Hops Luxury

Paul Blow

Who would have thought that the political season of 2008 would be so focused on America’s favorite thirst-quencher? First there was that controversial beer (and a shot) that Hillary Clinton drank in Indiana. Then there was the phenomenon of Obama beer in Kenya. And now John McCain has threatened to veto every single beer if he becomes president.

But all these are mere sideshows to the real Bittergate: how the global hops shortage is affecting the price of beer. This is a serious issue now that summer is upon us, as I’m of the mind that hoppy beers are what to drink on warm, gloriously light-filled summer afternoons, preferably in the shade and with a gentle breeze combing your hair. Redolent of a mountain meadow in bloom, a well-hopped brew delivers a refreshing, cleansing bitterness like nothing else.

Beer hops—the flowering cone of the hop plant—are grown mainly in Germany and the United States (particularly in Oregon and Washington). The combination of a declining number of growers worldwide, the incursion of other crops like grains and grapes into hop-growing regions, and a giant hop warehouse fire in Washington has made this crucial ingredient in beer brewing scarce and expensive.

Used in beer-making for about 1,000 years, hops serve many wonderful functions. For the brewer, hops have an antibiotic effect during fermentation, promoting the development of healthy brewer’s yeast while discouraging nasty yeasts and bacteria that could sour a batch. For the drinker, hops provide compelling flavors and aromas, from citrus and fruity notes to scents reminiscent of grass and flowers. And, of course, they add the bitter component, which in so many beers balances the sweet and even cloying maltiness.

American brewers have lately been the world’s most enthusiastic users of hops. Sierra Nevada ignited the trend by (what a lot of people would consider) overhopping its Pale Ale, which started garnering acclaim in the 1980s. But Pale Ale’s rampant popularity turned a beer that was an anomaly at the time into the definitive example of a popular new style. Microbrewers on the West Coast continued to ramp things up with their appropriation of the English IPA (India pale ale), as a high-alcohol, superhoppy juggernaut. And from there, things just continued to get hoppier, which is why we see offerings like Lagunitas Brewing Company’s Hop Stoopid, or Hopsickle Imperial Ale from Moylan’s, which is billed as “triple hoppy” and “the hoppiest beer on earth.”

While hops in and of themselves are fine, going overboard with them is not the key to making great beer. Hops, for all their glory, must be balanced against other flavors and textures: sweetness, richness, and toastiness. But, when balanced correctly, a hoppy beer is what I’m reaching for on a hot, sunny summer day. And I’m willing to pay the price. Here are my two favorites:

Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA—One of the hoppiest IPAs you’ll find, very floral and aggressive, yet held together by intensely sweet grain and honeyed malt flavors. By balancing these extremes, it works, making for a gorgeous and intense drinking experience. $8.99 from BevMo!

Victory HopDevil Ale—Another strong ale, the hops in this one take on a citrus, almost grapefruit flavor as well as a piney bitterness. These tastes are layered on top of a bready richness, and the finish is clear and hoppy with notes of lemon. $8.59 from Argonaut Liquor.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.