By Gary Glancy
Walk into any brewery in Western North Carolina and, chances are, there is one topic you’ll hear patrons and the bar staff discussing more than any other: hops.
Beer is made from four ingredients. Water represents at least 90 percent of beer, malted barley forms the basis of any recipe with its fermentable and non-fermentable sugars, and yeast turns the sugar water into beer. It’s the hops, however, that are getting much of the attention these days in the world of craft beer.
This is exemplified by the popularity of India Pale Ales (IPA), a hoppier, stronger version of a pale ale. IPAs have been the best-selling craft-beer style in the US for more than a decade. In fact, according to the Brewers Association, one of every four craft beers produced in this country last year was an IPA, an amazing fact considering the dozens and dozens of beer styles that exist out there.
However, IPAs are also one of the more polarizing styles in craft beer. Those who aren’t on the hop train often tend to claim that they really dislike hops.
This can be partly attributed to a common misconception that hops represent nothing but an in-your-face, unpleasant bitterness in beer. Hops are a flower of the female plant that contain a sticky yellow substance inside called lupulin, the flower’s magic ingredient. Yes, hops do lend varying levels of bitterness to IPAs and other styles to balance out or exceed the sweetness of the malt, but they also contribute aroma and flavor thanks to the lupulin.
The most popular IPAs today are those that feature a somewhat restrained bitterness level, with beautiful bouquets and flavors ranging from floral and herbal to pineapple and mango.
“We’ve seen that the move in flavors/aromas is decidedly toward citrus and tropical fruits,” says Joe Dinan, co-owner and head brewer of Sanctuary Brewing Co. in Hendersonville. “We just recently did a single-malt and single-hop beer with Southern Cross hops from New Zealand, and the tasting notes were of lime, orange and pineapple, and the feedback was very positive.”
Zach Horn, co-owner and co-brewer at Blue Ghost Brewing Co. in Fletcher, says hop breeders have become adept at facilitating the production of just the right chemical formula in hops that results in a wonderful depth of character in hoppy beers.
“It is amazing the new varieties of hops being bred these days to create numerous flavors,” says Horn.
For Dinan and Horn, devising a beer recipe is part art and part science. Brewing a world-class IPA, meanwhile, is a practice in selecting just the right blend of hops to attain what Dinan calls a “clear vision of what you’d like the end result to be.”
At the end of the day, he says, “we’re looking to achieve cohesiveness among the hop aromas, and some hops simply play together better than others.”
Horn agrees. “Each hop brings its own profile,” he says. “Some hops are so complex that they can stand on their own in a lot of ways. Often times, though, we rely on a blend of hops to create different flavor profiles within the taste and aroma of a beer, especially an IPA. Our IPA is a blend of four hops…creating layers of citrus-like grapefruit and orange, floral notes, pineyness and tropical fruit aromas and flavors.”
Gary Glancy is a freelance writer, tour guide, bartender and Certified Cicerone® living in Hendersonville.