Bitter Fruit: Bay Area Brewers Push Hops Into Stranger Territory

As with politics, so too with booze. Over the last handful of years, tendencies in local craft brewing have inhabited polar ends of the spectrum. On one hand, there's been a ramping up of the obscure as beers relying upon wild yeast, bacteria, and exotic barrel-aging have garnered increasing attention. On the other hand, the pendulum has also swung in the other direction towards lower alcohol “session beers” which showcase the art of subtlety and restraint.

At SF Beer Week this year, the perceived pattern was less a trend and more of a reminder: In California, hops still carry the day. It's hard not to feel that, once again, our local brewing scene is experiencing a hop renaissance (Hopaissance?). Now, we know what you're thinking — in the sage words of LL Cool J, “don't call it a comeback.” But it's hard to ignore the facts. Where most beer geeks could only name a couple of Triple IPAs a few short years back, this year's Double IPA Festival at The Bistro featured 26 entries in the style. In an insightful nod to the trend, a Triple IPA from Iron Springs Pub & Brewing was simply named Compulsory.

The most widely known beer of the style, Russian River Brewing's Pliny the Younger, is a prime example of the brewery's own phrase, the “lupulin threshold shift,” whereby a “once extraordinarily hoppy beer now seems pedestrian.” That's not to say that Younger is passé by any stretch — while you could once take growlers of the annual release away from the pub without hassle, the brewery now contains exposure and stretches the release out over two weeks, and customers still face three-plus hour lines for the duration. But the beer is only one (quite delicious and revered) player in a sea of worthy imitators. Lauded outfits Heretic and Drake's anchored their Beer Week around Triple IPA releases, and Moylan's Brewery unleashed the region's first Quadruple IPA, Hop Craic XXXXIPA.

Our revived and continued fascination with hops doesn't stop at the extreme. The lower-alcohol beer movement has largely gained attention for Session IPAs, which pack the hop punch of a high-gravity ale without the headache. Drake's Brewing's Alpha Session Ale clocks in at only 3.8 percent ABV, but brims over with quenching hops and has an exceptional mid-90s rating on to boot. And there's an increasing number of Black IPAs, Single Hop IPAs, Fresh Hop IPAs, Belgian IPAs, White IPAs, Rye IPAs, Belgian IPAs, and other genre-bending styles.

Aside from a new crop of hop-forward beers, there's been a change in IPA brewing practices that reflects the growing desire for dry, “San Diego-style” brews. For starters, brewers are altering their recipes to increase the proportion of hops used at the end of the boil or afterward (“dry hopping”) to emphasize the plant's aroma and flavor rather than piling on bitterness. More and more acres of hop farms are being devoted to fashionable hops like Citra and Mosaic, which support the growing trend toward IPAs that smell like a stroll through a tropical garden redolent of mangos, pineapple, and papaya. These and other hop varietals are taking center stage and becoming household names. Whether you're drinking El Segundo's Citra Pale Ale or Black Diamond's MOESaic Session IPA, attention is drawn to the plant and inevitably to the farm — an inclination that has long characterized the Bay Area's dining traditions and is, more and more, welcomed in the brewing industry.

One of SF Beer Week's most buzzed-about events was the 2-Hop Collaboration Project, wherein 10 breweries created beers featuring the same base recipe, but each featuring two distinct hops. The result was a flight of beers with radically different qualities, and a room full of beer aficionados excitedly debating the merits of hops varieties like Azaccas, Nelsons, Green Bullets, and Cascades. In addition to exploring the known universe of the hop plant, Bay Area brewers are mining its minutiae, introducing beers with qualities that offer new experiences. Up-and-comer Cellarmaker Brewing Co. was one of only a couple of domestic breweries to use South African hop varietals J-17 and Southern Passion this year. The resulting beers drew comparisons to earthy blueberries, juicy melons, and other traditionally non-hop flavors.

At the end of the day, the love of hops never waned. Northern California has roots as a hop-growing region, and our backyard breweries help lead this country's charge as champions of the plant. We consumers have a good thing going, so visit your local brewery, put on your best bitter-beer face, and bask in the glory of one of nature's most gorgeous flowers.

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