Carolina Beer Guy: Local brewers discuss their favorite hops

EASY BEING GREEN: The fourth annual South Atlantic Hops Conference, March 16-17 at Asheville's Crowne Plaza Resort, is aimed at growers, brewers and businesses interested in using the flavorful flowers. Photo courtesy of the South Atlantic Hops Conference

In order to make classic beer styles, it’s imperative that brewers use hops. But when it comes to choosing which plant to incorporate, one variety definitely does not fit all.

The pungent little flowers produce a wide array of flavors, from grapefruit to pine, citrus and earthy notes and more. Local brewers have favorite hops that they use in their production beers and also explore new varieties in their small-batch releases.

Asheville will get a concentrated taste of this crucial ingredient at the fourth annual South Atlantic Hops Conference, March 16-17, at the Crowne Plaza Resort. The event is aimed at growers, brewers and businesses that use hops in surprising and emerging ways, among them with foods, teas, distilled beverages, medicinal products and bouquets and garlands. The program is presented by N.C. State University’s Mountain Horticulture Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River.

Many hops used in craft beers are grown in the Pacific Northwest and Michigan. Others are imported from Europe or as far away at Australia and New Zealand. But they can be grown in the Southeast U.S., and some are produced in the Asheville area.

“Growing hops in the Southeast is not easy, for many reasons,” says conference leader Dr. Jeanine Davis. “The commercial varieties were bred for more northern latitudes. With our shortened daylight, that greatly affects our yields. It’s very much a niche market [for local hops growing].”

While there is no precise count for the number of local hops farms, Davis believes there are as many as 50 in Western North Carolina. But she says the potential for growth for the local industry is out there, especially in alternative products.

At Asheville Brewing Co., head brewer Pete Langheinrich has some favorite hops he uses regularly. “The hops we use the most are Citra and Columbus. Citra is the cornerstone of Perfect Day IPA, and Columbus is the heart and soul of Shiva IPA,” he says. “Citra is citrusy and tropical fruit [flavored]. People describe it as mango or lime. Columbus is citrusy and has grapefruit aroma, and it has a dank quality.”

Langheinrich adds that the last “weird hop” Asheville Brewing used was Barbe Rouge, a French variety that he says has notes of bubblegum and strawberries.

Bryan Bobo, head brewer at UpCountry Brewing Co., frequently turns to Amarillo, Citra and Mosaic hops.­ He says all provide citrus notes, which leads to them being described with the same basic terms despite their unique tastes.

“­­­­Until you put Citra and Amarillo side by side, you don’t realize the subtle differences,” Bobo says. “The industry in the last five, 10 years has just exploded. There are varieties that I’ve never even heard of. I have no idea what to do with them, but they sound fun. I think a lot of breweries around town are getting more experimental because there’s so much out there.”

Highland Brewing Co., the city’s oldest craft brewery, uses 40-50 hops varieties in its many beers, says Trace Redmond, research and development brewer. “We have some that we use only in our pilot system, and there are 20-30 in our core products,” he says. ­

Those varieties include Bravo (citrus) and Centennial (pine and citrus). The brewery’s flagship Gaelic Ale is made with Chinook (herbal, pine and aromatic flavors), Willamette (earthy) and Cascade, one of the most common hops in American craft beer, which imbues a brew with grapefruit and floral qualities.

Some beers, however, have more subtle hops qualities. Highland Pilsner includes German Hallertau Blanc (white grape), Saphir (spiciness), Perle (herbal) and Hersbrucker (spiciness, fruit and floral flavors).

At Wedge Brewing Co., brewer Carl Melissas tends to stick with classic hops in his beers. ­”I’m not nearly as much into the new West Coast hops with all the tropical flavors as some of the other brewers around,” he says. “That said, people love them. They are hugely popular. Personally, the new hops that I like are out of Germany, like Hallertau Blanc and Mandarina Bavarian.”

Melissas says Wedge’s wildly popular Iron Rail IPA relies on Cascade and Centennial, while his Belgian-style beers use Styrian Golding (floral) and Czech Saaz (spiciness), the latter of which is generously employed in the Golem Belgian-style Strong Ale.

“I love Cascade and Centennial,” Melissas says. “They’re very citrusy. Ken Grossman [founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.] put Cascade into his pale ale, and that really did start a revolution. It’s an amazing hop.”

As specialty brewer for Catawba Brewing Co.’s South Slope operation in Asheville, Paul Rollow turns out a lot of beers. “All the stuff that I brew is for on-premise sale at the Catawba locations. I do get to try a lot of hops,” he says.

Catawba buys hops on a contract basis — primarily from the Pacific Northwest — a year or more in advance to provide a steady supply, but Rollow adds that there are also smaller purchases on what is called the “spot” market, purchased without a contract.

The brewer often uses Simcoe (fruity and earthy flavors, often found in IPA) and Summit (orange and tangerine notes, also popular in IPA). ­­”And we always have Citra on hand and Sterling [herbal and spicy notes] for pilsner and India Pale Lager,” he says.

Sometimes hops suppliers make a pitch with a new product, or Rollow will learn about new varieties by trying new beers on the market. In his words, the hops world “is a constantly changing thing.”

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About Tony Kiss
Tony Kiss covers brewing news for the Xpress. He has been reporting on the Carolina beer scene since 1994. He's also covered distilling and cider making and spent 30 years reporting on area entertainment. Follow me @BeerguyTK

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