Thursday, 5 August 2010

Hops: Seasonal Variations

Hops are in my opinion the most pleasurable vegetal matter known to mankind, they can be anything to the senses; fruity, piney, spicy, sweet, citrussy, lemony, pithy, earthy, tangy & floral, to name but a few characteristics. But as with all naturally grown products they are completley at the mercy of mother nature on how they grow, yield, taste, smell etc, just like any fruit or vegetable you would buy.

Seasonal variation of hops is something that is talked about very little in the UK, those in and around the beer scene will be aware that the alpha acid content of hops varies from crop to crop, this is due to entirely to natural variation, this means although certain hop varieties remain the same by type or strain i.e the same seedlings the same variety of hop can yield differing results in the brewing process from year to year.

Take example the current crop of Cascade hops from the US are slightly down on alpha acid content from last year and for me are not packing the same 'Cascadey' punch as the previous years crop from the US, now in some cases this can present a problem for a brewer in that a core range beer that is permanently available needs to remain the same in bitterness & flavour regardless of the year or the crop used, bitterness adjustments are fairly simple to achieve with a few simple mathematics but something that cannot be catered for is the change in the flavour characteristics of hops which will inevitably change the finished product.

In this mass produced ever more consistent & dumbed down world we live in this may provide a dilemma for the more un-educated drinker, in that a beer they consume and enjoy one year may taste very different just a year later, there are other varying factors like levels of certain compounds in malt & water which also varies but thats for another post.
Organic Hops Growing at Sierra Nevada
Now the beer world seems much less tolerable of products that 'change' year on year, yet the seasonality of grapes in the wine industry is what the very industry is about, i.e a 2007 Cabernet maybe for example accepted as a better year than a 2009. This is part of the very psyche of the wine world, yet seasonality in the brewing world is not acknowledged by most nor talked about. I have to say i'm a fan of seasonality as it throws variety into life not to mention challenges to a brewer keeping you on your toes & it also reminds me that the flavour profile of beers should always be checked, managed & improved. It is worth noting that you may have not quite enjoyed a craft beer you liked sometime ago but is worth revisiting to see what annual variation has played out on the beer.

The brewing trade is very lucky at the moment as there are a multitude of new hop varieties appearing from all over the world which gives brewers an ideal opportunity to brew one off seasonal brews with sometimes staggeringly good results, the wine world is not so lucky grape varieties for the most part are established.

So why do we as brewers & drinkers not embrace the roulette of varietal changes in hops & strains in the same way the wine industry reveres a 'good year' on the vineyards?

The huge yellow fizzy manufactures spend millions on analysing every discreet batch in a multitude of ways to ensure, colour, bitterness, viscosity, pH, etc. remain the same day in day out week in week out & so on, some people may like this 'reliability' (used in the loosest form) but I myself find the subtle variance of craft beers all part of the nature of our intriguing industry it provides an unending challenge to a brewers skill.

Beers may change for better or for worse but for me it is all part of the nature of the craft beer industry.

They say variety is the spice of life, if so, the magical hop will keep life very interesting...

What will the next crop & the new varieties flooding out of the US &  around the world throw at the craft brewing industry?

Who knows...

That's what keeps us on the hop!!

1 comment:

Leigh said...

now then! nice blog - and interesting post, something I'd slightly been aware of buying my own (limited) hops over the years for homebrewing. It's amazing what kinds of variation there is; but like you say, that wehat makes the art unique - it's a moveable feast but i would imagine tough going for commercial brewers like yourselves!!