How Hops Became the Star of American Brewing
The craft beer revolution turned the tall cousin of cannabis into a breakout ingredient, infusing your brew with flavors and aromas that range from stone fruit to barrel oak. Christopher Solomon hits the road to understand why hop madness isn’t over yet—and why brewers and plant breeders are always on the prowl for the next big thing.
The 2019 American Hop Convention, held in January in Monterey, California, was part agriculture conference and part old-home week. Almost all of the nation’s beer hops—and roughly 40 percent of all hops in the world—are grown by about 75 farms in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, many of them owned by families who have farmed hops for four or five generations. At the convention, everybody seemed to know everybody. This gave a loose feel to the proceedings, which recognize and celebrate the fact that only one thing can be done with the crop the conventioneers produce: mix it with malt and water, ferment the liquid, and drink the beer you’ll get after a few weeks. During afternoon coffee breaks, everybody cracked a cold one.
That wasn’t the only reason for the festive mood. The past 15 years have witnessed a spectacular surge in craft brewing in the United States; more than 85 percent of Americans now live within ten miles of a brewery. U.S. beer culture, once a punchline, has become the most vibrant on earth.
The hop industry has been a beneficiary and driver of this renaissance. Hops once were considered a drab ingredient, tossed in mainly to preserve the beer, thanks to antibacterial properties of the resins found in hop flowers, which are also called cones. Today, hops are the star of American brewing.
Beer typically contains four ingredients: water, yeast, hops, and malted grain. Brewers agree that each of these can contribute to aroma and flavor. For example, German dunkels emphasize malt. A saison might showcase a brettanomyces yeast that carries the funk of a barnyard. But in the United States today, the hop is king. Sometimes just one hop variety is used in a beer, but more often several are working together—a chorus of little green cones in your pint glass, offering the sipper hints of anything from grass to pine to mango to tangerine. And more besides that.
India pale ale, the bolder, hop-forward ale commonly referred to as IPA, leads the pack as the most in-demand style of craft beer in the country, with no sign of giving up its position. This year, the amount of hop acreage planted in the United States again reached an all-time high, and until COVID-19 tossed uncertainty into the vat, prices for the commodity allowed farmers to experience healthy growth and reinvest in their operations.
At the same time, craft brewers had begun to feel some turbulence even before the pandemic started. The double-digit growth had slowed in the past four years, and beer companies were experiencing consolidations and layoffs. Tom Nielson, a longtime industry veteran who manages R&D and raw materials for Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, said that prior to the pandemic, his group was seeing major new challenges to selling beer. In the past, Nielsen said, “The beer always sold itself.”
Meanwhile, today’s craft beer drinkers aren’t like yesteryear’s Bud man, loyal for life. Weaned on the good stuff, they’re adventurous in their tastes and fickle in their allegiance. They demand a parade of new experiences when they reach into the beer cooler or step up to a bar. In Monterey, the excitement of today’s beer scene and the challenge it presents to brewers, hop growers, and hop breeders were summed up in a joke that one speaker told the mostly male crowd: A man walks into a bar. He orders a beer and takes a sip. “Wow, that’s the best beer I’ve ever tasted,” he tells the brewer. “What else do you have?”
This is where hops come in. As the beer industry tries to prepare for the future, it’s turning to hops as urgently as ever—new, intriguing, tantalizing varieties that surprise you with their flavors and aromas and will keep you excited to reach into the beer case. But finding the Next Great Hop, or even the Next Pretty Darned Good Hop, isn’t easy. How do you figure out the looming tastes of a demanding public when you’re dealing with an agricultural product that can take a decade or more to develop?
And now there’s COVID-19, which has thrown the beer industry into chaos, shuttering bars, ballparks, and restaurants for months. What will the current upheaval mean for beer in general, and for hops in particular?
Beer has been on mankind’s drink card for 6,000 years, since the Sumerians started mixing malted grain, water, and honey and burying it in clay pots to ferment. The original recipes didn’t call for hops. For centuries after, according to beer historian Pete Brown, people instead drank gruit, a potent ferment of grain spiced with any of hundreds of hedgerow herbs, from dandelion to heather to peat moss to tree bark.
