The Bitter Truth: How hops play a part in our growing beer scene

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly
Land-Grant Brewing

Hops are, arguably, the essential ingredient that makes beer sing. But no two plants are alike, as area brewers prove in their loyalty to certain styles and where they're grown.

Angelo Signorino laughs as he pours a pint of his pale ale at Barley's Brewing Co. "This beer is weird," he says. It's an odd phrase. In the gamut of beer styles, pales are entry level, easily accessible beers. Unless, that is, their creator has dumped 6 pounds of fresh Cascade hops into the cask.

I take a sip and grimace at the first taste. The fresh-hopped pale ale tastes like chewing on whole hop cones. All the familiar flavors-citrus, herbs, earth-are there, but funkier. But it's nothing like the dank (industry speak for dark and musty) IPAs favored by hopheads.

"I told you," he says.

Signorino has served as Barley's head brewer for 24 years, and in all that time he's never stopped experimenting. His weird pale ale is just one example of how brewers continually play with beer's essential ingredient: hops. The plant comes in many varieties, allowing brewers to recreate classic styles and invent new ones. As the craft beer industry continues its boom, more farmers, including several in Ohio, are growing hops to meet the demand.

What Are Hops?

Hops are what make beer, well, beer. Without hops, you've got a sweet grain tea. They balance out sugars derived from malt with a general bitterness and more complex notes often characterized as fruity, herbaceous and earthy.

The hop plant-or Humulus lupulus-is a vining plant that produces green cones. Technically, it's a bine, which climbs by wrapping itself around objects, as opposed to a vine, which uses tendrils to climb. The female cones, which look like bright green pine cones, are harvested and processed for use in beer. They can be supplied whole, packed into bales or dried and processed into pellets.

The majority of brewers use pellets because they are more shelf-stable and easier to use, dissolving into a powder inside a boil kettle. Leaves tend to clog pipes.

They're also more economical. Think of it like using fresh versus dried herbs, Signorino says. Fresh herbs must be kept refrigerated and require using three times the amount as dried herbs.

Humulus has been cultivated in a multitude of climates around the world, with more varieties being hybridized every year. As with any ingredient, different varieties produce distinctive results, so brewers choose their hops based on the style of beer.

Full English

At Barley's, Signorino focuses on classic British styles: pale ales, Scottish ales, IPAs and ESBs. This has driven him to use sweeter hops, such as British fuggle or East Kent goldings. To create his Czech-style pilsner, he relies on herbal Saaz varieties from the Czech Republic.

This doesn't mean he's not dabbling in IPAs. His Blurry Bike IPA uses citrusy Columbus hops (no relation to our city). When he first brewed his Centennial IPA in the early '90s, floral and citrusy centennial hops were considered a novelty, and Signorino continues to push the envelope. His Hoptoberfest bends the traditional malty Oktoberfest by adding Australian galaxy hops, known for tropical fruit flavors. The resulting brew balances a pungent and fruity hop profile with the malty backbone of a German autumn beer.

Building a Belgian

At Rockmill Brewery, Matthew Barbee discovered that the well water on his family's Lancaster farm had a mineral quality similar to water found in Wallonia, Belgium. This led him to create Belgian-style beers known for their sweet, nutty and spicy qualities. Belgian beers are often defined by their yeast strains, which produce clove and banana aromas. To balance these fruity esters, Barbee uses earthy noble hops-a strain lower in alpha acids, the conveyors of hop bitterness. Produced in Germany and Belgium, noble hops give Rockmill beers deeper aromatics without added bitterness.

Barbee likens this bitterness to tannins in red wine; these flavors are the backbone of his beers.

"Ultimately, I'm building beers for food," he says. Like a robust red wine, his beers pair with dishes ranging from cheese to barbecue. The brews combine the spicy fruitiness of the yeast with the rusty earthiness of the hops.

West Coast Style

Barbee's sweet and fruity Belgian beers are a sharp contrast to the West Coast style IPAs Eric Bean crafts at Columbus Brewing Co. Bean says nearly 98 percent of his hops come from the Yakima Valley in Washington. He treks out there every autumn to select and purchase hops. Like most brewers, he contracts his hops two to three years ahead of time through various brokers. He won't specify the volume he purchases, but says the total poundage lands in the six-figure range.

Bean primarily orders three types of hops: Cascade, Simcoe and Citra. These hops produce the flavors he wants, but they're also some of the only hops available in high volumes.

"There are hops grown all over the world, but for what we do, the Pacific Northwest environment produces the big citrus and tropical fruit flavors," he says. "We're liking what we're seeing in New Zealand and Australia, but they're not growing the volume we need."

Cascade is one of the most abundantly grown and frequently used hops in American brewing. The combination of spicy, floral and grapefruit characteristics have made them a mainstay in American pale ales and IPAs. Cascade hops are why the West Coast IPA is a style known for being so citrus forward.

Yakima Valley hops are the basis for Bean's award-winning brews like Bodhi and Creeper double IPAs. Occasionally he branches out with fresh hops such as nugget, Citra or Simcoe in his Columbus Super Fresh HOP IPA.

Bean says hop purchasing is competitive. It's all about building relationships and leveraging purchasing power. "The more you buy, the more you can convince someone to sell them," he says. Even with CBC's heavy production, hop brokers aren't lining up to sell hops to him.

