Wacky, Wonderful, Wild Hops Could Transform the Watered-Down Beer Industry

The diversity of hops reflects a diversity of tastes and traditions that are part of an extraordinary evolution in beer

In search of distinctly American beer hops. (querbeet / Alamy)
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Beer is a remarkable beverage: a liquid as old as human civilization made of four simple, relatively inexpensive ingredients. It can be made from any grain, in any place. Andean communities, for instance, make beer from corn, root vegetables and fruits, while Japanese make sake—mistakenly identified as wine rather than beer—from fermented rice. Beer doesn’t belong to a single culture or geographical area. It’s democratic and belongs to everyone.

One of the greatest flavor enhancers in beer is hops, often referred to as the “spice” of beer. Brewers use the hop strobiles—the cone-shaped fruits of the plant that contain bitter acids and essential oils commonly known as hops—as a natural preservative and for bittering and aromas ranging from floral to minty.

Hops likely originated in China, but the first documented use was in the 8th century when Benedictine monks used them for brewing in a Bavarian abbey outside of Munich, Germany. Before hops, beer was flavored and preserved with gruit, a combination of heather, mugwort and other locally grown herbs and spices. The change was a tough sell, author William Bostwick explains in his book, The Brewer’s Tale. He writes, influential Christian mystic and naturalist Hildegard of Bingen is believed to have written, hops “were not very useful. [They] make the soul of man sad, and weigh down his inner organs,” while British physician and beer aficionado Andrew Boorde claimed hops made men fat and bloated.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Today we’re experiencing a “hop rush” and the introduction of beers that are so bitter they exceed 100 IBUs, the maximum amount of bitterness “units” humans can detect. This diversity of hops reflects a diversity of tastes and traditions that are part of an extraordinary evolution in beer—particularly in the United States, where American-style lager once defined beer in much the same way Folgers defined coffee. In the 1980s and 1990s, the image of American beer, the Brewers Association explains, “was simply that of a mass-produced commodity with little or no character, tradition or culture.”

Long before I drank from my first plastic cup of Bud Light, I remember beer marketers imploring beer drinkers to “Lose the carbs, not the taste.” Stores and bars were saturated with light, low-calorie lager and little else. The light beer explosion helped grow Big Beer and, by the end of the 1970s, industry experts predicted there would soon be only five brewing companies left. (This drop was also rooted in earlier history, a product of Prohibition when more than 800 breweries closed their doors.) As Randy Mosher writes in Tasting Beer: An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink: “The trend toward light, pale beer reached its low point with the introduction of Miller Clear in 1993. This water-clear beer, stripped of all color and much of its flavor by a carbon filtration process, was, thankfully, a step too far.”

Commercial beer, like commercial coffee or chocolate, is about consistency of experience. “We forced the diversity out of our food system,” Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver explains, “and we did it on purpose. It was done for commerce, so that one bland, long-lasting, well-preserved version of almost every food could be sold to us using mass advertising. And, with that, the memory of real food faded.” This is why a Corona—or the Taco Bell 7-layer burrito that might accompany it—tastes the same in Dallas as it does in Seoul. It’s not necessarily because the ingredients are the same, but because they have been modified to taste the same, year after year.

And, in the case of Corona, beer after beer.

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Craft beer is forecasted to grow into an $18 billion industry by 2017. (Brent Hofacker / Alamy )

The two main yeast varieties used in beer also contribute to consistency in flavor. Yeast is what separates the ales from the lagers: Lager yeasts ferment at cooler temperatures and drop to the bottom of the fermenter when they’re done. Appropriately known as bottom-fermenting yeast, lager yeasts produce clean and crisp beers, like Corona, Heineken, Bud and Pabst Blue Ribbon. They are considered more commercial because they’re uniform, controllable and don’t produce the depth of flavor we find in ales. “If you want to attract a lot of people, then you make the beer as bland as possible,” says Ben Ott, head brewer at London’s Truman’s Brewery. That strategy seems to work: Lager is the most popular beer in the world.

