American IPAs Part 3 – Five hops that shaped your IPA

To finish my three part series on American IPAs (better late than never) we return to where it all started—to the bold, flavorful hop varieties born and bred in the USA.  Within the IPA genre it’s a big tent approach when it comes to the malt bill—East Coast, West Coast, Session IPA, Double IPA, Rye IPA, Black IPA—but for most people it’s just not an IPA without American hops (apologies to the anglophiles out there). Good luck finding a readily available American brewed IPA that doesn’t contain American hops. Even Ohio’s best-selling IPA, Commodore Perry IPA from Great Lakes, bills itself as a British-style IPA yet uses American bred Simcoe and Cascade hops.

The concept of terroir is a big deal in the wine world, but at the risk of alienating any oenophiles who might stumble onto this blog let me point out that most of the wines produced in the US are based on Eurasian grape varieties—Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, etc.  On the other hand, the hop varieties that define the American style IPA, are uniquely North American.  I’m not sticking my neck out very far to claim that Centennial hops from the Yakima Valley differ from German grown Hallertauer hops much more than Merlot grapes grown in Napa Valley differ from those grown in Bordeaux.  So it’s only logical that the different expressions of what has become the national drink are inexorably tied to advances in hop breeding and farming.

According to statistics compiled by the Hop Growers of America here are the top ten hop varieties produced last year (2015) in the state of Washington, which accounts for over 70% of all hops produced in the United States:

  1. Cascade 9,553,300 lbs (+8.3%)
  2. Zeus 8,426,300 lbs (−11.2%)
  3. Simcoe 4,489,500 lbs (+60.0%)
  4. Centennial 4,317,300 (+13.1%)
  5. Columbus/Tomahawk 4,223,400 lbs (−7.6%)
  6. Citra 3,597,200 lbs (+37.2%)
  7. Summit 3,189,600 (−39.9%)
  8. Mosaic 3,111,600 lbs (+108.4%)
  9. Chinook 2,331,100 (−1.0%)
  10. Apollo 1,938,600 lbs (+4.6%)

The percent change from 2014 to 2015 is given in parentheses.  Notice that growers are producing less of hop varieties that are primarily used for bittering (Zeus, Columbus/Tomahawk, and Summit), and replacing them with fruity aroma hop varieties (Simcoe, Citra, and Mosaic) whose popularity is skyrocketing.  This supports the point I made in the first two posts, people are gravitating toward less bitter more aromatic IPAs. The stats don’t lie.

Let’s take a closer look at five hop varieties that have changed the very essence of IPAs.

hops on the bine

Cascade – America gets its own aroma hop

Although hop farming in the Pacific Northwest dates back to the mid-1800s, until 40-50 years ago the growers concentrated almost exclusively on bittering hops (mostly Cluster) while aroma and flavor hops were imported from Europe.  After prohibition the US government established USDA hop breeding program at Oregon State University in an attempt to boost the beer industry.  It took decades but this effort eventually led to the birth of the hop that changed American beer forever, Cascade.  As an alumnus of Oregon State University I think it is one of the best things to come out of Corvallis, right up there with Linus Pauling and Dick Fosberry.

In 1956 USDA scientist Stan Brooks took a female hop with English Fuggle and Russian Serebrianker parentage and wind pollinated it with an unknown wild American male hop.  Cascade may be a child of the 1950s, but unlike rock’n’roll it was not an instant hit.  In fact it was known simply as experimental hop 56013 until 1972.  It finally got its chance in the late 1960’s when verticillium wilt devastated the hop fields in Germany and the price of imported hops shot up. Desperate for a more reasonably priced alternative, Coors became the first brewery to start using Cascade hops. In 1976 Cascade accounted for 13% of hop acreage in the United States, but its citrusy aroma was deemed to assertive and Coors phased it out.  Supplies exceeded demand and farmers started taking Cascade out of the ground, production shrank by 80% between 1981 and 1988. Fortunately breweries like Anchor and Sierra Nevada had discovered Cascade by this time and kept it alive long enough for the first big wave of craft breweries to latch onto it.  From those humble beginnings Cascade has become the best-selling American-grown aroma hop and shows no sign of slowing down. In fact the size of the Cascade hop harvest has more than doubled in the last five years.  Grab a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale to experience of the flavor and aroma of Cascade hops first-hand.


