Au Natural in 2024.
Craft beer is a miracle of nature. From the purity of fresh water, barley, yeast and hops we’re given a gift of refreshment that helps us enjoy life. It’s almost too good to be true.
We’re “preaching to the choir” a bit, but it’s easy to take such miracles for granted when living with them every day. It’s easy to forget that even the most mundane brew session sees natural ingredients combined to create a symphony of interactions that, over time, gives us a flavorful elixir that can’t be replicated through mixology.
It also takes a little wind out of our sails when the pause button seems to have been hit for craft beer sales. Media suggestions that consumers are leaving beer for mass marketed beverages like hard seltzer, RTDs and spiked soft drinks erode our confidence. We’re tempted to reach outside of the natural wonders that got us here for something else that will rekindle the magic.
People do like to have choices, and they do like to explore. And of course some people are more easily influenced by marketing and pop culture than others, so will flock to the current “thing” whether hard seltzer (on the way out now…) or spiked soft drinks. But these are fads. They come and go. Beer sticks around because it is truly a product of nature that people have gathered around and connected with for centuries.
We believe that staying focused on the purity of water, barley, yeast and hops will continue to drive craft beer forward. And we believe this can be done in a way that brings people into the fold who don’t necessarily believe craft beer is for them at the moment. We’ve seen this happen almost by accident recently… remember the Bitterness Wars in the USA? They weren’t long ago! An arms race of sorts ratcheted up hop bitterness in IPAs to crazy levels. Some people loved it, but many were driven away. Finally some breweries decided to try Citra in IPAs that swapped out some hop bitterness for hop flavor and boom! We were off to the races. But alas… a fair amount of the bitterness and piney-resinous hop character remained, and although revered by many this still wasn’t for everyone. Then New England IPA burst beyond its borders, demonstrating that a lot of people respond favorably to a smooth delivery of hop fruitiness that is not bitter at all. Still not for everybody though.
Clearly it takes a lot of differing approaches to IPA in order to satisfy the different palates out there. And yet, the vast majority of beers in today’s two major IPA camps of “West Coast” and “Hazy” are overwhelmingly driven by two hop varieties. Obviously these two varieties have been tremendously successful at satisfying a lot of enthusiastic IPA lovers. But when efforts to create interest in something “new” are relying on the same two varieties in various extracted forms, then it’s a good bet that new consumers are not being reached. Let’s get back to creativity. Let’s get back to nature.
Hops, like people, are incredibly diverse. To the extent that hop variety combinations in IPA offerings diversifies, an expansion of people finding their way to enjoying hop driven craft beer is likely to follow.
They have to be fantastic hops for sure, and we have some that we’d like more brewers to discover — Strata, Luminosa, Audacia, Meridian, Indie Chinook and Oregon Crystal. These six varieties each have unique and very catchy hop flavor and aroma to help deliver IPAs to satisfy a variety of consumer preferences. While each is unique, all bring bright, fresh, distinct and “smooth” hop character to the beer, and are accessible to a wide range of palates. Read more about how each of these hops contributes its own bit of magic to IPAs here.
We’d like to touch on one more beer category — lager beer! Lager beer is another category with considerable potential for craft beer to grow. For some reason though, we have a much harder time breaking out from traditional style parameters with lager beer than with IPA. We’re working the German Pils, Helles, Japanese Lager, Mexican Lager, Vienna Lager, and Czech/Bohemian Pils really hard, and for good reason. But it feels like we’re missing something.
Maybe beer competitions are limiting, or maybe it’s because distributors will tell you they can’t sell something that isn’t already recognized (despite that they claim to be the ones building your brand). Bottom line is it’s hard to communicate around a lager that doesn’t fit into an historical lager category. You can go with Italian Pils…WC Pils…Hoppy Lager…IPL…but these are all a bit murky. And so, it’s difficult to get broad traction on lagers brewed traditionally but using new hop varieties with flavors/aromas that fall outside of existing style parameters, no mater how amazing they taste!
We’ve enjoyed many one-off lagers brewed traditionally but with hops like Lórien, Meridian, Sterling and Mt. Hood that were fantastic expressions of traditional lager characteristics but with unique hop finishes that to many people are preferred over historical standards. And our newest hop Audacia is sure to be a hit in this format as well. We look forward to seeing more breweries having success with unique yet still classic lagers during 2024! Learn more about our stable of very “moreish” lager hops here.
