Beyond the bitter: Brewers explore new flavors in ‘feature hops’


Try New Belgium’s Dig at Brixx. The Nelson Sauvin hops have a gooseberry flavor with hints of white wine grapes. Photo: Elli Williams Try New Belgium’s Dig at Brixx. The Nelson Sauvin hops have a gooseberry flavor with hints of white wine grapes. Photo: Elli Williams

Humulus lupus, the species best known to us as hops, produces effects in beer that we traditionally associate with bitterness. Hops also produce aromas and flavors that are usually associated with earthiness, grassiness, floral characteristics, and a bit of weedy dankness. In the past couple of years, a progressive sect of hop growers has been cross-breeding hops and creating new varieties that produce a whole host of flavors that are not traditionally associated with hops.

Hops are used in beer brewing to add flavor, aroma, and bitterness, and are also known for their stabilizing and preservative effects. The bitterness that hops provide to beer is sourced from the alpha acids that hops contain. These alpha acids are turned into bittering compounds known as iso-acids as a result of adding hops to boiling wort. Wort is how we refer to the unfermented sweet liquid that will become beer. The earlier in the boil hops are added, the more bitterness they will contribute. The later in the boil the hops are added, the more they will contribute to the aroma and flavor of the beer.

Pale ales and their IPA big brothers have been popular offerings from American craft brewers since the early 1990s and are still the most popular today. The hophead craze from a few years ago has dwindled, and customers and brewers alike are more interested in complexity of flavors in lieu of tongue-splitting bitterness for novelty’s sake. This search for new flavors has set the stage for new hop varieties. The primary sources for these hops include Australia, New Zealand, and proprietary growers in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.

The leading trend with “feature hops,” so named for the distinctive features they provide to beer, is to grow hops that lend distinct fruit flavors that aren’t normally associated with pale ales. Classic hops such as Cascade and Centennial are known for their grapefruit characteristics, but these new varieties have such descriptors as blueberry, peach, gooseberry, boysenberry, and Sauvignon Blanc. Much like anything that strikes hot within craft beer, these hops are highly sought after and very hard to come by. This is also due to the fact that they are generally proprietary, restricted to the growers that own the brand.

At Champion Brewing, we’ve enjoyed working with a few of these varieties, such as Australian Galaxy, and a blend of hops made by HopUnion called Falconer’s Flight. Falconer’s Flight is a blend of three such popular hops: Simcoe, Citra, and Sorachi Ace. Check out the following new hops and some locally available beers in which they’re featured.

Galaxy: This is an Australian hop known to lend aromas of peach and passion fruit. Can be found in Champion Brewing Company’s Ghidorah Belgian Tripel and Devils Backbone’s Tasmanian IPA on tap at our respective breweries.

Mosaic: An American variety known for heavy citrus, stone fruit, and also slight onion/garlic characteristics. Featured in Terrapin Beer Company’s Mosaic Single Hopped Red Rye Ale, available at Beer Run.

Sorachi Ace: This proprietary variety has lemon and dill flavors, and can be found in Brooklyn Brewery’s Sorachi Ace and the DuClaw X-5 Sorachi Ace IPA, both available at Beer Run and not to be missed.

Nelson Sauvin: A male hop grown in New Zealand, it lends gooseberry flavors and a distinct white wine grape characteristic. It can be found in a number of beers, including New Belgium’s Dig, currently on tap at Brixx: Wood Fired Pizza.

Motueka: This hop is one I’m very excited to work with in the summer months, as it produces lemon, lime, and tropical fruit flavors. It was included in Blue Mountain Brewery’s Red Zeppelin, which went quickly and is sure to return.

Hunter Smith is the president and head brewer at Champion Brewing Company and the manager at Afton Mountain Vineyards.

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