Written by Joshua Bernstein for oregonlive.com Photo by Ross William Hamilton
If Oregon had a state beer, it would be the India pale ale. Nearly every brewery in the state releases a riff on the bitter, aromatic IPA. And since brewers more or less have access to identical hop breeds (flowery and fragrant Cascade, citrusy Amarillo, pinelike Chinook), the beers can seem to coalesce into a piney, citric blur.
Five other craft brewers explore new varieties
But Oregon craft brewing doesn’t adhere to the status quo for long. Responding to brewers’ desire to create singular quaffs, hop farmers in Oregon and Washington, as well as New Zealand, plant thousands of experimental hop breeds annually, most identified by numbers seemingly plucked from a lottery machine. These fledgling varieties are created by crossing existing strains in hopes of augmenting yields, increasing disease resistance or fashioning unique flavors. Each year, brewers examine these numbered hop breeds, hoping to answer a single question: Can this hop make a great new beer?
Over the next three years, Sidor brewed test batches with hop 394, growing to love its beguiling blend of citrus and tropical fruits such as mango and papaya. “It was absolutely a home run,” Sidor says.
Often, the answer is no, but every blue moon a hop shows promise. When this happens, the hop is named, it graduates from farm field to brew kettle and the experimentation starts. Lately, several new hop varieties have wound their way into local IPAs, bestowing them with curiously appealing notes of tropical fruit, berries or white wine that helps set them apart from the bitter pack.
One such hop breed is Citra, which first caught the eye — and nose — of Larry Sidor, the brewmaster of Deschutes Brewery, more than five years ago. At the time, Sidor and a farmer were strolling through an experimental hop yard in Washington, checking out the aromas of various hops. Variety number 394 stopped Sidor short. “It had so much citrus and grapefruit without a lot of sulfur compounds,” he says. “I thought, ‘Yeah, this is definitely a possibility for Deschutes.’ ”
Over the next three years, Sidor brewed test batches with hop 394, growing to love its beguiling blend of citrus and tropical fruits such as mango and papaya. “It was absolutely a home run,” Sidor says. Eventually, Deschutes, along with Sierra Nevada and Widmer Brothers, committed to growing several acres of what was christened Citra. It helped drive the flavor of Deschutes’ Hop in the Dark, an obsidian-tinted black IPA (or Cascadian dark ale, as the style is also known), and last year’s version of the Hop Henge Experimental IPA.
Citra quickly has become a novel component of some of the state’s most exciting new brews. Cascade Brewing created the balanced, brightly citric and fruity Karma Citra (also incorporating the lemony, little-seen Sorachi Ace hop). Instead of using Citra as an accent, The Prodigal Son Brewery and Pub in Pendleton uses Citra as the only hop in its summery Splendor in the Glass IPA. “What really interests me is how quickly and drastically the flavor evolves with Citra,” says head brewer Brian Harder. “When it’s fresh out of the fermenter, Citra gives off waves of tropical fruit aromas. In a matter of weeks, these flavors grow more citruslike and it becomes clear how this hop got its name.”
While Widmer Brothers uses Citra in its easy-sipping Citra Blonde Summer Ale (which, until recently, was known as Sunburn Summer Brew), and the smooth and fragrant X-114 India Pale (part of the Rotator IPA series), the brewery also has cottoned to another singular hop breed. Hailing from New Zealand, the Nelson Sauvin hop (Nelson refers to a region in central New Zealand, while Sauvin is shorthand for the grape variety sauvignon blanc) has a gooseberry-like quality verging on litchi or passion fruit that recalls white wine. Brewmaster Rob Widmer first tinkered with Nelson Sauvin several years ago, using it in the Full Nelson imperial IPA released for the 2008 Oregon Brewers Festival. Though Full Nelson was a one-off, his workers’ rabid response forced the brewer to rethink his stance. “If a beer becomes an employee favorite, then we perk up,” Widmer says. “And Full Nelson was definitely an employee favorite.”
In early 2010, Full Nelson was reformulated and formally released as Deadlift Imperial IPA. Recently renamed Nelson Imperial IPA, it’s a departure from the “tongue-scrapers,” as Widmer dubs them, dominating the double IPA sector. “We wanted to have a more balanced imperial IPA,” he says of his surprisingly nimble, easy-drinking ale. With Nelson Sauvin, “we could do our own unique interpretation of the style.” Widmer also uses the hop in his Drifter Pale Ale.
While Citra and Nelson Sauvin are starring in local IPAs, their success is the exception to the norm. “Each year, we have between 20,000 to 50,000 genotype seedlings as the foundation of our program,” says Jason Perrault, the vice president of research and development for Washington state-based Select Botanicals Group, which helped devise Citra. “Whenever we develop a variety, we have a minimum of 10 years in development,” he says, noting that Citra was first planted in 1990.
Part of the delay is due to garnering enough acceptance for commercialization. “To go forward, you need to have several brewers that are really interested in a hop,” says Perrault. “In the past, there have been hops we thought had potential that didn’t take off.” It’s tricky, he adds, because “you’re looking for a hop that may be popular 10 years from now. You’re never sure which hops will be popular in the future.”
Five other craft brewers explore new varieties
Oregon craft brewers are embracing two new hops varieties — Nelson Sauvin and Citra — producing IPAs with unexpected flavor profiles. But they’re not the only ones. Brewers around the world are playing with these new breeds in a variety of beer styles. Here are five favorites — available at pubs and stores around town — that you don’t want to miss.
Anchor Brewing Humming Ale Released in August, Anchor’s late-summer seasonal is stuffed with Nelson Sauvin hops, which gives this blond pale ale a grape-like aroma. Humming goes down slightly peppery, with hints of lemons and tropical fruit supported by a biscuity malt backbone.
BrewDog Punk IPA In this Scottish IPA, brewmaster James Watt packs plenty of Nelson Sauvin hops, which gives the fresh ale an earthy, tropical perfume. The light body boasts orange peel and pine resin, somewhat leavened by biscuit malt. Some spritzy effervescence seals the deal.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Company Torpedo Extra IPA Bold, brash Torpedo has all the citrus and pine components you’d expect from an amped-up IPA, but then there’s that smell: mango, papaya and other exotic tropical fruit, courtesy of the Citra hop. A morsel of malt sweetness keeps the bitterness in check.
Mikkeller Single Hop Nelson Sauvin IPA For this stop on his “single hop” IPA tour, the Danish gypsy brewer explores the pleasures of New Zealand’s Nelson Sauvin. The cloudy copper brew smells of passion fruit, grapes and, for fun, a bit of caramel. The medium-bodied ale drinks fruity and grassy, with a lingering bitter tang.
Breakside Brewery IPA This local pub’s house IPA is an amber-tinted, gently malty beauty that’s hopped to the high heavens with woody Columbus, citric and floral Centennial, piney Chinook and plenty of tropical Citra. The bitterness lasts long after your last sip.
— Joshua M. Bernstein