Not all IPAs are created equal. In this episode, in celebration of National IPA Day on August 6th, Beer Editor John Holl and industry icon and OG of the American craft-beer scene Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada Brewing talk about all things hoppy.
Over the last few decades, there’s been incredible evolution and experimentation in the world of hops. As a result, there is now so much to taste and explore as it pertains to the different aroma, flavor and textural additions each unique variety can offer to a final beer.
From discussing the style’s history and the beauty and versatility of the category to why today’s hazy and wet-hopped selections, or those that use fresh hop flowers as opposed to dried options, currently reign supreme, we explore all the lupulin love and the wonderful world of hop-fueled heaven.
Learn more about beer’s beautiful floral ingredient here, from trendy, aromatic selections to classic bitter varieties.
Check out current reviews of America’s favorite craft-beer category.
Enjoy this guide to find your own hop-fueled beer Goldilocks based on your wine preferences.
Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.
Lauren Buzzeo 0:09
Hello, and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast, your serving of wine trends and passionate people beyond the bottle. I’m Lauren Buzzeo, the managing editor here at Wine Enthusiast, and in this episode, we’re taking a detour into the delicious world of craft beer. IPAs remain all the rage in the beer world. But not all IPAs are created equal. To celebrate National IPA Day on August 6, Beer Editor John Holl and industry icon and O.G. of the American craft beer scene, Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada Brewing, talk about all things hoppy. Musing on the styles history in the States, the beauty and versatility of the style and why hazy and wet hops selections, or those that use fresh hop flowers as opposed to dried options, currently reign supreme. So get ready for your mouth to water as we explore the wonderful world of hop-fueled heaven.
John Holl 1:10
There’s a lot of folks who are still coming into craft beer, who are still trying to experience it even for the first time and hops, I think, still are a hurdle for people to jump over. You’ve obviously been making hoppy beers for the better part of four decades now. I’m curious if you can just give us a little bit of background on what hops are and what they do for beer.
Ken Grossman 1:36
Certainly. So hops are a flower that grows on a vine, and they grow up the trellis and hops will grow to roughly 20 feet in height on a string. They’re growing, at least in the United States, primarily in the northern latitudes—Oregon, Washington, Idaho is where most of American hops are grown, Washington being the number one state. Idaho just took second place and Oregon is third. Then there are some attempts to bring back commercial production in places like New York and southern Colorado and strewn across Michigan, strewn across the country. But as far as primary production it’s up in those areas because a hop needs a fairly long length of day in order to grow well. The sort of flowers or cones that grow on the plant are what brewers use and desire for flavoring and bittering beer. They contain a wide range of compounds, both bitter acids, alpha and beta acids. Primarily alpha acid is what’s measured, and then a whole range of aromatic compounds or oils in the hops. Hops traditionally fell into two categories. There was the hops grown just for their bitter flavor and character, and the bitterness does a number of things in beer besides balancing out the sweetness from the malt. The Alpha acids actually contain natural antibacterial static properties. And they’ve actually, in recent years found use in other industries for that anti-bactericide property, just to keep mold and bacteria and wild yeast from surviving in other products. So that’s sort of why hops were discovered as a beer ingredient, both from their flavoring but also because they did help preserve the beer. Then there’s a whole range of aromatic oils that are produced in the hop and there’s literally hundreds of compounds that go into that mix of aroma. Original classification was you’d have a bittering hop that was added early during the kettle boil, and it would inpart that alpha acid and contribute to that bitter character. And then there was a class of hops that were commonly referred to as aroma hops. And some people discussed them as sort of the noble aroma hops grown in Europe, Czechoslovakia and Germany. So hops are these two classifications and they were selected again for their either level of bitternesss or type and level of aroma compounds. In the United States, historically, there’s been a long, long hop growing industry and it used to stretch down into California and other areas. As I mentioned, New York and Michigan and places like that at turn of the century grew hops. Most of those were brought over from Europe, and there were some wild hops also found growing out in the countryside. The American hops for many, many years were considered to be really only of bittering quality or bittering value. They didn’t have some of the, I guess more refined in some brewer’s minds of aromas that some of the German and Czechoslovakian hops had. We pretty much grew one variety in the US and it was called Cluster. And that was 80% or 90% of the US hop crop at the turn of the century, probably until the late 70s. Then, there were some breeding programs. Oregon State had a breeding program and some other universities did, as well as private farms. And we started introduce other varieties, both for bittering and then aroma hops were being developed. Hops like the Cascade came out, I think it was developed in the 70s. It didn’t really find favor with brewers just because it was a pretty unique aroma profile. It had pine and citrus and other qualities that most brewers weren’t used to. In most of our brewing industry back in those days, the brewers were trained in Germany and had sort of a different perception of what aroma hops and smell like. But Cascade was introduced and then later Centennial and other varieties that had unique and differentiating aromas. That was sort of at the forefront of the craft brewing start up. We featured Cascade as as the hop in our Pale Ale and introduced a pretty distinctive and different aroma profile for that beer compared to what most lager beers had at the time.
