Brewers and drinkers alike know all about the most popular hops in use today. These hops are used everywhere and so well known due to a couple primary reasons:
- First, as IPAs have grown to be almost half of every brewery’s tap list, their IPAs are commonly being separated by the types of hops they use. IPA beer names often reference the primary hop (see Citradelic), or are a part of a “series” that tend to keep the same grist, while highlighting different hop combinations as the series progresses.
- Secondly, the marketing for trademarked hops is at an all-time high as hop breeders try to recoup what has become a 10+ year process to develop new varieties.
All of this hype over specific hops has had an unintended downfall: as demand increased, so has their prices. This has happened most drastically with the “juicy” hops that have given rise to the popular New England-style IPAs. Galaxy, Citra and Mosaic hops are all now household names for beer drinkers, but there are many other varieties that have risen to their level over the last couple of years. Simcoe, Amarillo and El Dorado are all in the top ten most-used hops within IPAs.
The Marketing Engine
Out of the top ten IPA hops, 60% are trademarked varieties. That percentage grows to 75% when looking at the top twenty. Trademarked hops can’t be grown by just anyone. Their production and availability limited to what the creators of that variety will allow. For example, the Hop Breeding Company (HBC) owns Citra’s varietal rights, and only the farmers they designate are allowed to grow the world’s top hop.
HBC is a joint venture between Yakima Chief Ranches LLC and John I. Haas Inc., two of the largest hop producers in the US. Combined, they control four of the top ten hops by US production levels in 2019.
Because companies such as the HBC control the production of their “owned” hops, they also reap the benefits in the form of license fees. Yakima Chief Ranches proudly boast that their supply chain returns significantly higher revenue per acre to growers than the industry average. These returns are used to grow higher quality hops, to reinvest in facilities and personnel, and to maintain fair profit margins.
Hop breeders need to make money to recoup on their investments. No one is faulting them for that. We live in a capitalist society, and every business should be able to earn whatever they can by selling their products. This is instead meant to highlight that many of the most popular hops need to be highly used in order to stay profitable for their creators.
Now of course, this hype is not entirely – or even remotely – unwarranted. In fact, almost every hop mentioned thus far is also one of the most intense hops you can buy. Hops have come a long way since their bittering-use days, and intense fruit aroma and flavors are demanded by many breweries.
Because of everything we learned here today, we can safely assume there are equally great hops existing that aren’t being pushed by large marketing departments behind them. These hops are used heavily by brewers that know better, but typically don’t get the wide recognition they likely deserve. BeerMaverick set out to find these hops.
How we Found These Hops
We spoke to a few hop suppliers such as Dylan K. at HopHavoc around the country to compile a list of the top 5 hops that don’t get the notoriety they so rightly deserve.
We wanted to find hops that suppliers and growers scratch their head at night wondering why they aren’t selling more of it. With the help of a few industry insiders, we finally put our list together of the top five hops that don’t get their due.
There are also a few trends you’ll start to notice with the hops in this list. Every single hop here is…
- … not ancient like Saaz or Hallertau hops, but they’ve been around for a while.
- … a trademarked variety. When heavy marketing isn’t pushing them, their usage tends to drop as newer cultivars are released.
- … can be grown at home under the right conditions.
Nugget is a dual-purpose hop that has strong floral and herbal qualities. It is an excellent high-alpha bittering hop because it tops out at almost 16%AA(!), but for most craft styles that can also be utilized for its mild, pleasant and herbal aroma notes. It sometimes has minimal notes of lemon citrus, and a low fruity characteristic described as peach, pineapple and lychee.
Nugget was first bred by the USDA in 1970 and released to the public in 1983. It is a hybrid of Brewers Gold and a high alpha acid male. By 1991, Nugget was highly used across the industry, accounting for over 14% of all US hop production. By 2016, that percentage had dropped to only 3.6%, and between 2015 and 2019, Nugget lost over 22% of its US production volume as farm land was being transitioned to grow newer, trademarked varieties.
I first became familiar with the Nugget hop after trying Tröegs Nugget Nectar a few years back. While Nugget is only used hot side in this Imperial Amber Ale, it takes center stage, adding dank notes of pine and grapefruit according to Brewmaster John Trogner.
Side note: in researching this article, I came across a Zymurgy clone of Nugget Nectar. This is definitely going into my “to do” brew list.
Chinook was originally bred in 1974 by the famous research scientist Chuck Zimmermann while working for the USDA hop breeding program in Prosser, Washington. In 1985, it was released to the brewing public just in time for the craft beer revolution.
Chinook hops have quite the cult following among some groups of home brewers. This dual-purpose hop has intensely strong pine and resin aromas, and has seen its US production grow throughout the last 5 years by over 46%.
Despite Chinook’s rise to one of the top ten most produced hops in the US, it is continuously undervalued when compared to other hops, primarily within IPAs. This is probably due to the fact that it has virtually no “juiciness” factor, but the major burst of pine aroma more than makes up for it.
Cluster hops are one of America’s oldest varieties, and is most often used as a bittering hop. At the beginning of the 20th century, Cluster accounted for 96% of the total acreage of hops grown in the United States, and remained that way until the 1970s.
Over the years, Cluster has given way to newer bittering varieties such as Warrior, Magnum and more recently Apollo and Pahto. While the Cluster is still grown to the tune of almost 1 million pounds in 2019, it is mostly a forgotten hop.
However, there are some in the industry that would like to see a comeback. Aaron Reilly, Head Brewer of the Basecamp Brewpub, said he’d “love to see a resurgence of Cluster.” So would we – it has a perfectly neutral flavor, great storage qualities and one of the most prolific hops that can be grown at home.
Selected in 1961 and released in 1974 by the USDA, Comet was originally utilized for its high alpha acid. After Comet was released, it was met with some resistance. Many brewers actually found comet hops too fruity. By the 1980s it was being pushed aside commercially for other super alpha varieties.
A few decades later, Comet hops now seem to be mounting a comeback. Comet US production levels have grown by over 158% in the last five years, but still only account for about 500 thousand pounds a year… or about 4% of Citra’s yearly output.
Comet is often referred to as a Citra’s little sister, but I find a get a lot more dank and grassy notes from Comet than I ever do with Citra. They are close for sure, but Comet has an aroma unique and strong enough that can stand to get a bit more prominence within the industry.
Comet’s flavor profile rests heavily on a strong accent of grapefruit, and had been primarily thought of as a bittering hop. Lately as brewers try to cut down on Citra usage due to cost and availability, Comet hops are increasingly being utilized in dry hops, lending to its rise in production as well.
Triumph hops break the mold we’ve been adhering to in this list. Released by the USDA in 2019, this brand new dual-purpose hop has a parentage that includes Nugget, Brewers Gold, EKG, and Hallertau Mittelfruh.
Triumph hops have fruity aromas with prominent peach, lime, and orange and is often looked at as the hop equivalent of Juicy Fruit gum. Triumph is more delicate than other fruit-forward varieties, but still robust enough to be used in any juicy NEIPA. Triumph has noble hops in its heritage, which lends to it exhibiting lighter characteristics in beer at times.
Triumph’s US production levels as of 2019 were still miniscule. It didn’t even rank in the top 50 most produced hop varieties in the US, but 2020 was likely to change that.
The USDA has spent almost two decades perfecting this hop, and when it was released in 2019, there was virtually no fanfare around it. It is a virtually unknown variety by most because it isn’t hyped by any of the major hop producers because it directly competes with their prized crops.
However, this hop deserves its due. Eventually brewers and drinkers alike will be turned on to how well this hop works in almost any style of beer.
Featured photo at top courtesy Tröegs Independent Brewing.