Sometimes I reflect back on the early days of my journey into the life of a beer geek (my journey into the brew, you might say) and I miss the revelatory experiences. Everything was so new and excitement took hold of me in a way that only comes along a few times in life. I felt so strongly that this was what I was meant to do with my life. Those early moments of revelation still stand out so clearly in my mind. I remember some of those early beers better than what I drank last week. They meant something that most beers now, thousands later, just can’t hope to match. I’ll never have my first Orval or Hop 15 again.
During my recent trip to Belgium, I hustled down to Chez Moeder Lambic as soon as we checked into our hotel in Brussels. It was getting dark by the time we got into town and the Grand Place was filled with hundreds of tourists treating the cobblestones like a grassy field for an evening picnic. My dad and I took a seat at the Moeder bar and perused the draught list. There are a handful of things that make Chez Moeder Lambic one of the greatest beer bars in the world, one of which being that they have six hand pumps of lambic at any given time, including several from Cantillon, which is just a short walk down the street.
I ordered a Cantillon Kriekenlambic and promptly felt my head explode. These are the moments that you chase but seldom capture. Fruit lambic is so present that it’s easy to take for granted. I think Timmermans Kriek was actually the first “lambic” that I ever had way back when I was first getting into beer, and Lindemans Framboise pretty much makes its way to nearly every random store in this country. These sweet beers tasting of fruit syrup and calling themselves “lambic” hint at the possibility of a symbiosis between fruit and beer that they fail to deliver on time and time again. I’ve had many fruit lambics between that questionable Timmermans and this unquestionably great Cantillon, but never has a beverage affected me quite like this one did. I’d actually had a draught Cantillon Kriek earlier in the day at De Heeren van Liedekercke – another wonderful beer-centric restaurant in the Brussels suburbs – but even that paled in comparison to this beer. Apparently, Cantillon makes a special draught kriek for Moeder that has more cherries and a special blend of sweet and sour varieties. From its saturated red color to its seamless synergy of signature Cantillon Brettanomyces earthy, lemony funk, and HD-quality sweet-sour cherry flavor, this was a perfect expression of what fruit lambic can be. Finding a fruit lambic this fresh and vibrantly fruit-forward in the U.S. is nearly impossible. In Brussels, it’s the way of life.
Lambic is a beer that time forgot. In the early 20th century pure cultured yeast, the newfangled invention out of Denmark, was sweeping the continent. In it’s wake, most beer styles that had a mix of wild yeast and bacteria in them either died out or changed into cleaner, acid-deficient versions of their former selves. Some lambic brewers probably saw the writing on thewall and moved on to brewing with cultured yeast, leaving lambic behind. Most lambic brewers simply went out of business as interest in the style waned. Others like Lindemans chased the evolving palate of the drinking public with syrupy, pasteurized fruit beers based on lambic but lacking its defining character. Many drinkers came to know this adulterated offspring as the only lambic they’d ever experience. But some lambic brewers carried traditional methods on through the lean years, with Cantillon perhaps their most steadfast champion.
Lambic disrupts the modern beer paradigm because it is the last beer style to never have accepted the domain of brewer as biological master. Instead of fermenting beer by adding yeast grown in a lab from a single genetically identical colony, lambic brewers let naturally occurring yeast and bacteria in the environment do the work. By letting their wort cool in shallow open copper vessels called coolships, wild yeast and bacteria living in and around the brewery are able to fall in and begin a slow fermentation that lasts from several months in the case of young lambic, to three years for fully mature old lambic. Perfectly brewed and aged lambic doesn’t just happen—it’s the result of generations of knowledge passed down from brewer to brewer, often father to son. The handful of traditional lambic brewers left in and around Brussels are the last to carry on this vestige of pre-biology brewing. American brewers have often approximated this fermentation by making sour ales with a mix of Brettanomyces and bacteria from a lab, but the effect of spontaneous inoculation leads to a complexity and array of micro organisms that can never be recreated from a lab.