Centennial – Breeders pump up the volume

First bred in 1972 at the USDA hop breeding facility in Prosser, Washington, but not released in the open market until 1990, Centennial hops are often described as Cascade on steroids.  Although the two hops share similar grapefruit, pine, floral characteristics, the alpha acids are much higher in Centennial (9.5-11.5% vs 4.5-7.0% in Cascade) as are the levels of essential oils (1.5-2.3% vs 0.7-1.4% in Cascade).

Many beloved IPAs contain Centennial hops.  The venerable Bell’s Two Hearted Ale relies exclusively on Centennial hops and remains one of the most distinctive expressions of its aromas and flavors.  In the last post we looked at the recipe for Stone’s Ruination IPA, which relies heavily on Centennial hops, particularly before they revamped the recipe in 2015. Barley’s Centennial IPA is another classic beer that showcases this hop variety, which by the way predates the Founder’s beer of the same name by many years.  Barley’s brewmaster Angelo Signorino told me he was inspired to design a beer around Centennial hops during the winter of 1994 when there was a shortage of Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale, one of the oldest commercial beers to use Centennial hops. I asked Angelo what makes Centennial hops so special?

“It could be sentiment. Being the first real super grapefruit-type hop, but Centennial has a very special place in my heart (and on my palate). They are certainly citrusy and floral, but there are new cultivars that are at least as pleasant. These days we’ve been blending other varieties with Centennial to try to get the “juiciness” that is the rage. Thanks to your questioning, I’m now inspired to make a single hop beer with Centennial just to revisit its flavor and aroma.”

For amateurs like me it’s not always easy differentiating Centennial and Cascade, I asked Angelo how these two hops are distinct from each other.

“As well as having more alpha acid they (Centennial) have more oils than Cascade altogether. At a seminar last week it was brought up that more oils don’t necessarily mean more flavor and aroma, but I find Centennial packing much more of a flavor and aroma wallop than Cascade.”

Oregon grown hops from Rogue Farms in the heart of the Willamette Valley. Photo taken from the

Simcoe & Citra – Proprietary Hops Make a Splash

The government sponsored hop breeding program was responsible for developing the hops that powered the early growth of the craft beer movement, but moving into the 21st century the hop strains that have generated the most excitement have largely come from private hop breeding programs (as well as New Zealand and Australia, but that’s a story for another post).  Of the hops that hit the market in the first decade of this century, no two hops have been more influential than Simcoe and Citra.

Simcoe was developed by Select Botanicals Group (SBG) in Yakima Washington, and first released in 2000.  It took a while to catch on, but the popularity of beers like Weyerbacher’s Double Simcoe IPA and Russian River’s Pliny the Elder eventually put a spotlight on Simcoe and other brewers eventually followed. As you can see in the chart below demand for Simcoe has been climbing sharply since 2010. Production has increased ten-fold over the past five years, recently passing the less expensive Centennial hops.

American IPAs hop production
The size in pounds of the annual harvest of Centennial, Simcoe and Citra hops in Washington state over the past 8 years. Statistics taken from the Hop Growers of America.

Few if any breweries make better IPAs than Fat Head’s Brewery in the suburbs of Cleveland, and they’ve got the hardware to prove it.  Hop Juju Imperial IPA is the reigning gold medalist from both the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) and World Beer Cup (WBC)!  Head Hunter IPA has collected four medals in the American-style IPA category from the GABF and WBC over the past six years.  Bonehead Imperial Red Ale won a gold medal at the 2015 GABF and a silver at the 2014 WBC.  All three beers, as well as their delicious Sunshine Daydream Session IPA, contain Simcoe hops.  So I asked brewmaster Matt Cole what makes Simcoe hops so sought after.

“Simcoe is a highly versatile hop good for both bittering and aroma. Its high oil content and tropical fruitiness makes it one of the few hops suitable for single hop beers.  Simcoe has a complex aroma and flavor that is packed with tropical fruits such as mango, pineapple, guava, and passion fruit balanced by undertones of pine/woody character.