What is an “IPA” hop?
We hesitate to label hop varieties, because we don’t want to limit their usefulness with a “label”, so let’s just say that here are six hop varieties we offer that can certainly express catchy hop flavor and aroma in the hop-driven IPA format. They are:
Crystal is a great example of a variety that most brewers don’t think about for IPA use, but in fact the Oregon grown version of this low alpha Hallertau mittelfrüh offspring will contribute a seductive “rhubarb twang” to your IPA that keeps people coming back. Crystal has been worked to great effect in some very successful IPAs, but still eludes the IPA hop radar for many.
We grow our Chinook with Coleman Ag at their Alluvial Farm near Independence, Oregon. Of all varieties we’ve worked with, Chinook shows the most variation in character based on where it is grown. Our Chinook is a well rounded version that can fill out an IPA beautifully all by itself. Grapefruit, pineapple, berries, mid-range floral, and a distinctive juniper/pine resin are a natural hit by themselves, but also combine well with other hops.
Our new release from the 2023 harvest, Audacia may turn out to be the most versatile hop we’ve experienced. Low-ish alpha at 6%, this hop is bursting with juicy sweet-tart berries like huckleberry, lingonberry, red currant and gooseberry. This berry character seems to provide a foundation for a lovely rose/lilac/lavender floral to stick around even in IPAs, WC or Hazy. This hop can fly solo, but plays nicely with others as well.
Introduced from the 2022 crop, Luminosa brings IPAs to life with fresh peach-mango lemonade, candied orange peel, and guava. This hop loves to partner up with Strata, and is an “equal hopportunity” advocate for WC and Hazy IPA lovers alike.
So many IPAs are almost there… but need a boost of high-note brightness to spring more smiling faces (unless you’re brewing for a Goth Convention). Meridian is a brilliant example of high note hop candy. Not meant to fly solo in the IPA world, but can be a key player in winning IPA combinations.
Introduced just 18 months before the Covid-19 pandemic, word managed to get out on this hop despite the stop… go… what are folks doing challenges. Still, many breweries haven’t gotten into a position to take advantage of Strata’s brilliance. Smooth, fresh and full-bodied, the passionfruit, strawberry and grapefruit wrapped in “rock concert cannabis” resonates with a broad swath of people. When you’re ready to branch out and get more people excited about IPA hop flavors… Strata is a fantastic place to start.
In short, the hop must not interfere with the subtle malt flavor, other than to help balance the malty sweetness with a satisfying hop bitterness. And, the hop must remain offstage so that clean fermentation flavors can feature. Finally the hop must possess hop flavor and aroma that briefly possess the drinker at the beers finish, sealing the deal so that the lucky person knows they’ve experienced a small miracle. Low alpha and minimal resinous character are critical. Here are some hops that fit the bill — all are low alpha, crisp and clean, yet deliver their own unique finish:
Lórien: 4% alpha — mixed citrus, melon, wildflowers, sweet hay, cinnamon.
Meridian: 6% alpha — Meyer Lemon, pineapple, boysenberry, spearmint.
Sterling: 6% alpha — Saaz type spice profile with touch of red wine grape.
Mt. Hood: 5% alpha — rose, cedar wood spiciness.
Audacia: 6% alpha — huckleberry, lingonberry, pomegranate, rose, lilac, lavender.
Crystal: 4% alpha — grapefruit, lemon, rhubarb.
US Fuggle (aka US Tettnang): 5% alpha — mixed herbs, flowers, mild spice.
Willamette: 5% alpha — mixed herbs, flowers, mild spice.
Liberty: 5% alpha — mild orange marmalade, sweet hay.
We should point out that although three of these varieties (Mt. Hood, Crystal and Liberty) were originally bred with the intent of having US grown alternatives to classic German hops such as Hallertau mittelfruh, none of these varieties should be considered as alternatives for a classic herbal/grassy/spicy/floral German Pils. However we DO have a hop in trials that may prove true to this set of lager flavors revered by so many.
Happy and Hoppy New Year!
Our New Year’s resolution?…
Lagers for all, and all in for IPA!