Using only one base beer, brewed with a blend of barley malt, raw wheat, and aged hops, lambic brewers and blenders go on to create a whole spectrum of beers. The most popular lambic is created by blending different aged lambics (often one, two, and three year old barrels) into gueuze (or geuze in Flemish instead of French), which then conditions in the bottle to result in a nearly clear, sparkling beverage with a dry, acidic flavor and complex aroma often described as akin to grapefruit skin and barnyard, though every brewer has a unique signature from the microflora unique to their brewhouse and neighborhood air. More rarely, you can try single batches or barrels of lambic unblended, which have singular and sometimes challenging flavor profiles. Young lambics of under a year are often still turbid and slightly sweet, while old lambics up to three years get more acidic, funky, and dry as they increase in age. Unblended lambic is usually only found on draught around Brussels, but some brewers will bottle it on occasion, such as the Broucsella 1900 Crand Cru from Cantillon, which is lambic that has aged for three years and is of the highest quality in the brewery.
Alternately, lambic brewers can blend their base beer with dark candi sugar syrup to create faro, which has to be either pasteurized or served quickly on draught so that the sugar does not ferment and cause the serving vessel to explode. Pasteurized faro from the more industrial brewers can be sickly sweet, but draught faro from the traditional brewers is just sweet enough to cut the acidity of a particularly sour barrel and has a balance similar to a good lemonade, making it very refreshing on a hot Brussels afternoon with no air conditioning.
As I already mentioned, fruit and lambic can come together to form an otherworldly combination of flavor and aroma. I find many fruit beers taste flat and flabby on the palate due to a lack of acid. Acid is a key flavor profile in most of the fruit that brewers put in beer and getting fruit flavor in a beverage that can’t deliver enough acid fails to deliver the whole package of fruit character. Lambic, and sour beer styles in general, fix this issue by adding that acid back from the fermentation through lactic acid bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Pediococcus. Add in the complex array of esters and phenols that Brettanomyces contributes to thearoma and it’s no wonder that lambic so strongly dominates the traditional fruit beer category. Sour cherries have typically beenthe most popular option for lambic brewers due to their tart flavor, deep red color, ease of handling, and availability, but other fruits such as grapes, raspberries, plums, apricots, blueberries, and even Swedish cloudberries have been used as well.
As any sour-lover that has made the pilgrimage will tell you, visiting Cantillon is one of the pillars of beer-geekdom. Cantillon has worked to preserve the history and tradition of lambic and gueuze by opening the brewery to the public as a museum and retaining as much of the original equipment and methods as possible. Wandering through the coolship room, barrel storage cellars, and massive stacks of conditioning bottles is a journey back in time. They even retain the pulp filter that ever other brewery replaced decades ago. Modern craft brewing has brought us a new spectrum of amazing beers now being produced all over the world, but Cantillon gives you a window into a past where brewers in one region made beer like nobody else in the world. With the information age upon us, it’s hard to imagine this kind of tradition developing again anywhere else.
There has been some debate over the last several years (and probably more) over whether you can brew lambic outside of the Senne Valley around Brussels. It has tended to boil down to two schools of thought: lambic is either a geographic definition like Champaign, or a style like IPA. For a long time, brewers thought that because the natural environment was so key to the flavor of lambic, you couldn’t make it outside of its traditional home. This theory was proven at least somewhat false when it was discovered that most of the micro organisms that ferment lambic exist almost everywhere in the world. Breweries like Russian River and Allagash have proven that with the right process, you came make a lambic-like beer in different locations and climates, but they have stopped short of calling their beer lambic. Their general consensus seems to be that they don’t call their beer lambic simply out of friendship and respect for the traditional lambic brewers who feel that reserving the lambic name for beers brewed in their native region and to traditional methods is the best was to preserve the tradition that they have fought so hard for over the years. So whether we call it spontaneously fermented beer, coolship beer, or something else we can come up with, if we are carrying on and expanding upon the rich tradition of lambic brewing, it’s a win for beer drinkers everywhere.