Simcoe works great as a single hop but blends well with other hops, especially C hops varieties like Cascade, Citra, Centennial, and Chinook.  It also works nicely with newer varieties like Moasic, Galaxy, Equinox and Mandarina.

Early and late harvest Simcoe differ greatly. Early harvest Simcoe (late August) has an abundance of tropical fruits and less pine. Later harvest Simcoe has more pine and catty/dank like character. Later harvest Simcoe also picks up garlic and onion notes. At Fat Heads Brewery we prefer a blend of late and early harvest Simcoe.”

If like me you find some Simcoe beers delicious and others too dank and catty now you know why.

Simcoe is not the only highly coveted proprietary hop.  As evidenced in the chart above, Citra may have started off slower than Simcoe but in recent years production levels of the two hops are growing at similar rates. The birth and eventual proliferation of Citra hops is an interesting story.  First bred in 1990 by Gene Probasco at the John I. Haas Co. (now the Hop Breeding Company, HBC).  The initial breeding effort is described this way in Stan Hieronymous’s book “For the Love of Hops”

“It was part of a project for a brewery client, one that lasted three years and created 150 potential cultivars.  The brewery produced single-hop beers with each of them, and Probasco tasted them all.  The one brewed with a hop called X-114 stood out. ‘I recognized that as something special’ he said.”

As it turns out nothing came of the initial project, but Probasco kept growing a small plot of hop X-114.  Another brewery took a look at X-114 but also passed on it.  Looking for a citrus variety Miller Brewing became interested for a couple of years in the early 2000s. They brewed small test batches but never took the plunge.  Eventually Widmer Brothers, Deschutes, and Sierra Nevada became interested enough to finance more acreage.  In 2008 Widmer brewed an American Pale Ale dubbed X-114 that was dry hopped exclusively with Citra. When X-114 took home a gold medal from the World Beer Cup everyone took notice, and orders for a hop that was first bred 18 years earlier suddenly went through the roof.

Unlike hops bred and developed by the USDA, not just anyone can grow hops that are developed by private companies like HBC and SBG.  If the breeder so chooses they can be the sole supplier, as demand rises they can license other suppliers to grow their hops for a fee (think of it as a royalty on every pound of hops produced).  The bottom line is that availability tends to be more limited and prices higher.  Consider the following spot prices from the 2014 harvest (prices from the Country Malt Group), public hops like Cascade ($6.45/lb), Chinook ($7.15/lb), and Centennial ($9.47/lb) are markedly cheaper than proprietary hops like Simcoe ($13.15/lb) and Mosaic ($10.80 lb).  It’s worth noting that Citra hops were not even available on the list I was privy to, and contracts for Citra hops are sold out through the year 2021.

Last year I asked Land Grant’s co-founder and president, Adam Benner, to name his favorite hop.  Given the fact that Benner lived in Chicago prior to opening Land Grant it’s not too surprising that what is arguably the most sought after Citra hop beer, Three Floyd’s Zombie Dust, figured in his answer.

“I love Citra forward beers. I remember having Zombie Dust at Dark Lord Day a few years back when it debuted, and I was taken aback by the odd pungent/catty smell that is the trademark of Citra. We did a batch of our 1862 Ale that we normally dry hop with Cascade, and used Citra, though it was light since it was just a dry hop it was a delicious beer.”

At that point in time Land Grant was not able to reliably obtain Citra hops, but has since established contracts to obtain a supply.  One outcome of this fortunate arrangement is their ode to the Columbus Crew, Glory.  Their summer seasonal is a hoppy American wheat beer that uses Citra hops exclusively for aroma and flavor.  I think it pairs beautifully with the subtle citrus notes I tend to associate with wheat malts.  It’s certainly a luxury to be able to satisfy your craving for Citra without driving to the Three Floyd’s brewpub where upon arrival Zombie Dust may or may not be available.