It makes sense for companies to create beers that appeal to large audiences—and for us, the drinking public, to want something familiar. It’s reassuring to be able to go anywhere in the world and have consistency in our favorite beverage (as the rise of Starbucks attests). It’s easy and safe. But, in some ways, it’s almost like going nowhere.

“What’s better than beer?” one retailer asked. “Cheap beer!” But value is different from price. We’re getting what we pay for. Is cheap beer—inexpensive sameness built on cheap labor and cheaper inputs—really what we want? In today’s rich, complex world of beer, can we reach for something more? That’s what a small group of brewers who had less interest in light lager sameness decided to explore, sparking a taste revolution that has transformed beer culture.

Back in 1980, a burgeoning movement of craft brewers started evolving away from tasteless lagers to beers that more closely resembled European varieties. As Mosher details in Tasting Beer: “The lack of a living beer tradition worth preserving left [the United States] free to build a new beer culture from scratch.” The primary reason we lost diversity in beer—changing taste preferences—has now become the route to reclaiming it.

This effort included then up-and-coming American brewer Sierra Nevada, which released a hoppy pale ale made with domestic Cascade hops. Those hops offered a taste of place distinct from European (Old World) hops; they’re genetically unique varieties with very different flavors and stories.

Old World hops are reserved and earthy; they have been grown in Europe for over 1.5 million years and include some of the oldest, most traditional varieties of hops, known as noble hops. Noble hops are highly aromatic and bring a subtle bitterness to beers; they are as prized and geographically specific as a sparkling wine from the Champagne province in northeast France (the only place that can call its effervescent wine “Champagne”). Only four hop varieties are truly “noble”—and only when they’re cultivated in the areas in Germany and the Czech Republic where they are traditionally grown.

American hop varieties, on the other hand, reflect a distinctly American spirit: There’s nothing subtle about them. They are intense and varied, known for being bright, citrusy and resinous. A number of these varieties can be used for both aroma and bittering, but they are best for bittering, as they tend to have higher concentrations of the alpha acids that are largely responsible for beer’s bitterness. While they are well suited for all pale ales, they have become a defining characteristic of American craft beer, especially American-style IPAs.

IPAs were developed in the 18th century when the British colonized India. There are multiple explanations for how the pale ale became hoppier and more alcoholic, but suffice to say the Brits wanted their beer, so they tweaked it to better withstand the grueling passage from England to India.

Food writer Maggie Dutton does the most interesting job of describing the English-American hops divide: “On the tongue, English-style IPA feels much the same as a strong black tea that has been brewed too long: Your taste buds will feel like suede rubbed the wrong way,” she writes. “With an American-style IPA, you’re likely to think tiny kittens have just skidded across your tongue, claws blazing, leaving your mouth scoured of all but the hint of hop.”

Not only is the personality of these hops decidedly American; so is its production. “The hop industry—though outwardly sexier than corn or soybeans—is still a product of modern industrial agriculture, where centralization and tradition reign supreme,” Natasha Geiling wrote in Smithsonian.com in 2014. “The United States produces nearly one-third of all the hops in the world—of that, 79 percent is grown in Washington state. Nearly half of all hop varieties grown in Washington state fall into four hop varieties: Zeus, Cascade, Columbus/Tomahawk and Summit.”

Growing a limited range of crops increases risk, including vulnerability to disease. For hops, most of the danger lies in two crop-devastating fungi—downy mildew and powdery mildew—for which there’s no known cure. Farmers have been instructed to manage the pathogens by cultivating disease-resistant varieties, pruning plants, applying fungicides and killing any wild varieties of hops that could be possible carriers of disease.

But those wild hops might also include varieties that are resistant to diseases or other menaces—or expand the diversity of flavors the market craves. It’s why Todd Bates and Steve Johnson, organic farmers from New Mexico who established one of the first hopyards in the area back in 2002, have tried to change the “kill wild hops” mandate.