Balance is an important concept in every beer style, though it is found in various and sometimes surprising ways. A brewer always has to consider how the various ingredients and techniques used to create a beer will play off one another to create a harmonious whole. Malt and hop flavors, sweetness and bitterness, alcohols and esters, all fight for an impression on the palate. Belgian blonde ales are a style that often miss the mark. Bereft of hops, they end up cloying and fruity, even with modest alcohol and residual sugar contents, not unlike many macro American lagers. Beers like Leffe Blonde and Grimbergen Blonde target a drinker decidedly against bitterness in their beer. Luckily for the lupulin-faithful, there are a number of breweries that embrace the balanced, even hoppy side of this style. When you get Belgian yeast character and hops together and get it right, it’s a beautiful thing.
Hops and Belgian beers have often had a rocky relationship. Lambic brewers are perhaps the most abusive, leaving bales of hops to age warm for years before finally begrudgingly adding them to their wort kettles to take advantage of their preservative qualities, even after all of their bitter alpha acids have degraded to nothingness. Luckily, this still makes for some amazing and unique beers, and most other Belgian brewers are much kinder to their hops. The more typical Belgian approach is to treat hops as a subtle seasoning to balance the sweetness of the malt and maybe add a touch of aroma.
Even though hoppy beer is far from the norm in Belgium, there were always a few Belgian brewers that weren’t afraid to use hops in a bolder fashion. Brasserie Orval is one brewer whose eponymous beer packs big bitterness — about 50 IBUs — and is dry hopped in secondary conditioning tanks before bottling with Brettanomyces yeast to add more complexity with aging. If you can find a bottle of Orval fresher than a few months old it still possesses a formidable hop aroma and bitterness, though many like to let it age to bring out the Brett character, which also mellows the hops. Tripels such as Chimay White sometimes have a noticeable hop bite, but it took the reimagining of the style by brewers like Achouffe with their Houblon Chouffe, which melds a tripel with an American double IPA, to really show what hops can do in the style. Closer to home, many an American brewer has taken a stab at fermenting a standard IPA or DIPA wort with a Belgian yeast strain, though these beers typically lack the character of real Belgian examples, and true American IPA bitterness levels often overwhelm.
When I first seriously got into homebrewing, I was fascinated by the intersection of hops and Belgian yeast and played with many combinations in both pale and dark beers. I found something that many other brewers have also settled on: rounder, fruitier New World hops (think Amarillo, Nelson, and Citra) can play beautifully with the fruity and spicy character of many Belgian yeast strains. On the other hand, heavy doses of Continental hops like Saaz, Hallertau Saphir, and Styrian Goldings also work beautifully, amping up the character already inherent in many Belgian styles while staying true to their roots. In that lighter intersection of the blonde, single, extra, or whatever-else-you-want-to-call-it style of beer, brewers have taken both of these paths to achieve hoppy goodness.
Belgian blondes generally follow a simple recipe of pilsner malt with maybe some wheat and a little sugar to lighten the body a touch. Starting gravity is usually in the 12-16 Plato range, with 1.048-1.065 original gravity, but can also go lower to get into traditional table beer or saison range. Get much stronger though, and you are making a golden strong ale or a tripel by most measures. In a more traditional, less hoppy approach, you might add about 15-25 IBUs worth of Continental hops total, with some added toward the end of the boil, for just a touch of aroma. Ferment this wort with a Belgian strain and you have the basic model.
Where things get interesting is when you dial the hops up a couple of degrees. Since 1999, Westvleteren Blond has proudly carried this torch for the Trappist brewers. At 5.6% alcohol and 41 IBUs, it is decidedly balanced on the hoppy end of the spectrum, but with a spicy, grassy Continental hop character that keeps it decidedly Belgian. Westvleteren 12 may be the beer that garners the St. Sixtus abbey their most praise, but the Blond is a true gem that has few peers. Going even hoppier, De Ranke XX Bitter shows what can be achieved by adding copious amounts of fruity and spicy Brewers Gold and Hallertau hops to a 6.2% blond ale. Bringing things down to a more refreshing strength, Taras Boulba from Brasseries de la Senne in Brussels packs a fruity, citrusy, spicy punch in a beautifully drinkable 4.5% alcohol by volume package.