This highlights the challenge for new breweries. A brewer just firing up a test batch on a small kit doesn't have the buying power of an established brewer with a bigger system. Smaller breweries are almost forced to experiment with different hop varieties, Bean says, because they don't have access to larger sources.

Made in Ohio

While Washington and Oregon are the biggest hop producers in the United States, Ohio isn't standing on the sidelines.

In Fort Recovery, Andy Pax of Heartland Hops is growing about 1,200 plants. At 8 years old, his hop farm is one of the oldest in the state. Pax works primarily in construction, but he's familiar with the agricultural setting, having grown up on a dairy farm. The idea to grow hops came from the right timing of a History Channel documentary on Prohibition and a friend's need to rent an acre of farmland.

Pax began with 20 plants each of Cascade and nugget hops, both American varieties, although he's introducing Columbus, Willamette and centennial plants, too.

Requests for whole fresh hops have been coming, mainly from Yellow Springs Brewery and Moeller Brew Barn in Maria Stein, Ohio, but also from Columbus' Actual Brewing. But Pax finds greater value in pelletizing his hops. To that end, he invested in a harvester and a pelletizer this season.

"Last year, I had to make a decision whether I wanted to get bigger or not," he says. "The farm was too small to be a business but too big to be a hobby."

Pax is leading the way among Ohio hop growers. The state has potential to produce a lot of hops, but right now he and other hop farmers are learning how to produce the best and most prolific hops in Ohio climates. He's weathering the ups and downs of soil pH, damaging mildews and crop yield. He consults with suppliers like Great Lakes Hops in Michigan, discovering which varieties will grow best on his land. He's phasing out his nugget plants, for example, because they're too finicky. Next year, he's bringing in a horticulturalist to help him maximize the plant output. Right now, Pax is harvesting about 10 ounces of hops per plant, when they could be producing 1 to 2 pounds each.

Closer to Columbus, Mike Ford just harvested his first hops at Grandpop's Hops in Marysville. He's producing mostly cascade hops, but is experimenting with other varieties, too. He's sold nearly 250 pounds of fresh hops to 14 breweries around Ohio, including Zauber, Land-Grant, Gordon Biersch, North High and Zaftig in Columbus. His hops can be tasted in Gordon Biersch's IPA, and Zauber crafted a limited release session IPA with his wet hops earlier this fall. Land-Grant has yet to release a pilot batch of beer made with Ford's fresh hops, too.

Ford was led to hop growing in brewery school a few years ago. "At school everyone was brewing," he recalls. "I didn't have that much experience, and I wanted to work outside." When a friend at school showed him the backyard hops he was growing as a hobby, Ford found his calling.

He purchased a 20-acre farm in 2014 with help from his grandfather (hence the name), and dedicated 4 acres to hops. For now, Ford hand-picks hops, pulling in 3 to 5 pounds an hour. He's added more equipment with the aid of a successful Kickstarter campaign earlier in 2015. Like Pax, he's keeping the smaller breweries in mind, and hopes to cultivate strains ideal for their operations.

Both Ford and Pax say it's too early to tell what will define Ohio-grown hops, and how different growing regions within the state will affect classic varieties. Says Pax, "They tell me my hops-especially my cascade-have more a melon-y taste."

Dry Hops v. Wet Hops v. Fresh Hops

Although they're technically wet, aroma hops are often referred to as dry hops. Dry hopping means adding hops during fermentation. They're called dry because of the processed or dried hops used during this stage. By contrast, wet or fresh hops are unprocessed, recently harvested hops added to fermentation tanks. Wet or fresh hopped beers often are released in the fall around the hop harvest.

Bittering Hops v. Aroma Hops

Hops are used at different stages of the brewing process. Bittering hops are added during the boil; the heat releases alpha acids to produce more bitterness. The longer they're boiled, the more acids are released. Aroma hops are added later in the process, when the beer is resting in fermentation vessels. These hops add more fragrance to the beer without imparting additional bitterness.

Hop Sodas and Candies?

Beer drinkers have shown interest in hops beyond beer, so food makers are experimenting with other ways to use the plant.

Cincinnati-based Hopwater produces carbonated sodas flavored with hops. Using a proprietary process, they isolate the alpha acids (bittering agents) and the hops' essential oils. The sodas are more refreshing than people think they're going to be, CEO Brandon Dawson says. "Over and over people say, 'I'm not going to like this,' and then walk away with a four-pack," he says. The drink capitalizes on hops' floral aroma without creating a heavy and bitter drink; instead, Dawson says the hops convey a "pleasing dryness" that keeps the sugar from overwhelming the palate.

Doug Grieble, a Columbus home-brewer and high school biology teacher, has developed Hopped Corn-essentially kettle corn flavored with hops. Grieble noted the similarities between creating hard candy and wort, the sugary liquid produced by boiling grains. He mixes in an extract derived from various hop varieties to create popped corn that tastes like traditional brews. His creations have ranged from the Intense Pale Ale and Vanilla Bean Porter to Walter Weiss Beer and a coconut cream ale. One of Grieble's goals was to create a snack that complements beer, and it seems to be working. Says Grieble: "People taste it and say, 'This makes me want more beer.' "