Brews go heavy on the hops


March 22, 2006|By ROB KASPER

Once upon a time, beer was a gentle blend of malt and hops. Then the hopheads appeared. Hopheads are beer drinkers who, in the words of Sam Calagione of Delaware's Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, "have an addiction to the citrus bitterness of hops, who want their next beer to be a little hoppier than the last one they tried."

Some of their favorite brews are so strong that they threaten to peel the enamel off teeth. This, some hopheads contend, is a pleasing sensation.

I am not a hophead, but I have met many. They seem like reasonable people. But mention Fuggles, Cascade, Centennial or the names of other hops and they begin to lose their mild-mannered demeanor. Next thing you know, they have you sniffing your beer, analyzing how it survives the journey through the mid palate.

For a time, hopheads and their beers were pretty much confined to the West Coast. But recently highly hopped brews have not only invaded the East Coast; they have also sold well. I sampled a few that are made near Baltimore and are sold in area liquor stores. I also spoke with their creators.

Historically, hops have been the bitter ingredient in the brewer's recipe that balanced the sweetness of malt. In the 18th century, British brewers discovered that if they upped the hop and alcohol content of the pale ale they shipped to India, the beer would survive the long sea journey to the subcontinent. IPA, or India Pale Ale, was born, a style of beer that flourishes today.

Modern-day hopheads are not afraid to challenge traditional views of the malt-and-hops marriage. Calagione, whose Milton, Del., brewery has the motto "off-centered beer for off-centered people," is one of those challengers.

He makes a stair-step series of Imperial IPAs: 60 minute, 90 minute and 120 minutes. These represent the length of time the hops are boiled. The hop and alcohol content, as well as the price tag, climb with the numbers.

Hops are expensive, which is one reason brewers have shied away from using many of them. They also take up room in the brew kettle, which cuts down on yield, another word for the beer that shows up in bottles.

Going heavy on the hops may, Calagione said, be "blissfully inefficient," but it is a way to produce beers with "unique and explosive tastes."

He also uses gadgets to add to the thunderstorm of hops. His latest contraption, a 2-foot-tall device called Randal the Enamel Animal, gives beer one final hop bath at a pub just before it hits the glass. Passing beer through this stainless-steel device can, Calagione said, produce that feeling of dissolving tooth enamel with the first hop-laden sip.

The Loose Cannon Hop3 Ale that Hugh Sisson's Clipper City Brewery rolled out in October is loaded with hops and is hopped three ways. But its goal, Sisson said, is "not to strip the enamel off your teeth with bitterness. We try to tone it down, to work on flavor and aroma and less on bitterness."

Still his brew, which recently won the Governor's Cup award for the best beer made in Maryland, is not for the faint of palate. It can make your tongue tingle.

At one time, the folks at Lancaster (Pa.) Brewing Co. were not sure that the beer drinkers in these parts would welcome a highly hopped brew. Now they are. A year ago they introduced Hop Hog, which has six times the hops of their Amish Pale Ale. Already it is rivaling their well-established Milk Stout as a best-seller, said production manager Bill Moore.

One way to measure bitterness in beer is in international bitterness units, or IBUS. Lancaster's Hop Hog has an IBU of 55 (a light American lager would have an IBU around 8), but Moore said he thought balance, not bitterness, was the key to the popularity of the beer. The malt and hops are not "bombing each other," he said.

Bill Covaleski is a lover of hops. Since moving from the Baltimore Brewing Co. to set up Victory Brewing Co. in Downingtown, Pa., 10 years ago, he and his fellow brewer, Ron Barchet, have had a place in their hearts and their freezers for whole-flower hops. Hops come in pellet forms, but Covaleski prefers to use them in their leafy, natural state.

Relying heavily on whole-flower hops to make both Victory's Hop Devil Ale and a seasonal offering, Hop Wallop, gives beer making "an experimental edge," Covaleski said. It also raises the price of production. But that does not seem to bother hopheads. As Covaleski put it, "We have an audience willing to pay for the experience of big flavor."

Taking in the hops

Even though I am not a card-carrying member of the hophead legions, I did drink their beer. Because they are loaded with mighty hops, these beers are best enjoyed with spicy food. Here, in order of preference, are my impressions:


Clipper City Brewing Co., Baltimore ($8 a six-pack).

Hops listed by brewery: Magnum, Centennial, Chinook, Amarillo and Palisades.

Comments: Amber ale loaded with citrus aromas and flavors. Made my tongue tingle. Great with lamb. Call me a homer, but it is my fave.

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