Local favorites like The Harlot from Societe, and Devotion from Lost Abbey both find that elusive balance that the best examples of the style hit. (Editor’s note: The Lost Abbey’s new satellite tasting room “The Confessional” held a media soft opening yesterday in Cardiff; doors open officially to the public tomorrow [Wednesday] at 11 a.m.). The Harlot is a great example of the intersection of European brewing traditions in that the recipe is essentially the same as a Czech pilsner until it is fermented with a Belgian yeast strain. Societe credits Moonlight’s Reality Czech pilsner as an influnce for The Harlot, alongside Taras Boulba and the wonderfully balanced and refreshing Redemption from Russian River.
Looking over the recipes of styles like Belgian blonde, saison, pilsner, kölsch, and even some English golden ales, you can see how the same basic model of pale malt and classic hop varieties comes together with different yeast strains to create a myriad of styles. Saison Dupont, one of the classics of the saison style, is really just a hoppy blonde ale as well, and their special annual Cuvee Dry Hopping release adds another layer of hoppy complexity that puts it firmly in the realm of other hop-driven Belgians.
Language is in a constant state of flux. Words are created and forgotten asthe inevitable march of time tramples those that lose their necessity, while simultaneously constructing new combinations of sounds that cater to modern life. Even words that persist in physical form invariably drift in meaning. Pull back your perspective enough, and change is the only true constant.
Such is the reality of the way we communicate about everything, including beer. Even a beer style that has persisted in name for centuries, like mild ale, has meant many different things over its lifespan. Mild ale has been dark, pale, hoppy, malty, strong, and weak. Pick a combination of those and there was a beer like it called mild ale at some point in time.
India pale ale has likewise had a large spectrum of meaning since the first usage of the term almost two centuries ago. From a very pale, dry, hoppy beer aged for long periods in barrels before consumption, to a session-strength ale not unlike any common bitter in the UK, India pale ale has persisted. In the United States, India pale ale has taken hold as one of the most popular and captivating styles of beer. And why wouldn’t it? Americans love hops, and hop growers continue to feed that desire with more and more new varieties of hops showcasing all manners of intriguing and exotic fruity aromas. India pale ale has become a celebration of hops from start to finish, especially in our familiar local examples, where malt is often treated like a blank canvas, adding little more than a surface on which to paint in the dynamic colors and shapes that modern hops allow.
Yet while some words or terms fade away or lose their meaning because they are no longer useful or relevant, India pale ale has fallen victim to its own success. Our appetite for hops has grown so insatiable that brewers have struggled with the loss in popularity of other beer styles. The solution, it seems, is to turn those less popular styles into India pale ales. But first you have to shorten “India pale ale” to “IPA,” lest we are reminded that this is supposed to be a pale ale we are drinking. The term IPA is catchy, takes up little precious space on a tap handle or chalkboard, and is currently used to denote a hoppy beer that could be almost anything after that initial criteria has been met. White IPA, brown IPA, red IPA, Belgian IPA, wheat IPA, and the infamous black IPA all combine the hop levels of an American India pale ale with another style of beer. I sometimes wonder when every beer style will be called some derivative of IPA.
Session IPA seems to be picking up steam right now, with two big local breweries, Stone and Pizza Port, releasing Go To IPA and Ponto respectively. Rough Draft’s Weekday IPA is another; although it doesn’t use the word “session,” its 4.8% ABV content, as well as the name, imply an easy drinker. The popularity of predecessors in the style, like Ballast Point Even Keel (coming soon in cans), Lagunitas Day Time (a “fractional IPA”), and Alpha Session by Drake’s is also on the rise. These beers deliver IPA-level hop aroma and flavor with sub-5% alcohol levels and a typically scaled back bitterness that avoids overpowering the lighter body and malt profile.
In a way, session IPAs are the logical conclusion to the vague, transient usage of “IPA” over the last few years. Mating what are now the two most popular beer styles in the country, light beer and IPA, session IPAs simply deliver what many drinkers want: low calories, drinkability, and hops. Session IPA also has a very good claim to the term, as low-alcohol India pale ales have been brewed continuously in the UK since the early 20th century. It has only been the more modern, American usage of the name that has led to the belief that India pale ales should be higher in alcohol than a normal pale ale. During the style’s original surge in popularity in the 19th century, it was only differentiated from other pale ales by longer aging times and higher hop levels. If session IPA sticks around as a popular style (and I’m betting that it will), we will likely see the “India” modifier shift back toward being an indicator of an emphasis on hops, and less as an indicator of alcohol content.