Bates has been curious about the medicinal properties of plants since he was a kid. A child of the ’60s, he started collecting wild hops in northern New Mexico that were so distinct from the ones grown in other parts of the U.S. they were given their own taxonomic designation (a distinct variety of common hops called neomexicanus). But when he and Steve decided to dedicate a portion of their land to growing them—and asked neighboring farms to do the same—people thought they were crazy.

“The response people gave me was ‘Why? That shit grows all over my fence. Why would I want to grow it?’” Bates says.

Farmers weren’t the only ones questioning Bates’ sanity. “I went into a meeting with Ralph Olson, the CEO of [Washington-based] craft hop supplier Hopunion, and he was really nice,” he says. “But I could tell I was being treated as the goofy guy who was a little touched. And then I got it: I was in a place surrounded by signs telling people to eradicate all wild hops.”

Researchers cautioned against any experimentation with wild hops, Bates said, because of “500 years of people saying no one would drink beer made from them.” Venturing out into the great (wild) unknown had real financial consequences for farmers and brewers. Growers had no desire to cultivate wild varieties that most considered weeds, and had none of the sensory properties brewers were looking for. Bates was at a standstill, but he knew he had something special. His hops thrived in the worst of drought. “And they had crazy, psychotic vigor,” he adds. “But the term ‘wild hop’ was infectious. No one wanted to touch it. I just meant hops from the mountains—pure American hops.”

These varieties thrive in challenging places and offer flavors that aren’t necessarily unpalatable—sjust unfamiliar. So Bates teamed up with hop farmer Eric Desmarais to identify what brewers would want. Desmarais runs a family hop farm in Moxee Valley, Washington, one of three distinct growing areas in the Yakima Valley that contains about 75 percent of the total U.S. hop acreage. He had already developed the El Dorado,a hop known for its tropical fruit flavors, and was eager to explore further.

Bates gave Desmarais 80 varieties, which Desmarais then narrowed down to two he thought would make good beer. One of them, Medusa, made its national debut in Sierra Nevada’s Harvest Wild Hop IPA series of special-release beers. The company was blown away by Medusa. “These bizarre, multi-headed, native U.S. cones have a flavor like nothing we’ve tasted, and for the first time, we’re showcasing their unusual melon, apricot and citrus aromas and flavors in our beer,” it wrote.

Medusa and other local hops have the potential to not only transform craft beer, but also reshape the entire brewing industry. Native to America, their hardiness might provide an advantage against global warming and allow growers to expand into places that haven’t had much success cultivating the plant—ranging from San Diego to the mountains of New Mexico.

Diversity in hops reflects a diversity in tastes and traditions that craft brewers in the United States are bringing to the fore. Craft beer is small, independent and traditional. According to the nonprofit Brewers Association, in order to be identified as “craft,” two-thirds of a brewing operation has to be owned by craft brewers, with an annual production of 6 million barrels or less of beer (not flavored malt beverages).

While fine chocolate is gaining traction and specialty coffee is expanding, craft beer has been on a steady growth trajectory since 2003. The sector nearly doubled between 2007 and 2012 (from $5.7 billion to $12 billion) and, in 2014, succeeded in edging out the self-proclaimed King of Beers, Budweiser. Craft beer is forecasted to grow into an $18 billion industry by 2017—a far cry from the 1980s, the era in which I was introduced to beer.

In craft beer, what was old is new again—an attempt, in both ingredients and brewing techniques, to return to the origins of what makes beer special. “We’re going back to our roots,” says Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery. “It feels like a new invention, but I say to my fellow brewers, ‘Get over yourselves.’ People have been brewing beer for over 20,000 years. We forgot almost everything—and now we’re remembering.”

From the book BREAD, WINE, CHOCOLATE: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, released in paperback in October 2016. Copyright © 2016 by Preeti S. Sethi. Reprinted with permission by HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers.

About Simran Sethi

Simran is a journalist and educator focused on food and sustainability. She is the author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, a book about changes in food and agriculture told through bread, wine, chocolate, coffee and beer.

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