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Hop to It

An Introduction to Understanding Hops

Hops, a San Diego Beer staple, are as varied as the spices or flavorings in a well-stocked kitchen and help local brewers achieve award-winning results.

By: Bruce Glassman; Author, The San Diego Brewery Guide

If you're a "hop-head" - a true lover of bitter beers with big citrus, pine, and tropical aromas and flavors - then you probably have a sense of the many great things that hops can do for beer. But, if you're like most beer drinkers (even experienced ones) you're most likely not fully aware of how hops are actually used by brewers. Hops are, in fact, as varied as the spices or flavorings in a well-stocked kitchen, and - depending on how and when they are used - they will help a brewer achieve many very different results.

What to Know about Hops

The first things to know about hops are the basics of how they are used in making beer. Hops are used for three distinct purposes in brewing: for bittering, for flavoring, and for aroma. Once the wort is created (that's the sugary liquid you get when you steep grains like malted barley in hot water for while), the sweet liquid is transferred to a kettle where it's brought to a boil. Once the liquid is boiling, a brewer will add a dose of hops. These hops, added first, are for the purpose of creating bitterness in the beer. While "bitterness" on its own doesn't always sound so appealing, it's actually critical in creating nearly every kind of beer. We notice the bitterness of IPAs and pale ales the most because those are characteristics beer drinkers like front and center in those styles, but even the maltiest beers (stouts, porters, barley wines, browns) need the right balance of hop bitterness to prevent them from tasting flat, sweet, and boring, like watery maple syrup.

Hop Varieties

There are literally hundreds of varieties of hops. Each variety has its own unique character and chemical make-up. Some hops (those with high alpha acid content) are better suited for use as bittering hops. Others, with a medium balance between alpha acid and aroma, are often used mid-boil (typically once the wort has been boiling for 30 minutes or so). Other varieties, with big bright aromas and lower acids, are often best used as aroma hops. These sorts of hops will traditionally be added at the very end of the boil (commonly about 60 minutes long in total) and also for dry-hopping (typically done once the beer has been in a fermentation tank).

New hop varieties are constantly being bred by hop growers, and brewers are constantly playing with samples of new hops in order to see exactly how best they can be used. Recently, a number of varieties have been developed that can be used as "single hop" varietals; that is to say, they are hops that can do it all - they can be used for bittering, for flavor, and for aroma, all depending on how and when a given brewer utilizes them.

Most beer drinkers can't distinguish between different kinds of bitterness in a beer, so bittering hops tend to play a quiet, supporting role in the finished product. What we do notice is flavor and aroma. Those components, inextricably linked, are what make us like or dislike a particular brew. So what are the hop ingredients or "spices" that brewers commonly have at their disposal? Here is an abridged listing of a few of the most commonly used hop varieties employed for flavor and aroma:

Amarillo, Cascade, Centennial, Galaxy, Summit, Hull Melon, and Citra

These are some of the favored hops for imparting big floral, fruity, tropical, grassy, and citrus flavors and aromas.

Chinook, Simcoe, Comet, Eureka, Mosaic

These hops tend to lend piney, woody, and grassy notes (though Mosaic is commonly used for single-hop beers because it also has great citrus and floral qualities).

Crystal, Hallertau, Liberty, Nugget, Saaz

These are some of the more "Old World" style hops; they're spicy, fruity, and earthy; classically used more in German lagers and similar styles.

Taste the Hops

Now that you have a better understanding of hops and what they do, venture out to a few breweries or craft beer bars to taste test some of San Diego's best single-hop IPAs. These beers are made - from start to finish - with only one hop variety. In other words, the same hop is used for bittering, flavoring, and for aroma. There are, of course, dozens of other great IPAs (Sculpin, West Coast, Hoppy Birthday, Stone IPA, AleSmith IPA), but these are made from a blend of many hops to create a certain flavor profile. For the best illustration of how a single hop is expressed in a beer, the awesome single-hop IPAs are the way to go.

Single-Hop IPAs to Try

Karl Strauss Mosaic Session IPA
A great example of a single-hop beer, this offers the perfect overview of how Mosaic can do it all. It has bitterness (but not too much) along with great flavors and aromas of citrus, tropical fruit, pine and fresh-cut grass.

Green Flash "Hop Odyssey" Series
Pacific Gem (look for a burst of fresh pine and grapefruit); Styrian Golding (a native of Austria and Slovenia, it's a great earthy-spicy aroma hop); and Nugget (spicy and fruity).

Societe's The Bachelor Single-Hop IPA
This is a great single-hop beer, but each batch features a different hop. Previous releases have included Chinook, Cascade, Amarillo, Citra, Mosaic, Galaxy, and many more. Basically, if it's a great hop, Societe will use it at least once for a batch of Bachelor.

Mission Brewery Citra Session IPA
A light, crisp, and super refreshing IPA that provides all the juicy citrus and floral components brewers love in good aroma hops.

Two-Hop IPAs to Try

For great examples of two-hop IPAs, try these (they'll show you how two varieties work together to create a balance):

Alpine Duet IPA
Piney Simcoe and floral, citrusy Amarillo make beautiful music together.

Lost Abbey's Hop Concept IPAs
Hull Melon & Hallertau Blanc IPA (fruity meets spicy); Galaxy & Comet IPA (a pair of great citrus, grassy, and fruity varieties); Eureka & Mosaic IPA (great duo of pine and fruit); Citra & Azacca IPA (two great citrus-tropical hops combined).

Mother Earth Boo Koo IPA
The big fruity citrus character of Mosaic blended perfectly with the woody, piney notes of Simcoe.

There are so many other examples of great hop-centric beers in San Diego that even a partial list would overload the server that this document is housed on. Basically, no matter where you go for a beer in this town, you're pretty much guaranteed to have at least one or two excellent choices where the deliciousness of hops are front and center. So, hop to it! Get out there and taste!

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