No one knows precisely when someone tossed cones from a female Humulus lupulus plant into the boil and discovered that they imparted agreeable flavor, along with bitterness that offset malt’s sweetness—creating beer as we know it. But there’s evidence to suggest Bavarian monks were cultivating hops by the 8th or 9th centuries. Hop farming then expanded farther into Europe. As historian Stan Hieronymus writes in For the Love of Hops, certain hops were prized, marketed, and defended: during the 14th century, Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV decreed that exporting cuttings of Bohemian hop plants—probably an ancestor of today’s Saaz hop, a grassy, spicy staple of a crisp Czech pilsner—was punishable by death.
After the English settled in North America, hops became a staple crop for the growing colonies. Along the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York, you can still see tall stone towers that pickers used to hang hops for drying. (Hops are climbing plants characterized by “bines” that look like heavy vines when they’re mature.)
As the 19th century wore on, American palates shifted away from heavier beers and existing Bavarian-style lagers and toward an Americanized version of lighter, Bohemian-style brews. In 1875, when the New York–based Schaefer brothers—important pioneers in U.S. brewing—tried to start selling a richer, old-style lager, a consumer growl went up over what the New York Times called “the hard, bitter, hoppy taste, and the absence of the rich, creamy broth.” Meanwhile, beer barons like St. Louis–based Adolphus Busch built fortunes peddling their “golden broth”—pale, light stuff that was unlikely to either intrigue or offend.
The presence of hops in American beer began to decline by the 1920s and would do so into the 1980s, as consumers continued to go for these lighter, less hoppy beers. The use of hops in Bud and Bud Light, for instance, is at a level where most consumers can no longer detect any bitterness, says Thomas Shellhammer, the Nor’Wester Endowed Professor of Fermentation Science at Oregon State University.
The number of breweries also declined, and by 1978, the nation had only 89, owned by 41 companies. But a few pioneers began to buck the trend, starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when tiny outfits like Fritz Maytag’s Anchor Brewing, Jack McAuliffe’s Liberty Brewing, and Ken Grossman’s Sierra Nevada Brewing began making beers with hoppiness as their trademark.
One hop in particular helped fuel this revolution: Cascade, a plant released to the public in 1972 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Oregon hop program. It had a bolder aroma and flavor than the strains it was replacing. Facing a global hops shortage, Coors Brewing placed big orders, and by 1975, Cascade made up about 10 percent of America’s total hops output.
Some Coors drinkers griped that their beer was too strong, and the company would later abandon it. But the new craft brewers embraced this taste, as beer historian Peter Kopp explains in Hoptopia. The most famous example of an early game changer that used (and still uses) Cascade is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, launched in 1980 and still selling briskly today. “At its heart,” Kopp writes, “the craft beer revolution represented a cultural awakening to hops.”
IPAs as a category now account for about four percent of all beer sold. That’s nothing compared to sales of Bud Light, the nation’s favorite beer, which claims 16 percent of the market. But IPA market share continues to grow by about half a percent a year, and these days it’s hard to be a successful craft brewery without having one or more in the rotation. Brewers now make imperial, triple, and quad IPAs (beers with higher alcohol content and fuller taste); hazy IPAs (known for their opacity, juicy flavors, and relative softness in the mouth); session IPAs (lower-alcohol, less-bitter beers); wet-hop IPAs (a harvest specialty, made with hops fresh off the bine), and more. IPAs are now America’s signature craft beer style.
The past two decades have seen explosive growth in the craft brewing market, which has transformed the hop industry. As recently as a ten years ago, about 80 percent of the American hop crop was so-called alpha hops—hops whose acids are used for bittering beer. Most hops were essentially still a fragrant green widget, and the hop industry was a commodity business, leaving farmers exposed to gut-wrenching price swings and supply gluts.
By last year, however, about two-thirds of the crop was so-called aroma hops, prized for their distinct, alluring smells rather than simple bitterness. The market mix has nearly flipped, and hop acreage planted in the United States—95 percent of which is in the Pacific Northwest—has almost doubled since 2010. The rise of craft brewing, with its demand for very specific hops, has meant more stability for many American hop farmers.
