Apples and hops rarely shared the same tank in the past, but these disparate plants have much in common. Both were grown in Colonial America. Both were used to make popular fermented beverages. The Pacific Northwest is by far the biggest producer of both. And both have proprietary varieties that restrict growers’ access and command a premium from buyers.
In the past the two hardly mingled. Hops — the flowers or seed cones of the vine-like Humulus lupulus plant — have long been used in beer as a bittering and flavoring agent and a preservative. They were primarily valued for their alpha acids, source of the bitterness, which tempered the sweetness of malt. Increasingly, brewers are focusing on hops’ beta acids — also called essential oils — which supply aromatic qualities. While the hop industry is entirely focused on brewers, the hops that are most in demand (especially for popular IPAs) tend to have cider-friendly aromatics.
With care, the floral, fruit and pine notes of aromatic hops can complement cider. Most hop bitterness in beer is extracted when the wort is heated, but since cider ferments without heat, hop aromatics prevail over bitterness. Cider consultant Nick Gunn — formerly of Wandering Aengus Ciderworks in Salem, Oregon, where he helped to create the first contemporary dry-hopped cider with its Anthem line — admits the combination seemed strange at first.
“We found that hops can work really well with the sweet apple character of cider,” says Gunn, who is now bringing his experience to makers through his consultancy BenchGraft. “Not the bittering hops — you don’t need those with the tannins in good cider apples — but many of the aromatic hops popular in beer, such as Citra, Mosaic, Cascade and Amarillo, can work well in cider. Hopped ciders are so unique they’re creating their own niche.”
That niche is still relatively small. While hopped ciders can be a gateway cider for beer drinkers, they “tend to be not hoppy enough for beer lovers and too hoppy for cider fans,” observes Nat West of Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider. His Hallelujah Hopricot — made with Belgian saison ale yeast, witbier additives such as coriander and bitter orange peel, plus apricot juice — undersells his other year-round ciders but is his personal favorite. Every year his Portland, Oregon, cider house throws a hop festival that features 12 hopped ciders he makes plus six or so guest ciders from the likes of Citizen Cider, Stem Ciders, Austin Eastciders, Merridale and even Oliver’s Cider & Perry. Tom Oliver pioneered hopped English cider after enjoying hopped ciders on a 2013 visit to the Pacific Northwest.
A HOPPING INDUSTRY
Fueled by the craft beer boom, domestic hop acreage almost doubled from 2012 to 2017, with the share of aroma hops growing from 30 percent to 70 percent. Aroma hops command a premium, typically selling for $8-14 per pound. That quickly adds up if you’re a craft brewery. According to industry group the Brewers Association, a typical brewery producing 10,000 barrels annually (1 barrel is roughly 31 gallons) uses around 1 ½ pounds of hops per barrel, or 15,000 pounds. A cidermaker would only need a fraction of that to flavor a single line of ciders. Even hop-happy West says he used 120 pounds of hops last year, much less than big brewers.
So cidermakers can afford to play with hops. But the biggest hop merchants focus on selling large quantities to brewers and have minimum purchase levels beyond what most cidermakers need or can use. The situation is not “hopless,” however, as they can buy smaller quantities from sellers who cater to small craft brewers, from friendly local brewers and in the secondary market. The latter operates online — like LupulinExchange.com and ProBrewer.com — and allows brewers and growers to dispose of excess hops at prices that reflect the current supply/demand for specific varieties. For example, after the IPA craze drove up the price of aromatic hops, growers planted many more of them, resulting in lower prices today.
Like another green commodity, marijuana, hops sport zingy names and come in diverse forms, from cones and pellets to hash and oils. Very soon after harvest, they’re dried with low heat, then processed to preserve quality, often in nitrogen-flushed mylar bags. Almost all ciders in the category are dry-hopped — adding preserved pellets or whole cones to the liquid, usually post-fermentation. BenchGraft’s Gunn notes that pelletized hops impart a lot of hop aroma but leave a residue that requires careful racking.
Just as some brewers (especially in the Hoplandia of the Pacific Northwest) make “fresh-hopped” beer — using hops picked fresh off the bines and popped into the kettle within a few hours — cidermakers close enough to hop growers can make “wet-hopped” cider with freshly harvested hop cones. West is among a half-dozen or so producers who’ve used fresh hops, among them Finnriver Farm & Cidery in Washington and Sociable Cider Werks in Minnesota.
“In less than three hours, we can get fresh cones from Crosby Hop Farm delivered and in the tank,” he says of the prestigious Oregon hop farm. “There’s a generally accepted rule that you need seven pounds of fresh hops to equal a pound of pelletized hops. But it’s not a simple substitution because they taste totally different. It’s like the difference between freshly mown grass and over-wintered hay — you need to build a different recipe.”
As with preserved hops, a maker can experiment with different quantities and types of fresh hops by steeping them in small batches of cider, a good way to adjust that recipe. But West cautions others not to spend too much time on such tests, because using the hops at their freshest is the aim. “Just because someone likes hopped cider doesn’t mean they’ll like wet-hopped cider,” he adds.