Glory to Columbus

Mosaic – The Sluttiest Hop

As Angelo alluded to in his earlier quote, these days most people are looking for IPAs bursting with tropical fruit flavor and aroma—mangos, pineapples, and more exotic fruits that most of us have never tasted like lychee and gooseberry.  No “juicy, tropical fruit” hop has seen a more rapid rise in popularity than Mosaic.  Bred from Simcoe and Nugget by the Hop Breeding Company (HBC) it has better disease resistance and yield than Simcoe, but with many of the aroma characteristics of its mother and then some.  Commercial production only began in 2012, but the Washington harvest has increased five-fold in two short years, from 653,000 lbs in 2013 to 3,111,6000 lbs in 2015. Want more proof of Moaic’s unbelievable popularity?  Bryan Roth analyzed lists of the “Best Beers of 2015” on his blog This is Why I’m Drunk and found that Mosaic hops were featured in 19 of the 42 best IPAs on his list, 50% more than the number of beers containing the runner up hop, Citra.

The name Mosaic was chosen because these hops are said to present a mosaic of flavors and aromas—mango, citrus, lemon, pine, melon, and for some people blueberry.  My first encounter with Mosaic hops was in the Great Lakes DIPA, Alchemy Hour, first released in February of 2013 and since renamed Chillwave.  That beer immediately caught my attention for the juicy, tropical fruit character of the hops.  I’m not embarrassed to say that I was immediately smitten by it. Not too long afterward Mosaic hops showed up in one of the gems of the Central Ohio beer scene, Seventh Son’s Humulus Nimbus Super Pale Ale.  I asked head brewer Colin Vent where the inspiration for that beer came from?

“We actually stumbled onto Mosaic early on due to a tip from a Great Lakes sales rep. It was very new to the market, only a handful of the big guys had started messing around with it, so we somewhat blindly wrote pretty big contracts for it. Luckily for us it turned out to be a great hop, very dynamic. Nimbus’s main hop character is a combination of Mosaic and Simcoe (one of Mosaic’s parents). The pine character in the beer is primarily from the Simcoe with an extra hint from the Mosaic, and the fruit of the Mosaic is likewise boosted by the pineapple-cattyness of the Simcoe.”

When we had Hoof Hearted brewmaster Trevor Williams on the Pat’s Pints Podcast in February, he remarked that Hoof Hearted is the sluttiest of hops (a quote borrowed from Augie Carton host of the Steal This Beer podcast).  Mosaic’s reputation for promiscuity comes from the fact that it works so well when paired with other hops.  When Sam Hickey, brewmaster at Smokehouse and Commonhouse Ales, made a similar comment on the last Pat’s Pints Podcast I asked him to expand on how Mosaic pairs with other hops.

“I don’t get a big “wow” factor out of single hop Mosaic beers, especially for their price points. However, Mosaic works great with paired with other varietals.  Depending on how it’s utilized it can actually pull notes and accents out of other hops that otherwise aren’t all that recognizable. A great example that I mentioned during the podcast is at Mystic, the last brewery I worked at, our first IPA utilized Mosaic and Tettnang. A weird combo indeed, but along with the obvious tangerine notes, we were also getting subtle gooseberry notes that really surprised us.”

Humulus Nimbus_Telluride
Seventh Son’s Humulus Nimbus, an incestuous canvas for the promiscuous Mosaic hop variety and its mother Simcoe.

The Art of Hop Pairing

Sam’s comments about how the right combination of hops can be more than the sum of their ingredients piqued my curiosity.  I asked Chris Davison, head brewer at Wolf’s Ridge, to elaborate on this point. He feels that the best beers feature a mixture of the 20th century “C hops” and 21st century “juicy hops”.

“I’ve found that most often a hop will benefit from pairing it with another hop vs being in a single-hopped beer. While single hopping or brewing a “SMASH” (single malt & single hop) beer is a great way to learn about one particular ingredient, those beers are often unbalanced and less interesting than more thoughtfully crafted beers.