“More so than ever, the consumer is steering the ship, all the way to the point where it’s down to the farm level, the varieties that we’re growing,” says Blake Crosby, CEO of Crosby Hop Farm, a fifth-generation operation in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Consider the wildly popular style of hazy IPAs, which carry notes of tropical fruit, stone fruit, and citrus. That popularity drives demand for still more new hops that fall somewhere inside that flavor profile, Crosby says, adding that there’s a “variety race” among farmers to come up with more options.
Hops are often likened to cooking spices. If so, today’s brewers have access to an enormous rack of choices. In 2018, America’s craft brewers reached for 163 different varieties grown here and abroad, their names often suggesting sleek sports cars: Mosaic, Azacca, Sorachi Ace, Strata. Though U.S. craft brewers make a bit more than 14 percent of the nation’s beer, they use roughly 32 percent of the U.S. hop crop. The rest goes to the mass-market brewers or is shipped internationally.
But the easy growth that defined earlier years of the craft beer revolution had begun to slow dramatically—even before COVID-19 struck. One reason is market saturation. Craft beer is sold everywhere now: at gas stations, in the aisle at Bed Bath & Beyond, even at Burger King. “At the Austin library, you can read Goodnight Moon to your child and have a beer,” Lester Jones, chief economist for the National Beer Wholesalers Association, told the Monterey conventioneers.
In cities like Seattle and Portland, craft beer now has a 40 percent share of the market, says Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, a group that promotes the interests of craft beer makers. “At that point, it’s hard to grow in those places,” Watson told me. In addition, prices may be hitting a ceiling, since demand is not infinite for a $12.99 six-pack of Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin IPA. While the small corner breweries were still growing, midsized craft brewers started facing new headwinds.
Then the pandemic hit. In normal times, about 40 percent of craft beer is consumed either at breweries or otherwise outside the home, Watson says. Suddenly, and for months, beer makers didn’t have crowds to serve at bars, ballparks, and restaurants. The brewing industry hasn’t seen a major pandemic-caused shakeout—yet. But in a May survey done by the Brewers Association, 5.7 percent of breweries were pessimistic that they would survive through the end of 2020. Breweries often rise again on the same spot, but perhaps 250 to 500 breweries will close permanently this year, Watson says.
And there have been other challenges: new entrants to the market, like hard seltzer, are putting pressure on beer makers, and some people want low-calorie beers again.
For all that, those in the brewing industry say craft brewing will come out safely on the other side. “I don’t think there will be any slowdown in innovation,” says Scott Dorsch, co-owner of Colorado’s Odell Brewing Company. He knows his fellow brewers, he says, and “they don’t want to go back to the old days where we don’t have that.” The plethora of interesting hops is one of the reasons. Brewers, he says, love to get their hands on something new.
I got a glimpse of the ongoing hunt for newness one afternoon at the Monterey convention, when I stood with two dozen highly experienced beer drinkers—brewers, growers, and malters—inside a beige ballroom. Arrayed before us were beer bottles marked with numbers and a spittoon.
The United States has fewer than ten serious hops-breeding programs. Only one, run by the USDA out of Oregon and Washington, works closely with the industry to breed new hops for free public use. (The rest are private operations that develop new varieties and then license them.) USDA agronomists have nurtured several hop varieties for years. Today we were going to test five of them to help decide which hops should move forward and which should be tossed.
Lagers and IPAs had been made using each of these hops to see how they performed in different beer styles. We poured a few ounces of the lagers into cups and sniffed the first one. Some testers cupped their hands around the glass and breathed deeply. Some held it to the light. A woman beside me inhaled and wrote, “Biscuit.” I took a whiff and thought, “College.”
“Any comments about this hop?” said Thomas Shellhammer, the fermentation science professor from Oregon State, who organized the test.
“Very clean,” someone said.
“A mineral aroma,” said someone else.
“Got a bit of melon,” said a third.
“OK,” he said. “Let’s move on to the next one.”
Before long, we began tasting IPAs. “Let’s start out with number 16,” Shellhammer said. “Who’s got something on 16?” The comments flowed.
