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Experimenting with Hops

The New Mexico Single Hop Project
Features June 2, 2005      
Written by whaleman


I dipped my nose deep in my short plastic cup until I was in danger of aspirating beer and took a big whiff. "Smells grassy." I marked a 4 out of 10 for intensity in the row for grass. The grassy ingredient was an English hop called Target, the one and only variety used for bittering, flavoring, and aroma (including dry-hopping) in this particular beer, an IPA brewed by Blue Corn Café and Brewery of Santa Fe, NM.

Thus began the 2005 New Mexico Single Hop Project hosted by the New Mexico Small Brewers’ Guild at Il Vicino Brewing Company in Albuquerque.

Eleven commercial breweries were on the lineup, each having brewed a batch of IPA with an identical recipe except for the variety of hop used. Hopunion CBS LLC, Briess Malting Company, and White Labs, Inc. generously donated hops, malt, and yeast, respectively, including enough extra for a few dozen happy homebrewers (myself included). The recipe consisted of 97% 2-row pale malt, 3% caramel 80L malt, and White Labs Dry English Ale yeast (WLP007). Hop amounts for the bittering addition were adjusted according to the alpha acid content (i.e. bittering potential) of each variety, aiming for 70 IBUs.

Hop varieties included in the project (with breweries in parentheses), in order of tasting, were:

UK Target (Blue Corn Café and Brewery, Santa Fe)
UK Northdown (Milagro Brewing Company, Bernalillo)
UK Goldings (The Wellhead, Artesia)
Ahtanum (Eske’s Brew Pub, Taos)
Cascade (Tractor Brewing Company, Los Lunas)
Glacier (Three Rivers Eatery & Brewhouse, Farmington)
Palisades (Isotope Brewing Company, Albuquerque)
Centennial (Turtle Mountain Brewing Company, Rio Rancho)
Newport (Chama River Brewing Company, Albuquerque)
Simcoe (Il Vicino Brewing Company, Albuquerque)
Columbus (Second Street Brewery, Santa Fe)

The varieties included in the experiment comprised a range of hops from the UK and United States with varying alpha acid and co-humulone (believed to be a determinant of harshness or coarseness) levels.

A few dozen brewers and beer fanatics gathered to taste each beer and fill out evaluation sheets, commenting on characteristics of aroma, flavor, bitterness, and overall impression and assigning numerical intensity scores (ranging from 0 to 10) on a table of 31 different aroma/flavor descriptors. The numerical portion of the evaluation sheet was copied from a Zymurgy article titled “The Great Hop Experiment” by Jim Parker. Descriptors included apple (red), apple (green), apricot, banana, basil, cinnamon, clove, dill, fishy, fresh peas, grapefruit, grass, hay (dry), lemon, minty, mushrooms, musty, nutmeg, orange, orange peel, oregano, peach, piney, prunes, rancid, rose petal, rosemary, sweet honey, thyme, tobacco, and wet hay.

After each of the 11 beers was sampled and palates were thoroughly mangled, pens and evaluation sheets (all 248 of them) were stashed away, the homebrew began to flow, and a party broke out. Miraculously the evaluation sheets survived the event and later found their way into my hands.

To assess the results, I compiled a spreadsheet of the numerical data. Aiming to find some meaningful consensus with regard to aroma/flavor characteristics of each hop, I only retained data for descriptors that were marked on at least 20% of the evaluation sheets for a specific hop. Hence, a sole voice crying out that a certain hop smelled and tasted exactly like a carton of mushrooms was forever silenced.

A brief description of each hop based on information from the Hopunion handbook and the most frequently marked and highest average intensity descriptors follows:

UK Target
Medium to high alpha acid UK variety derived from a cross between Northern Brewer and English Goldings.

Most common descriptor: Grass
Most intense descriptor: Hay

UK Northdown
Medium alpha acid variety derived from a cross between Northern Brewer and an unspecified German hop.

Most common descriptor: Sweet honey
Most intense descriptors: Peach and grass

UK Goldings
Common low alpha acid English variety.

Most common descriptor: Musty
Most intense descriptor: Grass

Low alpha acid American variety that is often compared to Cascade.

Most common descriptor: Grapefruit
Most intense descriptor: Grapefruit

Low to medium alpha acid variety and oldest commercially available American-bred aroma hop.

Most common descriptor: Grapefruit
Most intense descriptor: Grass

Relatively new American variety with an exceptional combination of low alpha acids and low co-humulone.

Most common descriptor: Peach
Most intense descriptor: Peach

New medium alpha acid American variety derived from Swiss Tettnanger.

Most common descriptor: Grass
Most intense descriptors: Piney and apricot

Medium to high alpha acid and common American variety that was once nearly lost to extinction due to lack of interest.

Most common descriptor: Grapefruit
Most intense descriptor: Grapefruit

Very high alpha acid and one of the newest American varieties.

Most common descriptors: Piney, apricot, and grapefruit
Most intense descriptor: Peach

Relatively new American variety noted for its combination of high alpha acid and low co-humulone levels.

Most common descriptor: Grapefruit and piney
Most intense descriptor: Piney and orange

Very high alpha acid and high co-humulone American hop.

Most common descriptor: Pine
Most intense descriptor: Pine

The most commonly marked descriptors overall were grapefruit, pine, grass, apricot, orange, and peach and the most intense hops in each of those categories were as follows:

Strongest Grapefruit
1. Ahtanum
2. Centennial
3. Simcoe

Stronges t Pine
1. Simcoe
2. Columbus
3. Palisades

Strongest Grass
1. Cascade
2. Target
3. Northdown
3. UK Golding

Strongest Apricot
1. Palisades
2. Glacier
3. Newport

Strongest Orange
1. Ahtanum
2. Simcoe
3. Glacier

Strongest Peach
1. Newport
2. Glacier
3. Simcoe

Personally, I would have preferred to see a wider range of descriptors for the experiment including mango or tropical fruit, earth, perfume, floral, and catty/cat urine, the last being an indicator of hop handling procedures prior to their use. Naturally, I would also have liked to taste more hop varieties, but again ingredients were very generously donated for this endeavor. Eleven out of more than 50 hop varieties available from Hopunion alone was ample to ruin my palate that day.

From a rater’s perspective, my personal and somewhat surprising favorite (an opinion widely held based on comments on evaluation sheets), was the Centennial IPA brewed by Turtle Mountain. The so-called C-hops (Centennial, Cascade, and Columbus) can sometimes seem a little hackneyed, but in this instance Centennial had good qualities of bitterness, flavor, and aroma. That versatility makes for a very solid single hop IPA. But undoubtedly a carefully selected blend of hop varieties will almost always outshine a single hop version of a hop-centered style such as IPA. And in other single hop beer styles other hop varieties would likely shine.

Single hop experiments of this sort provide valuable sensory information for hop growers and suppliers, brewers, and beer lovers. Knowledge of the unique combination of properties of different hop varieties helps to train the palate and increase awareness of the overall character of a beer. Additionally, the feedback from this type of project could be used to help pair specific hop varieties for compatibility with other aroma or flavor characteristics when formulating a recipe.

Now someone go brew a Glacier peach ale and send me some.


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start quote Eleven commercial breweries were on the lineup, each having brewed a batch of IPA with an identical recipe except for the variety of hop used. end quote