John Holl 7:04
And that’s sort of the interesting thing. So 40 years ago when Sierra Nevada started, I know Pale Ale wasn’t the first beer that you made, right? It was it was stout?
Ken Grossman 7:15
We brewed a test batch of stout. It was our very first batch, but two days later, we started brewing Pale Ale. So Pale Ale was our flagship brand, and it was intended to be our flagship brand from the beginning. But yeah, batch one I made five barrels of stout just to test out the new equipment and figure out how to brew on it after scaling up from five gallon batches. We were scaling up to 300 gallon batches and figured stout would sort of hide some of the mistakes we might make on that first batch of beer.
John Holl 7:50
But in 1980, though, launching a brewery with Pale Ale as a flagship, that was a risk.
Ken Grossman 7:58
Yeah, so the industry in the 1980s is, I guess, dramatically different than it is today with roughly 8,000 breweries that are in operation today. Back then, there were 43 independent brewing companies. Between 1978 in 1982, six of us sort of entered the business. We had really been the first generation of new breweries to get into the US market, really since Prohibition. After Prohibition ended, and the breweries that had figured out how to survive being shut down for all those years. started back up again. But really, there hadn’t been new entrants into the marketplace since the craft movement started in the late 70s. Most of the beer industry at that point, you know, the 43 brewers and you had the six little ones, they were producing really one style of beer. It was a lager style, fairly light, not very full of hops or malt, not a lot of character. Everybody was really making similar type products. Then when the craft brewers started up, I think probably with the vision of what Fitz Maytag had done with Anchor, which was to produce a distinctively different kind of beer because as a really small business, you couldn’t compete against national Anheuser Busch and Miller and Coors and Stroh’s and Pabst and those brands that were large brewing companies. It really wasn’t a viable business to try to match them for style and price. And so the only way we realized we could survive would be to produce something that was pretty distinctively different, and command a premium price.
John Holl 10:12
Was there a clamoring for that? You mentioned hops and imparting bitterness into a beer, and bitter is such a tough word to sell to people. How did you overcome that in those early days to convince people who were used to drinking sweeter or less flavor where hops were basically a foreign ingredient?
Ken Grossman 10:38
Yeah, so just for a reference point, beers in America at the time were somewhere in 10 bitterness unit range, and there’s a way you can measure that alpha acid and it’s called an International Bitterness Unit or an IBU. The American brewing industry had been slowly reducing the bittering levels in beer for many, many years. Probably back in the 40s and 50s, you might find a number of lager beers in this country that were in the 20 bitterness unit range. Over time, that number went down. I talked to a brewmaster at one of the major breweries back in the early 80s, and he had been tracking the whole industry’s slow reduction of bittering value. He said about every year, starting in around the late 60s, early 70s, most breweries would drop about one bitterness unit per year. So it went from being somewhere in the 20 to 18, 17, 16, 15. There was at least one major brewer back in the mid-80s that was still around 15 or 16 bitterness units. They would watch each other. And so when one would go down to eleven, the other one would maybe drop down to 11 or 12, and then go down to 10, and then the other one go down to 10 or 11. And so they sort of just followed each other down. It got to a point—and I don’t have the numbers in my mind exactly—but there were some major lager beers that were down in the six range. And I think at some point they started to get back up a little bit. So now they’re probably somewhere in the 10 bitterness unit range. When we introduced our Pale Ale we were at 38 bitterness units and we still are today. So the bitterness level has stayed the same since we opened the brewery. But if you went to Europe, there were lots of beers that were in the 30s. I think it’s not that people don’t appreciate beers, and particularly today, lots of beers are in 50, 60, 70, 80 bitterness unit range with some of the bigger IPAs.
