category-iconOP-ED

Why We Get Our Beer Locally, But Travel for Hops

April 19, 2017

By Bryan Roth, April 19, 2017

We love talking “local” right now.

Mom-and-pop stores with artisan products, in-season foods with ingredients from nearby farmers markets, and especially beer.

With more than 5,000 breweries nationwide, grabbing a pint at your neighborhood brewery is easier than ever, but what happens before the pour has also piqued the attention of brewers and drinkers alike. The ingredients that go into creating batches of beer increasingly have qualifiers of locally harvested, picked, and even foraged. What flavors our beer can now have a distinct “hometown” feel, whether it comes to fruition through a particular style or added element.

U.S. maltsters are on the rise. Everyone can capture yeast in their backyard. Hops are in great abundance from coast to coast.

And it’s that last bit that presents a unique situation. Given the love Americans have for all things hop, and the territorial taste preferences pale ales and IPAs create from the hazy juice bombs of New England to the dry pine of California, it begs the question: if different flavors are emphasized from one state to another, are specific hops destined to become preferred on a regional basis, too?

The hoppy DNA of the country’s top IPAs looked similar, even if their final tastes differ.”

“Right now brewers around the country look at things like what is Tree House using and what is Other Half using,” says author Stan Hieronymus, who’s covered the beer industry for years and literally wrote the book on hops. “They’re all getting hops from the Northwest because they want this immense fruitiness.”

Whether you look at famed hop houses like the two Northeast breweries Hieronymus mentions, or just about any other beloved IPA maker across the country, he’s not wrong. There’s a reason why more breweries are blanketing packaging and labels with the names of a select group of hops like Citra, Mosaic, Amarillo, and Simcoe: they’re all used in some of the most highly regarded hop forward beers made across the country, creating something of a roadmap of recipe development.

Using BeerGraphs Beers Above Replacement model and the site’s regional breakdown of eight areas of the U.S. (Pacific Coast, Mid-Atlantic/Industrial, Upper Midwest, Lower Midwest, Mountains, Northeast Coast, Upper South, Deep South), the hoppy DNA of the country’s top IPAs looked similar, even if their final tastes differ.

Taking the top five IPAs from each of those regions, 38 of the 40 beers have lists of hops used on brewery websites or informed guesses on homebrewing message boards. Here are the most-cited hops and the number of beers in which they appear:

Mike Duesenberg / Good Beer Hunting. Data: Bryan RothCitra still reins supreme, even as Mosaic has become more popular in recent years.

Whether it’s a brewer in Austin, Texas, Strongsville, Ohio, or Monson, Massachusetts, Citra is king, a finding that parallels another analysis of top beers from 2016. (Centennial, the outlier, is one of the most readily available varieties)

“Consumers want these bold aromas and flavors, and brewers want them too, but another reason brewers want them is they know the public wants them,”Hieronymus says, later adding, “When I talk to homebrewers, they want to know how they can mimic Citra exactly if they don’t use Citra.”

Another problem when it comes to trying to connect hop preference with a specific state or region is simple agriculture. According to the Hop Growers of America, about 4% of acres harvested in 2016 were outside the Pacific Northwest. Even if a brewer could find local hops – and then eventually create a hop bill and flavor profile that might be wholly unique to that location – it’s still too difficult to get quantities to make that sustainable. And that’s not even going back to the larger issue at hand: drinkers want hops that are grown in Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

Dan Western, head brewer and co-founder at Rochester, New York’s Lost Borough Brewing Co., loves the aromatics of Cascade and Nugget, two hops he can get in small amounts from New York State farmers. But there’s no way he can source enough in-state Nugget to be part of the five pounds per barrel he uses in his Space Nugget double IPA, which also uses Zeus and Simcoe hops from out of state. Likewise, his New England-style IPA, A Chance of Clouds, can’t exist without six pounds per barrel of a hop lineup that includes (naturally) Citra, Simcoe and Amarillo.

“I don’t want my hands tied if I’m only using New York State hops,” says Western. “Plus, all my beers would be pretty similar and I wouldn’t be able to have as much fun and wow my customers with selection and variety.”

Trends come and go, and at the moment, there are simply certain tickets needed to ride the hype train.”

Western doesn’t count out the potential for particular hops to grab hold in certain areas – especially in years ahead as states like his and places like Michigan increase hop acreages – but he admits the quantity and quality of what comes from the Pacific Northwest is too hard to beat. The most popular hops, used from one coast to the other, all call that area of the country home.

“We want the best product we can produce, and using sub-par hops or not being able to use what’s popular would make it a challenge for us,” he says.

So while what hops go into your most beloved beers may be somewhat uniform, there’s at least a silver lining of the creativity brewers take in their artform, mixing and matching swatches of hops grown in different states and countries to create new flavors and experiences. Trends come and go, and at the moment, there are simply certain tickets needed to ride the hype train, making stops everywhere in the country.

For now, at least.

“If there’s no difference between one IPA and another,” Hieronymus says, “if they’re all Citra or Mosaic, what then becomes a differentiator? In some cases the interest is ‘juicy.’ Another can be ‘cloudy.’ But ultimately, a lot of it is about fresh.”

And the best place to find that is down the street. People do love local, after all.

AB InBev is an investor in October through its venture capital arm, ZX Ventures
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