In the beginning, there were no beer styles, there was only beer. Traveling here or there about the ancient world, you would have encountered unique beverages based on local ingredients and techniques. Communication was poor and brewing knowledge was fragmented and slow to spread. Over the centuries, regions and even individual towns and cities developed distinct brewing styles that set their beers apart from others. When new technologies or ingredients were introduced, there were sometimes splits in the local brewing community and new styles were formed. The introduction of hops to the British Isles led to the fragmentation of the brewing industry into beer breweries that adopted the new spice, and ale breweries that stuck with the old gruit spices they had been using for centuries. On the continent, there were guilds of white beer breweries that used wind-dried wheat malt, while neighboring brown and red beer brewers made dark, smokey beers from wood fire-kilned malts.
We’ll never know how many times a brewer came back from a trip somewhere and said, “I really want to brew a beer like they brew in that super rad town I just came back from. Why don’t we make beer like that here?” There are a few examples we can point to though; some of the most storied stylistic milestones have come attached to tales of traveling brewers. Pilsner was invented after Czech brewers learned from the English how to make pale malt, and a Bavarian brewmaster then brought his local lager yeast into the equation. At Rodenbach in West Flanders, they credit their founding brewmaster’s time studying porter brewing in England for the original invention of their sour, wood-aged red ale. Population migrations have also spread brewing styles and techniques around the world. Lager brewing took hold in North and South America due principally to the mass immigration of central Europeans in the 19th century.
Thus, we have the modern spectrum of beer styles. As communication between brewers proliferated, it became common to brew several styles of beer using varied ingredients and techniques. Even in the oldest brewing centers, styles of other regions had been adopted and tweaked into local variations. Munich was once steadfastly a dark lager town until the popularity of golden Bohemian lagers finally won out; the pale-but-malty helles lager is currently the dominant tipple in town. Nearly everywhere else in the world, the dry, low-hopped, often adjunct-lightened style of international pale lager is now the most popular and dominantly brewed style of beer. In the US, small brewers now brew pretty much every style ever heard of, with more unique beers continuously coming out.
Our modern understanding of beer styles can be traced back to the work of the late, great beer writer Michael Jackson and specifically his 1977 book, The World Guide To Beer. Jackson traveled extensively in the traditional beer countries, observing the styles unique to each location and recording what he found. Brewing texts had previously described various types of beer from around the world, but Jackson’s extensive organizing of styles formed the base for most of what we understand about style today. His classifications were based heavily on place of origin and describe mostly styles that are traditional to European countries, though he did describe American styles of the time like cream ale, steam beer, and malt liquor.
Style guidelines like the Beer Judge Certification Program guidelines and the Brewers Association guidelines built on this initial framework and created extensive descriptions of many styles for the purpose of judging amateur and commercial beers, respectively. The guidelines are tailored so that beers entered into competition can be judged against a stylistic standard that allows the personal preferences of judges to be mitigated. Without style guidelines, judging would be an essentially hedonistic exercise, with judges selecting their favorite beers as the winners.
Beer rating website Ratebeer.com conversely encourages such a hedonistic approach to rating beers, as opposed to the stylistic approach of beer competitions. A quick look over the top-rated beers clearly illustrates the result of generally disregarding guidelines in competition, as the top beers are overwhelmingly imperial stouts, which is apparently the most favored style of Ratebeer users. This upsets some people, but it must be noted that the aim of the overall Ratebeer rankings is to identify the commercial beers that consumers find the most excellent according to their personal preferences. Ratebeer also includes best-of lists broken down by style category, which are more similar to the results you would see in style-based competitions. Style categories on rating sites are a bit different from competition guidelines and, especially with Ratebeer, they tend to be broader and less defined. They are an attempt to cleanly separate every known beer in the world into an accurate grouping, so there will necessarily be some vague styles that cover a lot of unique beers. Beer Advocate takes a slightly more specific approach and tends to break beers down into more specific styles.
