Hops For Sommeliers

  • By Martin Thibault
  • 14 Feb 2021
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 101
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The challenge with pairing beer and food has always been that the beer in your glass may have just as many ingredients as the dish on your plate: various cereals, malted (or not) and toasted to different levels, characterful hops (some to bitter, some to flavour, some to simply give aromatics), fermentation profiles shared by yeast (sometimes estery, sometimes phenolic, sometimes neutral)... And we haven’t even started talking about water profile, spices, fruit, sugars etc. While there are multiple opportunities for flavour and texture associations, as you can imagine, there are also snags and clashes aplenty if one doesn’t understand a given beer’s dominant features. 

So to kick off this series of articles for sommeliers, here is a review of some world-renowned hop cultivars and how they tend to impact the beer they are in. 

Saaz, Hallertau, and Spalt  

These renowned noble hops, like many others growing in Germany, Czechia and border regions, are the pride and joy of their respective cultures. Even when used generously in Czech Světlý (internationally known as Pilsner), in Franconian Kellerbier and other types of hop-forward lagers, they always remain elegant. None of that abrasive bitterness or “hop burn”, just a smooth presence to balance out the barley’s subtle sugars. And that light and refreshing greenness in the finish. Oh, the refreshment. 

Dominant flavours: Herbal, leafy, peppery 

Intensity: Delicate 

Pairing potential: White fish with lemon butter, chicken Florentine, shellfish   

Cascade, Centennial, and Chinook 

Once dominant on the American west coast brewing scene, these hop varieties now harken to the beginning of the craft beer revolution. Pungent citrus and floral flavours backed up by salient resinous bitterness… for ales that pack a punch. It's easy to understand why turn-of-the-century IPAs hopped with these cultivars were living metaphors of the revolution’s bold attitude. Now that craft beer is well and settled, these hops remain popular but mostly in beer styles where their resinous power is appreciated. West Coast-style IPAs, American-style Barley Wines, Black IPAs, etc.  

Dominant flavours: Floral, conifers, grapefruit 

Intensity: High  

Pairing potential: Curry dishes, beef chimichurri, carrot cake 

Citra, Mosaic, and Simcoe 

A decade or so after West Coast IPAs established their stardom, hop breeders were ready to roll out new cultivars. And these newly developed hops would change the craft beer scene once again. Suddenly, grapefruit aromas turned to peaches and passionfruit and brewers started working on dry-hopping methods to showcase even more of these wonderful aromas. Eventually, these hops became the stars of the latest beer trend: NEIPA (New England-style IPA). These hops’ juicy profiles were found to be perfect ambassadors for these hazy IPAs that were more and more taking on the appearance of fruit smoothies. 

Dominant flavours: Citrus, peach, tropical fruit 

Intensity: High 

Pairing potential: Tacos and salsa, ceviche with mango, BBQ short ribs 

Nelson Sauvin, Galaxy, and Motueka 

Simply put, Southern Hemisphere hops are as characterful as their cousins grown on the American West Coast, though their aromatic identity tends to include fruits that aren’t found in any other hop growing territory: key lime, gooseberry, and lychee on top of the modern passion fruit and mango. A vast array of more subtle cultivars, like Motueka and Rakau, offer similar notes but in a more restrained fashion, not unlike the moderate intensity of European noble hop classics. 

Dominant flavours: Tropical fruit, white grapes (Sauvignon Blanc in Nelson Sauvin), fieldberries 

Intensity: Medium to high  

Pairing potential: Thai papaya salad, spicy crab cakes, green asparagus 

Fuggles, Golding, and Challenger 

England’s traditional hop cultivars are unmistakable. Delicately aromatic and imbued with soft lengths, they could very well be linked to their noble German and Czech counterparts. But their aromatic profile is very much British. Evoking fog-covered grasses and the warm fruit-tinged leafy perfumes wafting from a high tea party, they are unique yet understated. As such, they tend to be present in low-gravity styles meant for friendly conversations: Bitter, Mild Ale, Golden Ale etc.  

Dominant flavours: Earth, tea leaves, mint 

Intensity: Moderate 

Pairing potential: Meat pie (crusts in general), fatty fish, butter chicken 

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