As for hop combinations, there are some really great classics – Simcoe & Amarillo, Centennial & Chinook. More recently I’ve had great luck pairing El Dorado with Cascade. Individually I find El Dorado fairly subtle compared to Citra or Centennial. Whereas Cascade on its own, I hate to say, smells like 1996. It’s a wonderful hop and still heavily used (and justly so), but a beer predominately hopped with Cascade is often spicy and floral and lacking in the intensity of modern hopped beers. If a brewery hasn’t changed their IPA recipe in 12+ years there’s probably close a to 95% chance it uses a lot of Cascade. Combined, however, Cascade and El Dorado create a rich and juicy hop flavor with big citrus elements and notes of cherry.

Hops like Centennial, Chinook, and Cascade also more generally help balance and blend hop profiles in big hoppy beers for me. When I layer nothing but Mosaic, Amarillo, and Galaxy they all bleed together. They each have big fruity profiles so it’s difficult to tease out each hop’s contribution. But once I toss in some Chinook or Centennial they all pop a little more because there’s suddenly a contrasting element – spice, pine, or grapefruit vs all the tropical fruit and soft floral qualities. Together they work to create a more dynamic and engaging product in my opinion.”

Sam Hickey also had an interesting take on Amarillo, perhaps the most American of hops because it was not produced in a breeding program but found growing wild in one of the hop fields in the Yakima valley.

“I feel similar about Amarillo and Mosaic (ironically the two are paired together in our hoppy wheat ale, Hoptopuss), both are better when paired with other hops. For a long time actually, I didn’t even like Amarillo. I think it was either because so many beers use it that it’s a flavor I’ve grown accustom to, or more likely it took a little while to be properly utilized in beer… meaning we had to learn how to use it properly. It’s pretty high in alpha acids so many brewers, especially when it first came out, were using it in a bittering manner. I find that when you do a long boil with this hop it yields some garlic and onion notes that I am not a fan of in my beer. But if used later on, without over doing it, and paired with other zest/tropical forward varietals, it can be a really nice addition to a hop forward beer.”

Wolfs Ridge Basement
Wolf’s Ridge head brewer Chris Davison (left) – If your IPA relies heavily on Cascade hops I hate to say so, but it smells like 1996..

The Next Big Thing

Where do we go from here?  Chris Davison isn’t the only brewer enamored with El Dorado hops.  The harvest of those hops is growing rapidly, increasing from 144,400 lbs in 2013 to 523,500 lbs in 2015.  Certainly hops from New Zealand (Nelson Sauvin, Motueka) and Australia (Galaxy, Ella) are hot and will likely continue to be so. Even in Germany, where brewing traditions tend to be very conservative, breeders have started to breed American hops like Cascade with European hops in an attempt to introduce more fruity flavors.  The resulting hops like Mandarina Bavaria and Hüll Melon bear characteristics of both new and old world hops.

Earlier this year Actual Brewing released Magnon IPA, which features two proprietary hops that only recently came on the market, Eureka! and Lemondrop, both of which were developed by Hopsteiner.  I asked Actual founder and president Fred Lee how they settled on these hops. His answer shows that even when exciting new hop varieties become available, brewers are hesitant to commit to them until a reliable supply is assured.

“The initial versions of our Conductor Imperial Rye were made from two experimental hops USDA 05256 and 07270. The former, 05256, is now called Eureka! while 07270 is still available as an experimental hop. While it was a very pleasing combination, it was not sustainable without years of contracting hops (which we eventually did). So pretty early on we switched to three commercially available hops: Amarillo, Citra, and Falconer’s Flight.

That said the hop bill in the original version of Conductor was a magical ratio. We didn’t want to lose it, so we studied the aroma profile in our lab and set to work on what would eventually become the base hop bill for our new flagship beer, our first ever true-to-style American IPA, Magnon.  It uses the newly named Eureka! and another brand spanking new hop, Lemondrop. To get a complex flavor/aroma profile a precise ratio of these two hops is added each minute during the last 20 minutes.”

Well that wraps up this three part series on the evolution of the American IPA.  Thanks to all of the brewers who took the time to answer my questions.  If you missed the earlier two posts the links below will take you to them.

American IPAs Part 1 – Not your father’s IPA

American IPAs Part 2 – (Hop) Timing is Everything

6 thoughts on “American IPAs Part 3 – Five hops that shaped your IPA

Add yours

  1. “Centennial hops from the Yakima Valley differ from German grown Hallertauer hops much more than Merlot grapes grown in Napa Valley differ from those grown in Bordeaux.”