Style guidelines are a human attempt to categorize a human endeavor, often crossing culture and time in the process. Naturally, there will be opinion and compromise in their creation. Jackson had the benefit of a much less dynamic and varied brewing industry back in the 70s when he formed his taxonomy. American beer was essentially a handful of styles at the time, with only several truly unique styles to worry about. In Europe, there were some very established and clearly defined styles in existence that in many cases simply needed to be properly named and described. Beers like bock and hefeweizen were already clearly defined, even legally in Germany, which has always been the most rigid culture in regards to beer style, owing in large part to their Reinheitsgebot beer purity law. In the absence of previously recognized styles, Jackson did his best to describe what he found at the time, sometimes creating style groupings that brewers and drinkers at the time had not themselves adopted, such as the Flemish red style, which was a disparate combination of mixed-fermentation beers from Flanders. Belgian beers on the whole were mostly a blend of many somewhat-related beers that sometimes shared names. Belgian styles remain somewhat enigmatic, and many Belgian brewers still brew in their own unique style.
Those challenges look like child’s play compared to what we face today in attempting to keep up on stylistic categorization. As the “New World” style of brewing has spread like wildfire across the world, beer styles are spawning and evolving at breakneck speed. What we have previously taken as gospel is no longer safe; however, a careful reading of history shows us that this is really nothing new. For example, mild ale is today understood as a low gravity, lightly-hopped ale that is usually dark in color, and has been since about World War Two. In the mid-19th century though, mild ales were often the same strength and color as modern American IPA, and hopped almost as highly. At the time, “mild” simply referred to the fact that the beer was not aged before consumption, as beers like IPA and Porter were at the time. Porter and stock pale ale, spending months aging in oak, would have had much of the character that we associate with sour and wild ale today.
Styles are simply in a constant state of flux; shifting economic pressures, brewing technology, and consumer tastes have pulled all of them in various directions over the decades. Any codification is really just a snapshot of their state at a particular point in time. We can argue for days over which version of a style is the most “authentic,” but in the end, they are all equally valid.
As I have made my way into a brewing career, first as a novice homebrewer learning the basics of crafting different styles, and then finally as a professional, considering style as a marketing tool, I have come to realize that brewers understand style in a way that is simply different from how most non-brewer beer drinkers do. Brewers can never disconnect the “how” from the “what” with regards to the role of the brewing process and ingredients in the end product. Most drinkers are perfectly happy to think of a stout as a black beer with strong roasted malt flavors reminiscent of coffee or chocolate. Most brewers think of a stout as an ale with a significant portion of roasted barley or malt, possible dark caramel malt additions, and a base of pale or pale ale malt. They will then consider how varying the amount of hop bitterness and aroma, overall strength, yeast strain, or specific roasted malt composition can pull a stout across the various sub-styles like foreign, sweet, oatmeal, American, Irish, Baltic, Russian imperial, or porter for that matter, as most brewers recognize that that porter and stout are essentially the same thing.
What a brewer ends up calling a beer depends heavily on what term they think will lead to the best sales. This is illustrated quite well right now with the proliferation of the IPA style as a catch-all for any hoppy beer. Many hoppy beers that were previously grouped in other styles like American wheat, red ale, or pale ale are now being called wheat IPA, red IPA, and session IPA because IPA has gained mass recognition among most beer drinkers, instantly catching their attention in the beer aisle or at the bar. It’s simply easier to sell someone a red IPA than a red ale with a description clarifying that the beer is hopped at levels similar to an American IPA. I’m not the biggest fan of this evolution, but it is clearly the way the market is shifting right now.
Styles are an easy shorthand method for brewers to communicate the basic characteristics of a beer to their drinkers. Even as styles drift away from their original cultural history and character, they remain relevant because we generally still agree on what their basic character should be. Imagine if you walked into a brewpub or bar and there were no styles posted for any of the beers, just a list of ingredients, technical specifications, and flavor descriptors. Those with enough knowledge could use this information to find the kind of beer they were looking for, but even so, this kind of system is simply too long-winded and lacks the directness that recognized styles have. When considering bottled beer at the store, brewers often only have room for a few words on the label to catch your eye as you peruse a myriad of options. A simple “IPA” on the front of the label is a much more effective means of communicating what your beer is like than a wall of text explaining that it is a medium-to-high-strength, light-colored ale with generous hop aroma and bitterness. Obviously, this kind of description can be useful as a counterpart to the main style name, but does not possess the same clarity and directness.
