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Homebrewing: A Guide to Essential Hop Varieties

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[Photograph: Sarah Postma]

Knowing your hops is key to brewing great beer. There are dozens of varieties to choose from, and each year seems to bring more. Being familiar with the characteristics of a few essential hops can help you improve your recipe designs and make it easier to find substitutions when your homebrew shop's selection runs low. Here are a few tips on common hop varieties and the best way to use them.

United Kingdom Hop Varieties

Golding hops are an old English hop variety with a sweet floral character and a medium bitterness at 4-6% alpha acid. Their primary use is for flavor and aroma, and they work well as a dry hop in English Pale Ales. Regional variations with very slight flavor differences may be referred to as Kent Goldings, East Kent Goldings, and Styrian Goldings.

Challenger may be one of the most versatile hops to come from the UK. At about 8% AA, it makes a fantastic bittering hop but it also has an excellent spicy aroma. Any English style beer can use Challenger hops, including Bitter, Barley Wine, and Brown Porter. I wouldn't limit the use of this hop to European beers, however. Challenger can provide a bittering base for an American IPA to balance out the citrusy hops used later in the boil.

Fuggle hops are among the most popular varieties used by British brewers. Even though they have a low 3.5-6% AA, Fuggles work well as a 60 minute addition in an English Mild or Bitter. If you add more than a couple ounces for a long boil, you may get a slight vegetal flavor coming through in the finished product. A short boil of Fuggles produces herbal and earthy aromas and flavors.

United States Hop Varieties

Centennial hops are my go-to bittering variety for every American beer style. The classic citrus and floral flavors are not as overwhelming as some newer varieties, but they are crisp and distinctive. Since the alpha acid content can be over 10%, it takes no more than an ounce or two in 5 gallons of beer to provide a nice bittering base. Using Centennial later in the boil will provide a good aroma as well, but I'll often use the more complex Cascade at that point to complement the Centennial base.

Willamette hops have a very mild bitterness for an American hop variety. They're generally 3-5% AA and work mostly as an aroma hop. Willamette hops are also unique in that they lack the citrus character found in other American hops. Instead, herb and earth characteristics are reminiscent of the Fuggle varieties they were bred from. While Willamette hops are classic finishing hops for an American Pale Ale, you can also use them in English style beers such as an ESB or a Brown Porter.

Simcoe is a newer American variety that stands on its own, but really shines when used to bring balance to other citrus-flavored American hops. With a 9% alpha acid content, this hop can be used for bittering, flavor, or aroma. If you use this hop by itself in a recipe, you can expect an intense pine and resin character in your beer. When using Simcoe as a dry hop, I find a little more fruit character coming through—it reminds me more of pineapple than oranges or grapefruit.

German and Czech Hop Varieties (Noble Hops)

Tettnanger is one of the original Noble Hops, a group of low bitterness, high aroma varieties used in traditional European lagers. The aroma is floral and spicy, and I find it produces subtle black tea-like flavors when larger quantities are boiled for longer than 30 minutes. This hop can be used in any German style beer, and wouldn't be out of place in a Belgian Abbey or Farmhouse style ale. Don't go overboard when using Tettnager hops, since its strongest point is subtle complexity.

Hallertau is the quintessential German Lager hop. With it's low 4% alpha acid content, it does not work well for bittering, but it produces the ultimate refined flavor and aroma that is required for a German Pilsner. There are actually several varieties that use the Hallertau name. Hallertau Tradition is actually a newer, more disease resistant version of the original Hallertau Mittelfruh variety. Hallertau Hersbrucker is a slightly more fruit flavored variety. These types are similar enough to be substituted for each other without really changing the flavor of your beer.

Saaz is a Czech Noble hop that is essential in any Bohemian Pilsner recipe. The predominant characteristics are are spicy, herbal, and piney, while the citrus character is almost nonexistent. Like other Noble hops, it has a low 3.5% alpha acid content that will not produce a bitter beer, but will add an excellent complexity to a clean and crisp malt profile.

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