    Not really a fair comparison. I’d suggest that Cascade grown in the US differs from Cascade grown in the UK by as much as New World Cabernet or Pinot Noir differs from their equivalents in Bordeaux or Burgundy – and for similar reasons – milder climate and less intense sunlight leads to more subtle flavours. Qv also Fuggles in its different incarnations around the world. Ali Capper has done various papers/presentations on this kind of thing, British Cascade has around 2/3 of the myrcene of US Cascade. Offhand I can’t find the one I’m thinking of which really goes into detail, but Googling her name and “What makes British hops unique” will turn up a less detailed presentation with some numbers in.

    Comparing Centennial with Hallertauer is more like comparing Pinotage or St Pepin with Cabernet Franc, you’re mixing DNA with terroir. I suspect we will see people thinking more about terroir for hops – already you have PGI status (roughly equivalent to appellation controlee) for East Kent Goldings, and I guess you could view the fresh/green hop movement as another expression of the trend.

    I’d suggest another really important beer for Citra is/was Oakham Citra, introduced in 2010. It’s the only really mainstream British beer that I can think of to be named for its hop, and has made it one of the few hops that get recognised by name here.

    1. You’ll get no argument from me on the point you make, namely that comparing different varieties of hops (Centennial vs Hallertauer) is akin to comparing different varieties of grapes, and not so much like comparing the same strain grown in different places. The point I was trying to make was that most American wines use grapes that originated in Europe/Asia, whereas most American IPAs use hop varieties that were bred in North America (or Australia/New Zealand).

      Thanks for pointing out some good references on the influence of growing conditions on the chemicals in a given hop variety. I will be sure to check that out. I was not aware of Oakham Citra, but I may be spending a sabbatical in the UK next year and if that comes to pass I’ll be looking forward to exploring British beer, including hop forward and American influenced styles. Is Oakham Citra still around and if so how widely available is it?

      1. I don’t see the location of the breeding station as so important, given that the germplasm has often come from overseas – Ernest Salmon grew a Manitoban hop at Wye that was the mother of Brewer’s Gold and hence an ancestor of just about every high-alpha hop thereafter, whereas Fuggle was a key part of the breeding at Oregon State that led to Cascade and descendants. Germplasm has long been exchanged globally, so I don’t get too proprietorial about it, whereas the environmental aspects of terroir are real but relatively underappreciated by beer people. In fact there’s been a really good example of it in this year’s Goldings harvest in the UK – Herefordshire had a great harvest, Kent far less so, and even within the official East Kent PGI area there was a marked difference from one end to another. Last year was great for Goldings in Kent, the cones were bursting with oil, this year not so much, and far fewer cones on each bine.

        Citra’s the core beer of Oakham’s range, so it’s pretty widely available by the standards of an individual beer in this country (quite possibly you can even find it across the pond) but as one of the grandfathers of the British APA it’s perhaps the equivalent of Anchor Steam or Goose Island or something, no longer cool enough to feature in the hardcore keg ale bars. You’re more likely to find it in more “casual” (or more casky) beer places as a safe bet that they know they can sell.

        It’s interesting times in British beer – it’s a completely different market to the US, but the keg mob are now getting big enough to break out from the hipster niche, which is causing some strain with the cask school. If you do come, you’ll have to get used to the idea that a pint of 4% ABV is the One True Way to have a beer…

    2. You make a good point about beer folks downplaying the effects of terroir and season on the hops (and malts as well).

      If I come to the UK I’m looking forward to seeing how the British beer scene is evolving. No objections to 4% abv pints though. I’m a fan of sessionable beers.

  2. Cool article. Like the Ohio beer references. I never heard hops described as Catty before but it totally makes sense. Sometimes when cleaning out the cat litter, I get a flashback to certain beers I have had. Never would let the brewers know this but I am glad I am not crazy to have smelled it. Cheers! #beerup

    1. You are definitely not crazy to find some common aromas between certain kind of hops and the catbox. It’s a little strange that this is not necessarily a bad thing, but more than a hint is too much for most people.

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