A brewer recently told me that styles are a great starting point when coming up with new beers, but, on the other hand, they can become straightjackets of expectation. When you see IPA or pilsner on a label, you have expectations for the beer based on your past experiences. If that beer doesn’t deliver on those expectations, you are likely to look upon it less favorably, despite how good of a beer it might be on its own terms. Further complicating this, many people have received dubious information about many beer styles and subsequently have misconceptions about them. Putting a name like pilsner on your label can hurt you from both sides, with many drinkers associating the style with macro lagers, while typical light beer drinkers looking to branch out may find the beer undrinkably hoppy. The bottom line is that everyone has their own unique prejudices with different beer styles and you just can’t account for all of them.
The ebb and flow of styles can be a confusing yet exciting ride, so get out there and explore new styles, read up on the classics, and try to build a solid understanding of the spectrum of beer styles. Studies show that knowledge about a subject increases chances of enjoyment, and there are worse things out there to spend time learning about than beer.
I’m not the biggest fan of hop puns. The incredible proliferation of hoppy beer-producing small breweries over the past several years has led to a flood of me-too beer names all clamoring to incorporate “hops” in some awkward fashion. So imagine the horror I felt when attending a symposium where Tim Kostelecky of Barth-Haas, one of the world’s largest hop suppliers, switched to a powerpoint slide listing just about every hop pun name in use. Kostelecky was delivering a presentation on hop varieties to a group of brewers who had converged on Paso Robles this past June. Brewers from as far away as Minnesota (Surly), Indiana (Three Floyds), Michigan (Bell’s), and even Europe (Birificio Italiano, Brasserie de la Senne) were in attendance, along with a collection of Californian brewers. We were eager to learn about new varieties, techniques, and scientific research, as well as discuss our own experiences. Yet as much as I wanted to roll my eyes at the puns, Kostelecky’s infectious enthusiasm for all things hop-related gave him a pass.
Barth-Haas works with growers all over the world to process and deliver hops to brewers large and small, and they also develop new varieties. Technical Manager Georg Drexler flew in from Germany for the symposium, and kicked things off with a presentation and discussion of brewing techniques for emphasizing hop flavor and aroma. Whirlpool and dry hopping have been widely practiced in the American brewing industry for years now, though these techniques have been less widely adopted in Europe, and Germany especially. Up until very recently it was believed that the German Reinheistgebot, also called the “Beer Purity Law,” forbid adding hops after the end of the wort boil, but a recent reinterpetation of the law now allows dry hopping with whole hop products, though not with hop extracts, which can still only be added to boiling wort.
When wort – the malt-sugar solution that is fermented to make beer – is boiled, brewers typically add hops at least two times: once at the beginning of the boil (usually 60-90 minutes in duration) to attain a high amount of isomerization of alpha acids, which adds bitterness to beer, and again near the end of the boil time to provide more essential oil retention, which provides the characteristic flavor and aroma of hops. By the end of theboil, most of the essential oil from the bittering hop addition has been boiled off, and you are left with mostly just the bitterness from the iso-alpha acids in the hops, which have been made soluble by the heat of the boil.
When the wort boil ends, brewers typically whirlpool the wort, either by pumping the wort tangentially back into the kettle, or pumping it into a special whirlpool vessel. The centrifugal forces in the whirlpool cause the solid matter to form a cone in the center, allowing the liquid to be pumped off the side of the vessel. This post-boil step has become a popular time to add more hops in the search for bigger and better hop aroma, as the lack of boiling action allows more essential oil to remain. The wort is usually only a couple of degrees below boiling at this point, and you still lose some lighter oils to vaporization, especially myrcene, which is a big part of the aroma of many IPAs. At the symposium, Drexler went over new research that suggests lower whirlpool temperatures increase oil retention and overall hop aroma. Some brewers, especially homebrewers, are trying this by lowering the temperature to about 170-180 degrees and then adding their hops before resting for about 20-30 minutes and cooling to yeast-pitching temperature. This reduced temperature can be accomplished by either recirculating some of the wort through the heat exchanger and back into the kettle/whirlpool, running and immersion chiller for a short amount of time, or brewing to a slightly higher gravity and blending in some cold water at the end of the boil.
