Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a hop farm in Idaho during the annual harvest. Hosted by mega-brewer Anheuser-Busch, a gaggle of us beer writers explored the fields where mature hop vines stretched overhead across 30-foot trellises.
We stood in a barn and crushed fresh hop cones between our fingers for a preview of how the hops would influence the taste of a finished beer. But the most illuminating session was devoted to appreciating the scores of hop varieties. The Anheuser-Busch pilot plant had brewed a selection of beers that were identical except the variety of hops used.
After tasting them one after another, I began to understand the character of each variety and the qualities that brewers manipulate when they use hop strains singly or in combination in a beer recipe.
In recent years, the beer-loving public has become enamored with increasingly bitter, hoppy beers, but without understanding the significance of a brewer's choice of hops. Most brewers use a selection of hop varieties much like a winemaker adjusts grape varieties for a desired result. Learning about hops can shed light on your beer preferences in the same way that discovering you prefer Merlot over cabernet franc grapes explains why you enjoy one Bordeaux wine over another.
A few commercial beers feature a single hop, offering a glimpse into a specific hop flavor. Pick up a bottle of Samuel Adams Boston Lager, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Shipyard IPA, Bell's Two-Hearted Ale, Weyerbacher Simcoe and Bison Organic IPA, and you can get a pretty good idea of the flavor and aroma characteristics of the Saaz, Cascade, Fuggles, Centennial, Simcoe and Willamette hop varieties, respectively.
However, the base beer for each of these brands is different, so it's been impossible to explore hops with the scientific rigor I experienced on the hop farm—until now. Boston Beer, makers of the Samuel Adams brand, has released Latitude 48 Deconstructed—basically a hop tutorial in a box.
Last year, Boston Beer produced its first India pale ale, named Latitude 48 for the 48-degree-north latitude where hop plants thrive. The beautifully balanced IPA is brewed with five hop varieties. The Deconstructed 12-pack consists of two bottles each of six closely related beers: five versions of the IPA brewed with just one of the five hops, and the commercial version that integrates all five.
It's a fascinating exercise. Most brewers of single-hop beers aim to make a tasty beer in its own right. The goal of the Deconstructed project is almost entirely instructional: You may not like some of the hop flavors, but the goal is to learn as you sip. And for about $15 for the 12-pack, you have an affordable course in hops appreciation to share with a table of friends.
Two of the hop varieties featured in the Latitude 48 Deconstructed are European cultivars, members of the group of so-called noble hops, which are high in aroma and low in bitterness. The three remaining hops are recent American strains from the Yakima Valley in Washington, heart of the American hop-growing region.
Hallertau Mittlefrueh, Hallertau, Germany—This hop variety comes from Bohemia, one of the oldest regions of hops cultivation. Earthy, spicy and slightly floral in aroma and flavor. Hallertau is typically used in traditional lagers. Its use in an India pale ale is unusual, but the effect is balanced and pleasant.
East Kent Goldings, East Kent, England—This hop variety defines traditional English pale ales. Earthy, restrained in its bitterness, nicely musty (think damp forest), allowing the malt character of the beer to shine.
Ahtanum, Yakima Valley, Wash.— Spicy, citrusy, with lots of tropical fruit notes and a twist of grapefruit and some complex earthy notes. The bitterness is mild and mellow, very pleasant.
Zeus, Yakima Valley, Wash.— An earthy, sharp and jarring hop, with assertive bitterness and a rubbery quality. Not subtle. The dry, astringent qualities make a good argument for the role of this hop blended with other strains, but not solo.
Simcoe, Yakima Valley, Wash.—Simcoe is a hop that many drinkers recognize—and actively dislike. An amber ale with a piney, slightly rubber-like aroma, the flavor has lots of sappy pine and puckering grapefruit. This IPA is actually quite nice, but this isn't a hop for everyone.