John Holl 13:29
And even higher, yeah.
Ken Grossman 13:31
So it’s not as if that level is a total turnoff to the drinker. Yes, it was different than most lager drinkers were used to drinking at the time. But if the beer’s got balance, balance really helps to make the bitterness enjoyable. So having the right amount of malt sweetness and body and other characteristics in the beer can allow a 40 bitterness unit beer to taste refreshing and pleasing and enjoyable. Having a thin beer that doesn’t balance out a 50 or 60 bitterness level can be a turnoff and can be definitely a hard drink for a person who’s not used to hoppy beers. We started in 1980 and that was right about the point where people were starting to appreciate stronger and more traditional styles of foods. There were bakeries opening up with whole grain breads, there were coffee roasters starting to produce more flavorful coffees, there were small artisan cheese plants making cheese with a lot of character. So I think there was a percentage of the American population who could appreciate more fully flavored foods and drinks. So I think that sort of went hand in hand. Obviously, it did not appeal to the masses at the time or that wide of a range of beer drinker. But the people who really enjoyed that nuanced balance of a fair amount of hops with a good malt backbone could really get to love something like our Pale Ale. But it was, at that time, sort of few and far between. I’d go to a tasting and if it was just sort of a general beer drinker, who was used to drinking light lager beers when you gave ’em our Pale Ale, it was like a big shock to them. Plenty of people hated it, but there were a percentage of people who really enjoyed that balance with hops and malt.
John Holl 16:11
Even still today, the craft beer market in the US is about 13% of the overall beer market right now. So we’re still at seven or so percent of folks who are still drinking some of the larger American lagers that are out there. So if you put a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale at 38 bittering units in front of somebody today, what would you ask them to look for? What would you ask them to try to experience taste- and aroma-wise to highlight the benefits of hops in a beer?
Ken Grossman 16:45
Our Pale Ale at the time was certainly a revolutionary, unique, distinctively different beer than the mainstream beers for sure. Today, it’s actually not considered to be an extreme beer compared the most of what craft brewers are brewing. I think the acceptance today is much higher with the general beer drinker. But I would ask them to appreciate it for balance, malt character. It’s not really an extremely hoppy beer in the scheme of things. I think if you’ve got a bit of an open mind and open palate, you should be able to enjoy the nuances of what the hop brings to both the flavor and the aroma of the beer. There’s a place for a light, well-made lager beer, certainly on a hot day with some foods, those lighter styles worked well. But a beer like our Pale Ale also has a great place alongside food. I think there’s a lot of balance and appreciation you can have for a beer like our Pale Ale and not have to be a hop-head to be able to enjoy it.
Lauren Buzzeo 18:16
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John Holl 18:53
One of the things that we’ve seen in the last few years is the emergence of the juicy or the hazy style of IPA, which uses a significant amount of hops. But rather than imparting bitterness because of when the hops are added, it does have more of an aroma or flavor profile rather than the sensation of bitterness. Do you think that that’s helped grow the category?
Ken Grossman 19:21
It certainly has. I think the unfiltered or hazy styles of beer do a number of things. Part of it is the way the hops are used. A beer like our Hazy Little Thing uses a lot of hops and a lot of different varieties, but we use a minimal amount up front during the boiling process, so we’re not trying to extract much bitterness. And we use most of the hops actually during the fermentation process just to extract those oils. But also I think that hazy style, at least our way of brewing it, also contains a lot of things like oats and wheat that really help on that soft balance on the palate. So they’re very easy and round in flavor. They use the term juicy, so the juiciness comes a bit from how the hops are used, but also from the grist, the grain bill. Utilizing oats gives a real roundness to the palate. It really helps to lessen the impact of hop bitterness. There’s still certainly some hop bitterness, but it’s really well balanced by the grist bill so it doesn’t come across or isn’t perceived as being very bitter even though it does contain a lot of hops.