“I think it’s a good hop. Not crazy interesting, but flavor-wise.”
“Let’s move on to the next one.”
“I’m getting sulfitic.”
“OG?” Shellhammer asked. OG is hop-speak for onion-garlic, a potential red flag.
“Kind of catty.”
Afterward, I asked Jeremy Moynier of Stone Brewing for his verdict. “In general, the beers seemed to be pretty subtle, and we’re looking for more intensity,” he said. “We’re always thinking in terms of, ‘Man, I really want to brew with that.’”
As an example, Moynier mentioned a pale ale made with a hop called Sabro, released earlier in the year. “It’s crazy,” he said. “You’d swear there’s coconut and peach in it.”
I’d heard of Sabro. But what intrigued me more was another hop that people mentioned when I asked around about the next big thing. Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing Company gushed about this hop, a daughter of Sabro. He and his wife and co-owner, Natalie, had some cones from the plant, and they’d been rubbing and sniffing them for the past few years.
“Natalie and I jokingly call it the ‘greyhound hop,’” Cilurzo told me, “because when you rub it, it smells like a pink grapefruit that you’d put in a greyhound cocktail.” It had the decidedly low-key name of HBC 692. And one man, Cilurzo said, knew it better than anyone.
Hop breeder Jason Perrault is 46, with a russet beard and eyes the color of worn denim. The first time I met him, during the fall 2018 hop harvest, I watched as he walked down a row of experimental plants, plucking cones, crushing them, and lifting a palm smeared with lupulin, the yellow powder that forms within hop cones and contributes to the aroma, flavor, and bitterness. He held it to his nose and inhaled. When a plant intrigued him, he stepped back and looked it up and down, like a gallerygoer taking in the Mazarin Venus at the Getty.
Perrault wears many hats. A fourth-generation farmer, he’s CEO of Perrault Farms, his family’s 1,500-acre hop operation, one of dozens that sit in the fruit basket of Washington’s Yakima Valley. He’s also CEO and head breeder of Yakima Chief Ranches, a collaboration involving a few longtime hops-growing families who pool efforts toward hop production and research. In a curious twist, YCR also teams up with an erstwhile competitor, John I. Haas, one of the world’s largest hop brokers, to develop hops together under the name Hop Breeding Company.
Over the past two decades, Perrault and his team have developed popular hops like Mosaic, Lorel, and Palisade and helped bring to market blockbusters like Simcoe and Citra. (Simcoe was famously used in Russian River Brewing Company’s Pliny the Elder double IPA, which for years was voted the Best Beer in America.) Last year, Citra became the most-grown aroma hop in the country, surpassing Cascade. (Citra has been featured in several beers made by Vermont’s Hill Farmstead Brewery, which some consider the best brewery in the world.) Sabro was one of Perrault’s team’s 2018 releases.
“The characteristics of most hops fall in a bucket, a range,” Perrault told me. They may add citrus flavor, say, or recognizable herbal notes. Perrault is less interested in existing buckets than in enhancing them or finding new ones. “I’m looking for something that can stretch our current understanding of the aromas a hop can bring.”
I wanted to see the buzz-generating HBC 692. One morning in the spring of 2019, Perrault and I climbed into a pickup, and he drove us to a plot of young green plants. It was early in the season, and the hops were still only knee-high, on their way to a height of 18 feet. Perrault said HBC 692 emerged from “crosses,” or offspring from male and female parents, that Perrault and his colleagues made in 2010. The hop’s grandmother is a neomexicanus, a hop variety that grows only in the western United States. Its mother is Sabro. These neomexicanus hops, Perrault said, have “brought in some new aromatics that we did not have before.” Sabro, for instance, has a sort of coconut baseline, along with herbalness and a hint of orange creamsicle. People who’d tasted HBC 692 said the offspring had a baseline that evoked grapefruit pulp, and also coconut cream, with sage and rosemary in the mix.
Creating a hop that will excite brewers and drinkers a decade from now is a slow-motion quest. Each year, a breeding team selects male and female plants they like. The team gathers pollen from the males, pollinates the females, and germinates roughly 25,000 offspring. Each of these crosses is similar to the parents and to each other and yet different, the way children are.