While dry hopping remains the most effective way to get a big hop aroma in a beer, Drexler stressed that hop-focused beers lack complexity when not also given a generous dose of late-boil or whirlpool hops. Hop varieties will always lend a different aroma when added to hot wort than to fermented beer, even with intensity controlled for. The biological interactions of fermenting yeast have the capability to change aromatic compounds from hops, creating wholly different aromas than were present in the wort before fermentation. Some of these compounds, like glycosides, are combinations of hop and malt compounds that are bonded during wort boiling and then cleaved into new compounds by the yeast during fermentation.
At the Bräu Beviale industry convention in Germany in 2011, Barth-Haas conducted taste tests with several single-hop beers, including dry hopped and non-dry hopped versions with German Tradition, American Citra, and New Zealand Nelson Sauvin. Theresults showed marked differences in aromatic impression between the two versions of each variety. The dry hopped Citra beer was the most preferred, while the non-dry hopped Citra beer was fourth, behind the non-dry hopped Tradition beer in second and dry hopped Tradition beer in third. These results can be interpreted in different ways, but they seem to confirm that the big oil profiles being developed in American hops are best expressed through dry hopping, while the noble and noble-derivative hops of Germany best show their classic hop aroma when added to the boil. Poor Nelson Sauvin was relegated to last and second to last place with the dry hopped and non-dry hopped versions, respectively. I suspect that many brewers are still not on board with thepowerful tropical, grassy, and white wine aromas it lends to beer.
While brewers typically dry hop their beers for periods of several days to a couple of weeks, new research suggests that the main hop oils reach their peak concentration in beer in a much shorter amount of time. A 2011 study by Peter Wolfe at Oregon State University tested extraction rates for various hop oils using both whole-cone and pelletized Cascades from that year’s harvest. While pellets generally led to better extraction, peak concentration of most oils was reached in under six hours, suggesting that much shorter dry hop times are possible. The tests were done at 23 degrees Celsius, which is warmer than what most brewers dry hop at, but Wolfe concluded that even at cold temperatures, extraction doesn’t take more than a day.
New hop varieties were a big topic at the symposium, with some of the most exciting new ones surprisingly coming from Germany. The Hüll hop research center has released four new varieties in the last couple of years, all targeted at the bigger, fruitier aromas ofthe newer hops from the US, Australia, and New Zealand. Polaris is a high alpha hop with the highest levels yet of any variety (19-23%), and a correspondingly high oil content. Its aroma is described as floral and minty, with “ice candy” being a popular descriptor. Mandarina Bavaria is a mid-alpha hop (7-10%) with a very fruity aroma of tangerine, pear, orange, and lime. The Barth-Haas guys were very excited about this one and see it as a German answer to American hops like Citra and Amarillo. Hallertau Blanc is another mid-alpha (9-12%) hop that is similar to the popular Nelson Sauvin from New Zealand, with an aroma of tropical fruit, grass, white wine, gooseberry, and grapefruit. Hüll Melon rounds out the new group of German hops, with a lower alpha content of 6.9-7.5%, but a very fruity aroma with a distinct honeydew melon quality.
While Germany is making waves with its new releases, mostly due to how different they are compared to older varieties from the country, New American variety Mosaic was released in larger quantities this past harvest after some limited availability as HBC 369 previously. Mosaic is a high alpha variety (11-13.5%) that is a cross between Simcoe and a Nugget-derived male plant. Its aroma is floral and fruity with the character of tropical fruit, berry, citrus, and pine. Lots of American brewers are experimenting with Mosaic right now so it should be relatively easy to find an IPA or pale ale with it.