America’s embrace of hops and the subsequent ways the country’s brewers have adapted to cater to them defines a national philosophy of beer that favors flavor and aroma over bitterness.

hops american brewing tradition

Photo by Mars Vilaubi

We’re witnessing something in the beer world as rare as the birth of a new indigenous language: the emergence of a new national brewing tradition.

What is national tradition? It’s a cultural institution, invisible, yet strangely powerful. Like other cultural institutions, it is created and perpetuated by interaction and familiarity. If you cross the border between Bavaria and Bohemia on a train, the landscape doesn’t change; the climate and soil doesn’t change. And yet the food in a Czech restaurant does not resemble German food.

All the great brewing countries have a distinctive approach that does not resemble the approach of even neighboring countries. Like cuisines, brewing traditions tend to stay within national borders. Lo and behold, Americans have a brewing tradition, too. When Americans started brewing nonindustrial lagers 30-odd years ago, they imitated the beer styles brewed in Europe; many of which still serve as a decent counterfeit for the originals. But where the real change has happened is in America’s embrace of hops and the subsequent ways we’ve adapted our brewing to cater to them. We think about hops differently from the way any other country ever has, we use them differently, and, in the true test of national tradition, our techniques are now influencing breweries elsewhere.

Developing a Tradition

Although there’s some dispute on exactly when all of this started, I credit Ken Grossman and Sierra Nevada with striking the note that has reverberated ever since. He laid the basic template in 1979 when he created the brewery’s Pale Ale, a beer that bore all the hallmarks of the American style: an ale designed so that all the other elements of the beer served to highlight the fresh, electric flavors of American hops. It borrowed a bit from the English tradition but deviated in key ways. At 5.6%, it was quite a bit stronger than English ales; it was a bit hoppier than English ales and, because it used local hops, tasted quite a bit different; finally, Grossman used a neutral yeast that didn’t contribute any fruitiness, leaving the caramel malts and Cascade hops to do all the talking.

Even more important, Sierra was miles ahead of the rest of the country in 1981 when they released their seasonal Celebration, the first modern American IPA. It’s amazing to me that this beer doesn’t get more attention for how much it anticipated what would ultimately become popular more than 20 years later. Even 35 years later it is remarkably current: a robust 6.8% beer with 65 bitterness units (unimaginable in 1981) and iridescent with those spiky, citrusy, piney flavors that are now the hallmark of American brewing.

It wasn’t until near the end of the 1990s that hoppy ales became popular. The first wave of hoppy beers leaned heavily on bitterness, and there was an unfortunate race to see who could pack the most IBUs into a beer. By the mid-2000s, breweries were starting to discover the pleasures of hops added later in the boil and conditioning tank, which both added tons of flavors and helped balance the high levels of bitterness.

Over the next decade the evolution continued, and bitterness slowly gave way as late-addition and dry hops came to characterize American beer. It has become such a prominent feature of American brewing that “hop bursting,” a practice homebrewers popularized in which no bittering hops are used, is now a regular commercial practice. In the mid-2000s America’s hoppy ales started impressing foreign brewers, and now “American-style” beers are made by small craft breweries all over the world.

This is something new in the world. In my survey of the historic sources, no country has ever focused so intently on late– and post–kettle hopping. Ever since hops were incorporated into brewing, there have been bitter beers. But because hops came along as a way of managing spoilage, that bitter charge has always been primary. British breweries have been dry-hopping for decades, but building beers around the intense flavors and aromas of hops is a style for which I have found no precedent.

Of course, it’s not entirely about hops. There are a few other key hallmarks of American brewing, so let’s run through the main points.

Two-row plus specialty malts. The four major European brewing countries lean very heavily on base malts to build the flavor profile of their beer. Americans have a recipe-based approach that starts with neutral two-row malt as “sugar” (the fermentables) and uses specialty malts for flavor and color. This is unusual, and no other country does it.

Crystal malt. Although use of crystal is tapering off, it has long been a key flavor marker for American ales (another legacy of Ken Grossman). Other countries use caramel malts in small proportions, but Americans use them to contribute both body and a distinct caramel flavor to their beer. The body helps buffer bitterness, and the caramel harmonizes nicely with the flavors in American hops. However, as Americans rely more and more on late-addition hops, crystal malts are being de-emphasized — but not eliminated.

Neutral yeasts. The most popular strain of ale yeast in the United States, by far, is the Chico strain (Wyeast 1056, White Labs WLP001, Safale Fermentis US-05), which ferments well and gets out of the way so the hops can shine. Guess which brewery “Chico” refers to? (Sierra Nevada.)

Strength and intensity. American beers have traditionally been stronger and more intense (whether they’re hoppy, tart, or malty) than beers elsewhere. This was partly because brewers and drinkers were unsophisticated; as the market matures, flavors are coming more into balance. It is nevertheless likely that, relative to other countries, Americans will always favor strength and intensity.

American hops and late-addition hops. These are by far the clearest marker of place. There is a worldwide move toward hop breeding, and breweries are moving in the direction of individualizing their beers with specific combinations of hops. This trend is aided by the focus on late-addition and dry hops, where the flavors and aromas of these new varieties are most expressive.

America is not at the terminal point of its evolution, but it is past the midway point. Drinkers and brewers are in agreement about the basic contours, and we’ll just have to wait and see where the ride takes us. Wherever the American tradition ultimately settles, it will revolve around lively hop flavors — and a style of brewing new to the world.

Text excerpted from The Secrets of Master Brewers © 2017 by Jeff Alworth. All rights reserved.

Jeff Alworth

Jeff Alworth has been writing about beer and brewing for twenty years. He is the author of The Beer Bible (Workman, 2015), Cider Made SimpleSee Bio

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The Secrets of Master Brewers

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