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?