August 22, 2013

Old School Hops: Posed for a Comeback?

Today's hoppy beers are an avalanche of new hop varieties, from fruity southern hemisphere hops to new, complex proprietary American strains to new German varieties exhibiting bolder noble qualities. However, before we had Riwaka, Amarillo and Citra we had American variants like Liberty, Nugget and Mount Hood. While some of these older American hop varieties continue to exist on the fringes of craft beer, they have definitely lost their footing as the workhorses of craft brewing. The 4 C's (cascade, chinook, centennial and columbus) arose as steadfast and permanent components of American craft brewing with their assertive flavor and versatility.

However, signs are pointing to a revival of the old school American hops outside of the 4 C's. Mitch Steele, for example, noted in his presentation at the NHC this year that Stone was giving some of these older hop varieties another look. I do not believe he is alone in that attitude. (Thirsty Planet in Austin makes an all-Perle IPA in its taproom that is an interesting take on a German-like IPA.) There are three very good reasons why these varieties will be revived:

  1. With the rise of proprietary strains it is becoming increasingly more difficult to locate the hops breweries are after. Old school variants are not proprietary so anybody can grow them, making them easier to source.
  2. New hop varieties tend to push a lot of fruit character. Older varieties tend to feature more of the grassy and herbal notes that can help round out a complex flavor with new fruity varieties.
  3. These strains grow well in many parts of the country, which will allow hop production to expand beyond the northwest. That will allow brewers to source hops more locally and even produce on their own grounds.
This phenomenon is not limited to just old school American hops. Brewers are taking a serious look at traditional hops from other parts of the world. Another area of particular focus is Alsace, home to French hop breed like Strisselspalt. The revival of interest in French hops for aroma purposes will likely encourage expanded French and Belgian hop production.

So that's all good and well for commercial brewers, but what about homebrewers? We have traditionally had access to these hops because they are easily grown but demand hasn't outpaced supply. These older variants tend to appear in pre-packaged beer kits and legacy recipes from the 1990s. However, you can still find many of them for sale at homebrew shops and the rhizomes are easily found each spring. The good news is that you can pick up those old school varieties for around $10-15 per pound at bulk hop vendors like hopsdirect.com and freshhops.com rather than the $20-30 per pound for some of the in-demand varieties.

Now is a good time to dust off those old homebrewing books and revive those 1990s hop combinations. Roll out those old hop varieties like Brewer's Gold, Cluster, Bullion, Glacier, Horizon, Liberty, Mount Hood, Northern Brewer, Nugget, Sterling, Summit, U.S. Tettnanger, U.S. Goldings, U.S. Fuggles, Vanguard, Warrior, Willamette, Perle and others. What old school hop varieties are you reviving?




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