To make a hop that’s redolent of, say, coconut, is an imprecise process. Breeders will select parent plants bearing characteristics that they know and like, so quality often breeds quality. Perrault’s popular Mosaic hop, for instance, is a daughter of the now-legendary Simcoe. He’ll drill down further by looking at data about prospective parents, including molecular analysis of their DNA, searching for markers that might provide clues about traits like aroma or yield. But when a hop cone contains several hundred compounds, trying to select specifically for the aroma of coconut isn’t so easily done.
Perrault stopped the truck at a muddy plot. Here, the crosses are planted and the weeding-out process begins—tossing away the sickly, the disease-prone, the males. Up to 90 percent of the seedlings are discarded by the end of the first year. After two years, a few thousand survivors are planted at Perrault Farms. Perrault scrutinizes them for yield and other yardsticks, and after three or four years, if a plant intrigues him and his colleagues, workers will harvest its cones and analyze the oils.
The funnel narrows still more. Only one percent of all those seedlings are planted for three more years and studied. “I always joke that hop breeding is a depressing job, because you throw away 99.999 percent of your life’s work,” Perrault said.
A successful new variety can’t simply make good beer. It must produce a lot of cones and also fend off disease. And then there’s the puzzle of the “picking window”: each year’s harvest happens during a few weeks in August and September. This is a major bottleneck for growers, who scramble to pick and process the avalanche of hops at their peak ripeness. A new hop loses its luster if it intrudes on the picking window of an existing hop.
There can be 35,000 different plants, or genotypes, in Hop Breeding Company’s experimental program at one time. If a single hop a year comes to market, after a decade of growth and chemical analysis and beer-making, Perrault figures they’re doing well. “In fact, it’s less than that,” he said later. “We don’t release one every year.”
In that plodding process, HBC 692 was a standout. Perrault remembered crushing its distinctive dimpled cones in the field, and noting its unusual aroma, soon after it was planted in 2014. When I visited, the hop was in the company’s final “elite” stage of evaluation. It had been put in the hands of at least a dozen brewers around the world for them to experiment with and to generate interest.
One was Steve Luke of Seattle’s Cloudburst Brewing, a maker of prizewinning IPAs. Hop oils are volatile, Luke told me one day when I visited his cramped downtown brewery. As the oils break down over time, he said, their flavors get “softer” or “flabbier.” But Sabro, and now this hop, were different. “It’s a hop that has a distinctive staying power as the beer ages and evolves,” he said. He compared using both hops to squirting lime on a fruit salad: they punch up existing flavors.
A few months later, I stopped by Cloudburst Brewing again. Weeks before my visit, Luke had gotten his hands on more HBC 692.
“This is the first beer we’ve built around it, putting it in the starting lineup to see how it plays,” he said. Luke had brewed a pale ale, composed of two-thirds of the new hop and one-third Citra. The beer was still “green”—it would go on tap in a few days, after reaching its fully mature level of taste and smell—but Luke walked over and poured samples straight from the steel tanks, where it was conditioning.
I swirled the beer. I smelled papaya. I took a sip. It was indeed still green, a bit harsh in the finish. But I could taste the grapefruit that others had mentioned, prominent and juicy and a little tart. And then something more savory rose up—sage, with a hint of other herbs like rosemary. There was a memory of dry, sunny places in it.
I asked Luke what he called the beer. “Record Scratch,” he replied. “Because it’s attention-grabbing.”
A year later, in late August 2020, HBC gave the hop a new name, Talus, and announced it to brewers. A modest amount will be available this fall so that brewers’ demand can “pull” it into the market—which always works better than pushing something new, Perrault told me.
My visit to Cloudburst that day happened before COVID-19 struck. I sat on the barstool and watched an employee roll up the garage door of Luke’s tiny brewery. It was only lunchtime, but dozens of people soon poured inside. They filled the small space and waited ten-deep before the bar. I reached for my glass, again, and wondered what they would soon be ordering. As for me, it was a good bet that I was tasting the future. And it was delicious.