Most cidermakers stick to preserved hops in pellet and leaf forms, mainly the former. “Once a hop is pelletized and packaged, whether you open that bag a week later or 10 months later, you’re still dealing with 99 percent of the same flavor,” West says. And many cider producers have cold storage that’s ideal for preserving hops.
As with apples, creating new hop varieties is a years-long process with much trial and error and vastly more misses than hits. Today those hits are often grown only under license in restricted territories to the big companies that developed them, such as Citra (the number-one hop by acreage in America), Mosaic, Amarillo and Simcoe grown in the Pacific Northwest, Galaxy in Australia and New Zealand’s Nelson Sauvin. Breeding programs at Oregon State (OSU) and Washington State universities have yielded unrestricted “public” hops such as Chinook, Nugget, Centennial and Willamette.
Last year saw the commercial launch of Strata, the first hop to emerge from OSU’s Aroma Hops Breeding Program, funded by hop broker Indie Hops. “It has more fruit flavors and some bright floral characteristics as well as a dank aroma that is interesting to a lot of beer drinkers and I think would be to cider drinkers,” says Oregon grower Gayle Goschie of Goschie Farms, where hops have been cultivated for more than a century. She first grew Strata as an experimental OSU strain known as X331; now it’s one of 10 varieties Goschie grows commercially, including lesser-known hops such as Santiam and Sterling.
Some 250 hop varieties are grown around the world. Because hop acreage is increasing beyond the Pacific Northwest, more cidermakers have the option of using hops from local growers. “Local terroir can give the same hops grown outside of the Pacific Northwest different aroma profiles,” says Nunzino Pizza, founder of Hop Head Farms in Hickory Corners, Michigan. “The Chinook hops we grow here in Michigan have a grapefruit note, while Chinook from the Pacific Northwest is pine-ier.”
Growers without access to popular restricted hops get creative. From two native strains, Gorst Valley Hops in Nekoosa, Wisconsin, developed Top Secret, a new hop with citrus, floral and spice notes. (It also originated Skyrocket, an aromatic hop the grower calls “a tropical fruit orgasm.”)
After delving into Germany’s Hop Research Center, Hop Head Farms contracted with German growers to supplement its American production. “With hops, it’s wysiwyg — what you smell is what you get,” says Pizza, using the tech pun coined from early computer interfaces. “We work with cidermakers and I tell them that along with the usual aroma hops they should consider German varieties such as Grungeist and Hull Melon, which has melon notes.”
Many makers source hops from near and far. In Vermont, Citizen Cider’s Lake Hopper uses Cascade hops grown around nearby Lake Champlain, but they’ve also made their Full Nelson cider with Kiwi hop Nelson Sauvin, which has white wine notes. “We’re looking for hops that will come through but also allow the apple aromas to come through,” says Bryan Holmes, head of product development for the cidery. “Sometimes you get a lot of hop aroma, but that apple aroma gets masked. The challenge is finding the right balance.”
Michigan’s Vander Mill has made a draft-only cider with fresh Michigan hops from United Hops Brokerage, called L.L. Cool Bayes after head cidermaker Dave Bayes. “We put a bag of hops picked that day in the tank and taste it until the flavor’s right,” says owner Paul Vander Heide. “It ends up quite hazy, with a bright, citrusy nose, kind of like a hazy IPA. For Nunica Pine, our canned hopped cider, we use Columbus hops. Their earthy, resinous, grassy profile complements the apple flavor.” Vander Mill also produces a mango cider with Citra or Simcoe hops and a heritage apple blend with German hop Hallertau Blanc.
A BETTER, BITTER CIDER?
Back in Oregon, cidermaker Joe Casey of Square Mile Cider, which launched with a hopped cider as one of its two offerings, says he thinks cider fares better when it’s lightly hopped. “Our hopped cider uses Citra and Galaxy hops and a Bohemian pilsner yeast that allows us to ferment colder and get a clean profile,” he adds. His approach seems to work — the cider has won several awards.
“We cold-ferment to zero residual sugar, which minimizes hop bitterness and highlights the aromatics,” says Tim Edmond, co-founder of Potter’s Craft Cider in Virginia. In their main hopped cider, the juicy citrus qualities of Citra and Amarillo hops complement an Albemarle Pippin-GoldRush blend. The tropical fruit aromas of fermenting GoldRush led them to ferment it with guava juice, then add Galaxy for its heady fruit notes, resulting in Guava Galaxy. Edmond and his cider partner, Dan Potter, are also fans of Mosaic and Sorachi Ace hops. “A batch with Enigma hops turned out well, with bright flavor with a hint of Pinot Gris and raspberry or red currant on the nose,” Edmond adds.
Producers are still learning how to harness hops’ many aromas and flavors. Luckily, it’s easy for cidermakers to test the effect of different hops using small amounts of cider. One method: Add a pellet or two of hops to cider in wine glasses (varying the hops and cider samples under evaluation), cover the glasses while the hops dissolve, then uncover, sniff and taste to gauge the hop’s effect.
Hopped ciders may never be embraced by traditionally minded makers, here and abroad. “We should be grateful that American consumers expect and want to try new approaches,” says Vander Heide of Vander Mill. If this cider style floats your boat, hop on board.
This article originally ran in Vol. 13 of Cidercraft. For the full story and more like it, click here.