John Holl 20:53
We’ve seen an evolution of the Pale Ale and the IPA in America over the last 40 or so years, and your brewery has been at the very forefront of that, I think, for most of the innovations that have happened. I know you spend a lot of time talking with researchers and you obviously have some very talented people on your staff who are solely dedicated to the exploration of hops. Where do you think that this ingredient is going in beer?
Ken Grossman 21:22
So hop breeding is has been done with conventional breeding methods for many, many years. There are still people who travel the world looking for wild hops to use as part of the breeding stock of new varieties. There’s quite a science of research around breeding. Most of the breeding groups literally make thousands and thousands of crosses a year. And they’ve been doing this in some fashion for many, many years. Until craft brewers came along, many of the varieties that were pollinated and developed really didn’t have a home. As I mentioned, even the Cascade, which was sort of the very first American commercialized aroma hop, brewers of the time, back in the late 60s and 70s, rejected those kinds of hop aromas because they were foreign to them. They were used to using the German or the Czechoslovakia Saaz or German Hallertau or some of these hops that have very mild aroma profiles. So there’s been a complete hop growing revolution because craft brewers want hops that have a lot of unique aromas and characters. We like hops that have a rose note to them or pineapple or mango. There’s just a whole world of aromas that can be developed through breeding that the hops naturally produce these compounds. We’ve got a pretty sophisticated R&D lab with quite a few gas chromatographs and set ports. We work pretty closely with hop breeders and we’ll send folks up to Yakama quite a few times a year to go meet with hop breeders and we we do some of these collaborations with growers in Europe and Australia and New Zealand, as well. We’re looking for hops that have distinctive character nuances to them. There’s really just an unlimited amount of aroma varieties that can be developed through breeding. I think the sky’s the limit with the breeding of hops. You’ve got dozens that are always in our lab and then our pilot brewery that are being bred and developed. If we find one we love, we’ll work with the farmers and we’ll plant a few acres and brew some beers with them and try to decide if it’s a variety we think that’s got a future and then next year we’ll add more acreage. It’s an ongoing process and collaboration with farmers and breeders, and then trying to develop beers around those unique hops. So we’re always excited to experiment with new varieties and there are the growers now are really into developing these new aroma varieties. As I mentioned in the beginning of the talk, the US used to be 80% or more Cluster variety and supply pretty much only bittering hops to the US and other international brewers who bought American hops. Today, it’s over half aroma hops been grown in the US. Most of those aroma hops are very distinctive aroma hops that have a wide range of unique flavors. There’s been half a dozen pretty unique hops that have really taken the marketplace by storm and have displaced Cascade, which became the number one American aroma hop a few years back. Now Citra and other new varieties coming down the pike. It’s a pretty great time to be a brewer and as well as, I think overall, a hop grower as far as the openness and the marketplace for innovation and our growing and brewing.
John Holl 26:05
And certainly it’s a good time to be a beer drinker as well.
Ken Grossman 26:08
Yep. We really have a wider palate of beers available than we did just a few years ago because of the unique character of hops that have been developed.
John Holl 26:22
Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me on the podcast.
Ken Grossman 26:27
It’s been my pleasure and happy beer drinking.
Lauren Buzzeo 26:33
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Wine Enthusiast Podcast. I don’t know about you, but national IPA day or not. I am definitely ready to crack a fragrant flavorful, fresh hoppy IPA right about now. There’s been incredible evolution and experimentation in the world of hops over the last few decades, and therefore so much to taste and explore as it pertains to the different aroma, flavor and textural additions. Each unique variety can offer to a final beer. Be sure to visit wine mag comm slash podcast for links to learn more about beers beautiful floral ingredient from trendy aromatic selections to classic bittering varieties, as well as current reviews of America’s favorite craft beer category. Subscribe to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast on iTunes, Google Play or wherever you find podcasts. And if you like today’s episode, we’d love to read your review and hear what you think. And hey, why not tell your wine and beer loving friends to check us out too. You can also drop us a line at podcast at wine mag comm for more wine and beer reviews, recipes guides, deep dives and stories visit Wine Enthusiast online at winemag.com and connect with us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @WineEnthusiast. The Wine Enthusiast Podcast is produced by Lauren Buzzeo and Jenny Groza. Until next episode, cheers.