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Hot hot hops: A raging thirst for hop-forward beer has set off a global competition

After a beer is brewed, Sawdust City in Gravenhurst, Ontario sends used grains to local farmers for animal feed.

Emily Collins/Emily Collins

In the high-stakes world of high-aroma hops, the varietals that a brewery uses in its flagship beer can either propel it to greatness or cement its place as a mediocre micro. That's especially true right now, thanks to the popularity of hop-forward beer styles such as IPAs and pale ales. Brewers are using way more hops than they used to, and they're very particular about the ones they want. In Ontario, they often have three or four hops dealers on speed dial, from whom they buy the commodity up to four years in advance.

Even then, brewers sometimes don't get enough.

Take the Golden Beach Pale Ale put out by Gravenhurst, Ont.'s Sawdust City Brewing Co. The original recipe called for tangerine-like American amarillo hops and lemony, Japanese sorachi ace hops, which helped create a summer-in-a-pint drinking experience. "Both of those hops got really popular," Sawdust brewmaster Sam Corbeil says. "They were so hard to get that Bob Latimer, a hops dealer, said, 'Hey, try this new Australian hop instead, it's called galaxy.'"

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The 39-year-old brewmaster fell hard for the varietal's unique tropical-fruit, pineapple and grapefruit notes and immediately switched the recipe over. But then that rhizome shot up in popularity just as Corbeil's four-year-old brewery was booming. This time, though, drinkers were so attached to the galaxy hop flavour that he couldn't do another substitution. Now, says Corbeil of galaxy, "If I get wind that another brewer has some extra, I try to sneak in first to buy it," he says.

Corbeil also picks up galaxy when he sees it on the spot market, where hops are sold at that day's market price and delivered immediately, even though that's often more expensive than the standard practice of ordering two to four years in advance. "I just buy it and deal with the consequences later," he says.

Last year, galaxy bought on contract cost $12.67 (U.S.) a pound; to get as much as he needed, Corbeil was paying $19 a pound on the spot market. "I order most of my hops two years in advance, but how could I have predicted that our production levels would shoot up 500 per cent in that time?" Currently, all forward contracts of galaxy are sold out until 2020.

An essential ingredient in beer, hops contain bittering acids to balance out sweet, bready malts, and come in different varietals with particular terroir, just like wine grapes. The type of hops going into the ground today are drastically different from centuries-old traditional hops, which were designed primarily for bitterness or prized for delicate aromas.

Today's craft brewers are into "high alpha" or "aroma" varieties, a new family of hops specially bred for pungent aromas and flavours that range from sweet passion fruit to zippy sauvignon blanc to dank, resinous pine. The insatiable thirst for unique aromas has pitted elite hops breeders from Nelson, New Zealand, to Hallertau, Germany, against one another in a competition to find the next big "aroma" hop.

One of the leaders in this race is Jason Perrault, a fourth-generation hop farmer and breeder from Washington's arid Yakima Valley and a member of the valley's Hop Breeding Company. Dubbed the "hops whisperer" for his ability to select and nurture the next big hop flavour, Perrault says it takes about 11 years of research and development before a new varietal makes it to market. "We're only just scratching the surface of what hops can be," Perrault says. "We've got some interesting ones coming up, one with a stone fruit and herbal characteristic, and another one that's really woody, it's almost got a bourbon-barrel-aged character to it."

Since its 2003 founding, Hop Breeding Co., has evaluated about 500,000 different hop genotypes. Of those, just three cultivars have come to market, all boasting intense aromas. Named Citra, Equinox znd Mosaic, they are among the toughest hops in the world for brewers to get. Bob Latimer, one of Corbeil's dealers, says Citra is currently selling for between $25 and $30 a pound. "That's ridiculously expensive; in my opinion there are way better hops out there selling for $10 to $12 a pound," he says.

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To make these wildly popular varietals go further, hop companies are releasing proprietary blends, with names such as Zythos and Falconer's Flight, which contain a top varietal such as Citra or Mosaic along with a bunch of others that create the tropical-fruit and citrus bombs that so many drinkers currently crave. Brewers are also doubling down on hot varietals via long-term contracts and avoiding the trendiest strains when finalizing new recipes.

All Hop Breeding Co., varietals are trademarked. "Each hop is a brand and we have to find growers who can produce them consistently and to the high quality that brewers need," Perrault says. He only allows his hops to be grown in the Pacific Northwest Region of the U.S., because he doesn't know how they would behave in a different terroir. Hop Breeding has 80 farms – comprising most of the growers in that region – harvesting their varietals. Last year they produced 8.9 million tons of the three varieties and Perrault expects those numbers to increase by up to 50 percent in 2016 to fulfill brewers' contracts.

All of this makes brewing a hop-loaded, American-style IPA an expensive proposition: Corbeil's flagship IPA, Lone Pine, requires 80 kilos of expensive pine-like simcoe hops per batch and costs him three times as much to produce as his Skinny Dipping Stout, which uses just two kilos of hops in the same-size batch. "Your IPA is a loss leader, but as a brewery you have to make a great IPA to keep yourself relevant," he says.

So it might provide some relief to brewers to know that beer nerds (such as me) are a little tired of hop-forward styles, and looking forward to the sour ales, easy-drinking craft lagers and spicy Belgian ales being put out by new breweries who can't afford to get into the race for hot hops.

While Corbeil doesn't think bold, citrusy beers are going away any time soon, he is looking forward to a more balanced future. "Hops are an easy way to add some flash quick, with bold flavours," he says. "But as a drinker, when your palate matures you don't always want to be over the top. Sometimes you just want a damn good lager."

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said there is a shortage of the hot varietals of some hops. The story also incorrectly said Hop Breeding Company's hops are grown in the Yakima Valley. In fact, they are grown across the Pacific Northwest region of the U.S. This online version has been corrected.

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