September 15, 2013

Belma hops revisited

I first wrote about Belma hops when they hit the market after the 2012 hop harvest as myself and other brewers were picking up this strange new variety from Hops Direct at the strangely low price of $6 per pound. Now that I have had the chance to brew with them in a few different capacities I thought it made sense to offer some thoughts on the back of my experiences. Belma has suffered a lot of negative critiques due to the accurate observation that Belma comes through with a very gentle flavor and aroma, especially when compared to the New Zealand/Australian and American varieties that scream flavor and aroma. However, there are some overlooked opportunities with this hop, especially if Hops Direct is going to continue to sell this hop in the $6/lb. range. Here are some thoughts about different uses for Belma based on my experiences:

Bittering hops

Belma makes a fine bittering charge at 12.1% AAU. It may not compete against some of the newer varieties putting out close to 20% but 12% is nothing to complain about. The key piece about using Belma as a bittering hop is that it is not going to give you that bracing, enamel-stripping kind of bitterness that most American varieties offer. It reminds me more of the neutral bitterness of Magnum. Also in low quantities can give the similarly gentle bitterness of noble hops that makes Belma a good alternative for lagers, should you choose not to burn fine aroma hops in your bittering charge.

Some people reported very thick beers when using a lot of Belma in their beer, particularly with IPAs. While some hop compounds can add body to a beer (discussed in For the Love of Hops) I'm not sure I buy some of the reports that it turned IPAs into milkshakes. Personally I have only used Belma to bitter up to around 40 IBUs so maybe there is a threshold exceeded by people using lots of Belma for bittering, flavor, aroma and dry hopping.

Summary: Good choice for bittering hop for beers that do not require assertive bitterness, such as English, Belgian and German/Bohemian beer styles. Cheap alternative for bittering many styles. May not be appropriate for bittering IPA/IIPA/American barleywine.

Flavor hops

When I say "flavor hops" I mean hop additions in the 30-5 minute addition. In this range, Belma adds the flavors it is commonly described as producing: melon, strawberry, some orange and other citrus flavors and slight grassy notes. It has some similar traits to Citra but less citrus and as many have observed, an extremely mild flavor contribution. I see a lot of people using Belma in combination with bolder hops, such as NZ/AUS hops and loud American hops, and it's easy for Belma to get lost in that mix. It's like trying to yell over a group of people who all have megaphones. Belma will add some flavor contribution but it's going to fade far in the back in those kinds of blends. On its own, Belma doesn't provide a lot of punch. It's fine for session strength beers where you want a little fruity hop character but ounces-for-ounce it doesn't give enough flavor on its own to make a highly regarded beer.

Instead, Belma works well in blends with gentler hops. Specifically, it plays very well with European varieties, both English and continental, which tend to have mild flavors and tend to be more herbal, earthy, spicy and grassy. The fruity notes from Belma contrast the flavors from these hops much easier, which allows the fruit character to stand out. You still won't get big fruit notes but if you're trying to round out the hop character with a little fruit then it's a good option. I find EKG plus Belma makes for an interesting combination that reminds me a little of Styrian Goldings. (When Belma was first being tested, Hops Direct sent Belma to an English brewer that brewed a pale ale and found the flavor pretty disappointing. I think that agrees with my premise that Belma won't be the star of your flavor hops but instead a solid contributor with European hops.)

Belma also works really well with spice/fruit additions. I have had good luck using Belma with spices and fruit peel (in separate beers). In particular, the American wheat I brewed in the spring used Belma in combination with sweet orange, lemon and ugli fruit peel. In spite of the amount of fruit peel used, the Belma hops really came through with a big melon flavor. I'm not sure why these ingredients seem to amplify Belma more than other hops but that can be filed as one of those areas of hop science not yet understood.

Summary: Belma works well in combination with milder European hops or on its own. Also works really well with spices and fruit additions. On its own, Belma does not provide enough punch to satisfy most drinkers.

Aroma hops

Let's call aroma hops everything from the last five minutes of the boil to a post-knockout aroma steep and hopback to dry hops. Like flavor additions, Belma is very mild in aroma so you need to add a larger-than-normal charge of aroma hops. Belma works as an aroma hop similar to its use as a flavor addition. It plays well in the same combinations for aroma purposes.

One particularly interesting use for Belma is used in combination with brett. I've had good results dry hopping wild and brett beers with Belma. These hops add a pleasant mix of citrus, grassy and melon aroma with the funk but brett transforms something in the hops into a very interesting mix of fruit and funk. Curiously, brett seems to boost the prominence of the aroma of the hops. While Belma is usually not assertive, brett seems to make it more assertive. It's still not Citra or Mosaic, but it's definitely not overlooked.

Summary: Works with the same as flavor purposes for aroma. Works extremely well with Belma hops.

Conclusion

Belma may not be the typical American aroma hop but it has multiple uses and plays well in interesting combinations that differ from the usual American hop use. Lots of interesting flavor combinations can be made. In my opinion, the most interesting use of Belma is in combination with brett beers. However, I'm also aging a few ounces at room temperature for use in future lambic batches so I'll see how they progress over a couple years and whether they become good candidates for that use.

If you can keep picking up Belma at $6/lb. I think it's good value for bittering and worth exploring in those Belma/European hop combinations and brett beers.

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