passionfruit aroma. That kind of granular distinction comes more from lots of direct tasting experience than from written sensory descriptions.

That being said, associations do help you learn to identify hop varietals. The ones that are truly important are your own specific associations, not the ones listed as expressive characteristics by the hop grower or brewer. If you struggle to “get” the associations listed as typical of a given varietal, don’t sweat it – it’s much more useful to discover your own and realize that you interpret (through aroma or flavor) particular hops in ways particular to you, time after time.

For instance, I know academically that Cascade hops are noted as being floral and citrusy in virtually every description you can find of them. To me, they always smell and taste very specifically of fresh pine, and that association has made it very easy for me to identify Cascade in various beers over the years. And that, to me, is what matters: the ability to identify the hop in different contexts, regardless of whether my impression of it “agrees” with its given descriptors. Anyway!

We begin with a hop of relatively recent coinage. As noted by Megan Krigbaum in her excellent piece on Mosaic for Punch last year, Mosaic came to market in 2012 as a result of years of research and interbreeding by the experts at Select Botanicals in the Yakima Valley.

I first became aware of the hop in 2013, as it kept popping up in conjunction with many new wonderful fruity IPAs and pale ales, in particular a local Columbus favorite from Seventh Son Brewing called Humulus Nimbus. Seventh Son describes this “strong pale ale” as “berry-piney,” which I found particularly apropos, as “berry-like” is the first descriptor for Mosaic that I found useful in describing the hop, and Humulus is full of it. Mosaic is more commonly described as “tropical,” in that it packs a lot of non-citrus fruity character, with mango being perhaps the most frequently cited.

As noted by Krigbaum, Founders’ Mosaic Promise is a great place to start getting acquainted with Mosaic hops: a single-hop American Pale Ale available from September to December in bottles and cans, Mosaic Promise is full of the tropical, berry, and slightly piney aromas and flavors characteristic to this hop. If you prefer your introductions a bit more intense, Great Lakes’ Chillwave Double IPA abounds with Mosaic hop character, borne atop a ton of sweet malt and booze. 

Simcoe in certain concentrations can also verge on that beloved descriptor “catty,” meaning, well, something like cat urine.”

A personal favorite right up there with Simcoe, Amarillo is another darling of the contemporary American brewing scene. A proprietary (that is, patented) hop, Stan Hieronymous tells us in his For The Love of Hops that it the hop is unique because “it was found in 1983 in a field in the Toppenish region of the Yakima Valley, as opposed to emerging from a breeding program.”

As a wild upstart, its antecedents are unknown, but its powerful aromatics are likely familiar to anyone drinking craft beer in the past decade or so: zesty citrus, especially orange and grapefruit, along with hints of melon and peach, add up to an overall sweet fruity character that’s unmistakable once you recognize it.

Three Floyds' Gumballhead is a beautiful Amarillo-hopped wheat beer with tons of refreshing citrus character. Easier to find than in years past, it’s also one of the best beers the Indiana brewery makes. Although not a single hopped beer, Alpine Beer Company’s iconic Duet is a tribute to both Amarillo and Simcoe hops, and the fresh citrus character of the Amarillo mingles sensuously with the dank piney qualities of the Simcoe (of which more momentarily).

Lastly, and for a change of pace, check out Boulevard Brewing Company’s Tank 7. This non-traditional strong farmhouse ale is dry hopped with Amarillo, but fermented with Boulevard’s house Belgian ale yeast. The intermingling of the fruity esters and peppery phenols created by the yeast with the citrus and grapefruit characters imparted by the hops is beguiling indeed – Tank 7 is one of the best beers made in America. 

For a long while my favorite hop, Simcoe is one of the most intense American hops and is often used in conjunction with its brethren Cascade and Citra, sometimes to soften Simcoe’s potentially overwhelming character. Packed with dank pine and woody/earthiness, Simcoe in certain concentrations can also verge on that beloved descriptor “catty,” meaning, well, something like cat urine. It’s an aroma that certainly doesn't sound appealing to the uninitiated, but cattiness is a welcome component in the complex hop bouquets of many great American IPAs. I’ve cited Simcoe twice now as “dank,” and to me, this hop more than any other (with the possible exception of Chinook) expresses qualities reminiscent of high grade marijuana: resiny, piney, musky.

As mentioned above, it costars in Alpine Duet, along with Amarillo, to create a wonderful amalgamation of aromas. For something more intense, the bizarre New Belgium Ranger uses it liberally along with Chinook to create one of the greenest, piney-est, and downright strangest core beers from a national brewery I’ve ever had. Jackie O’s Hop Ryot is an exclusively Simcoe-hopped rye IPA available year round in cans from the Athens, OH brewery, showcasing Simcoe’s fruitier qualities and complementing them with some soft, spicy rye malt. 

Michael Kiser / Good Beer HuntingThe good stuff comes in baggies and makes everyone at the table smile.

No perfunctory overview of American hops and hopping trends would be complete without Citra. Developed in 2007 by the same breeders who gave us Mosaic, Citra is, for whatever reason, the most name-brand-ass hop I can think of: I don’t know what it is, but the name sells beer. Put out a quarterly rotating hop IPA series, and I can pretty much guarantee you the Citra iteration will be your best seller. People – the average consumer – seem to know it.

And with good reason: Citra hop quality is absolutely delicious when deployed skillfully; it is full of (shockingly!) citrus, as well as peach and tropical fruit character. Almost every bio of Citra out there will mention lychee, as well; I don’t think your average beer consumer could pick a lychee out of a lineup, but if that one’s helpful to you, fantastic.

No discussion of Citra would be complete without a mention of Three Floyds' Zombie Dust, so let’s get that out of the way now: it’s used in Three Floyds' Zombie Dust. Against the Grain Brewery in Louisville, KY brews a complex 8.2% DIPA called Citra Ass Down, loaded with its eponymous hop along with Columbus for bittering and Centennial in the dry hop. Although not seen since last summer, Revolution’s Citra Hero (part of their rotating hop Hero series, incidentally) is a fantastic entree to the world of Citra: being tropical and sweetly citrusy makes it intensely drinkable at 7.5% alcohol by volume, while its substantial but balanced bitterness reminds you you’re drinking an actual IPA and not whatever creamy 0-IBU ephemera the kids are Snapchatting about these days. 

Centennial hops are patient, Centennial hops are kind. They do not envy, they do not boast, they are not proud. Arguably as important to the evolution of hoppy American beer as any other varietal, Centennial hops are not “feature” hops – at least insofar as they are not invoked to entice the consumer very often. They’re much more likely to play a supporting role, which is frankly unfortunate, as their elegant florality is a welcome break from the endless procession of citric-intense variations.

Sometimes referred to as “Super Cascade,” because of its much higher potential for bittering, I find that in the glass, Centennial is really only slightly reminiscent of Cascade, as its citrus qualities tend to take a backseat. Perhaps the benchmark for Centennial hops is Bell's Two Hearted IPA, a perfectly balanced, 7% ABV beer that, when fresh, fairly bursts with floral, pine and grapefruit aromatics. Another worthy entry into the Centennial Hall of Fame is North Coast Brewing Co.’s oft-forgotten Red Seal Ale, a classic American Amber (or APA, depending on whom you ask). Brewed since the late 80s, Red Seal for a time consumed 80% of the extant Centennial on the market. Fresh, this beer is a study in balance and refinement, and its flavorful, floral/spicy finish is a testament to the skill and dedication of the brewers in Fort Bragg. 

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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