Among the beer-drinking community, the ongoing "winification" of beer—750ml bottles, beer sommeliers, ultra-high-alcohol products—is a fairly controversial phenomenon. But looking at this development from the wine side of things, one facet is particularly interesting: the rise of single-hop beers.
Hops, flowers from the Humulus lupulus plant, are one of the essential components of beer, along with grain, water and yeast. Something like the spice mix of the recipe, different hops add varying degrees of bitterness and distinctive aromas to the final product.
For centuries, hop selections were tied to regional recipes and styles—central European recipes relied on noble hops such as Saaz or Hallertau, English ales got their character from classic English hops such as Fuggle or Goldings, the aromatic signature of the American IPA is formed by the Cascade hops of the Pacific Northwest. For students of wine, this will look very similar to the European model of categorization, where a Bordeaux red wine is known to be a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, as opposed to the American system, where most wines are labeled by grape variety.
During the meteoric rise of craft beer in the 1990s and early 2000s, the focus shifted to "How hoppy/bitter can beer get?" with producers marking IBU units (the scale for bitterness) on cans and bottles.
Within the past five years or so, the dialogue has turned yet again, and there's been a trend toward making beer with just one hop variety and labeling it as such (look for beers named after hops like Sorachi Ace or Centennial), instead of with a style (IPA or stout). The question is now not about the volume of hops, but rather, "What does this ingredient taste like?"
Here's where wine lovers who want to understand beer should pay attention. Wine gets a lot of flack for being complicated to understand and master (1,400 varieties listed in Jancis Robinson's Wine Grapes book?!), but for anyone who has already started walking that long and winding road, the single-hop beer experiments will resonate.
Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, cofounder of Mikkeller Brewery in Denmark, began experimenting with single-hop beers as a homebrewer because he wanted to get a better handle on what each ingredient added. Starting with 10 different hops, he brewed identical IPA recipes using one hop type in each, with the intent to not just highlight hop flavor, but also make good beer. Now produced by his brewery, the single-hop lineup proved wildly successful, indicating a hunger from consumers for this type of intellectually tinged project. If you're up for swapping out your wine for a night or two, the series now can be found all over the United States to compare and contrast.
From this experiment, Bjergsø learned that he prefers to work with American hops, as they have "by far the most flavor … compared to European hops, [which are] much more mellow and balanced." He's also dispelling traditional brewing assumptions that lumped certain hops into either workhorse bittering or finicky aroma categories, and sees nothing but new frontiers for the future.
"Knowing where the material comes from is so new in the beer world," said Bjergsø. "If you're a wine drinker, you know what grapes are in your wine. It's what we're moving toward in the beer world."
So it's an exciting time to be exploring beer, for sure, but things can get a little tricky: Just because a beer is labeled by hop variety doesn't mean it's made in the same style across different breweries. Take these single-hop iterations on Sorachi Ace, a Japanese hop with particularly lemony characteristics: Mikkeller's version is made as an IPA, Brooklyn Brewery has a Saison version, and Flying Dog has announced an Imperial IPA. So yes, you'll get the aroma and flavor of Sorachi Ace, but it will be built into the framework of these pretty different styles of beer, meaning the single-hop labeling isn't particularly effective in telling you what you'll get out of the bottle.
Wine drinkers will, of course, recognize this problem immediately. A variety like Chardonnay comes in a dizzying amount of permutations (from heavily oaked and buttery to stony and crisp) so that it takes real effort on the consumer's part to recognize the hints (geographical or producer history) that indicate wine style. Perhaps beer makers are better off because they can label both by ingredient and by style?
So can single-hop beers ever catch on beyond an intellectual game for beer nerds? (Or wine folks hoping to learn a little more about how beer is put together?) Time will tell, but I, for one, am looking forward to learning more.