“Mikkeller has brewed 19 different single hop IPAs. Every beer is brewed with the same yeast and malt, the same brewing process and same amount of hops. The only difference is the 19 different hop sorts.” Mikkeller fest?! Great! at the Mikkeller Bar in Copenhagen? How could I resist, what with MaltCim and I staying only a short train journey away.
Beer ads, even reassuringly expensive ones, often claim their wares to be “made from the finest hops”. In the 80s, I bet many people took this to mean that beer was made entirely from hops, in much the same way that grapes are pressed to make wine. Mind you, I’ve had one or two beers in the past 6 months that have been so lemon-suckingly astringent, you would be forgiven for believing the ads and that these beers were extracted solely from cold-pressed, extra-virgin American hops. Even so, the hop is the one ingredient in beer that defines the drink. If Family Fortunes did a survey with the subject “Beer Ingredients”, I bet hops would come top. If the survey was “Hop Varieties”, how many people could answer at all? Isn’t this a little strange? Almost anyone who drinks wine will be able to name two or three grape varieties, wouldn’t they? But even dedicated beer lovers might be hard-pushed to tell you what flavours and aromas any particular hop sort contributes to a beer. This resinous little cone is a thing of mystique, or perhaps it has deliberately been kept shrouded in mystery by brewers. I’m reasonably sure most of us who are entranced by hops’ delights are vague about the qualities they imbue to a beer. I can name a good few hop varieties, but as to what exactly each contributes to a beer, well, I wouldn’t get a better chance to find out than this Mikkeller Single Hop event. But as interesting and unprecedented an opportunity as this was for us hop heads, it was as much an experiment with some serious research questions for Mikkeller brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergsø. According to the Mikkeller blog: “… this single hop series is part of a scientific project, studying how hops evolve over time, how the choice of container affects the taste as well as other parameters. This will be evaluated by a team of professional tasters that will keep tasting the beers the next a few years.” But we’re not here for science, we want to know what the stuff tastes like.
Walking down the four or fives steps from street level into the Mikkeler bar in Copenhagen, any visitor from London familiar with the Euston Tap would recognise the format of the bar; all the taps are on the wall behind the bar, leaving an open bar-top space and a view of the chalk board, which was numbered 1 to 19, corresponding to the taps, and labelled only with hop names, starting at Mount Hood, and ending with Warrior.For tasting notes, there is a pile of A4 sheets printed with the hop names from the chalk board, each variety given an IBU value: “International Bitterness Units”, which gives an indication of how bitter the beer is likely to be. A hop’s first job in a beer is to provide bitterness to balance sweetness from the malt, and this is done through compounds in the hops called alpha acids. The higher the degree of alpha acid in a given hop, the more bitter the beer is likely to be. Mount Hood’s IBU value is stated as 36 IBUs, Warrior’s is 114 IBUs. Does that make Warrior three times as bitter? Supposedly, but it’s a bit theoretical and possibly subjective. (For reference, Fullers London Pride has an IBU of somewhere in the 30s.) So, what do hops do, then?
A sugary liquid, the wort, is extracted from malted barely steeped in hot water. The wort is then boiled with hops. Boiling extracts the bitter alpha acids from the hops, but drives off essential oils that provide aroma and flavour. Adding hops late in the boil will retain some flavour, but even then, prized aromatics can still be lost unless the boil has finished. Hops can also be added after the beer is fermented (so-called dry hopping), which it is said allows the full aromatic character of the hop to be imparted to the finished beer. On with the show…
I’m not one for extensive tasting notes, but it seems appropriate to go into some detail here. After all, we were there to find out what each hop does. I start with the Mount Hood (32 IBUs) and MaltCim chooses the Cascade (36 IBUs). We reason it’s good to start low, and work our way to the bitter end (boom, boom) so as not to overwhelm our taste buds. The beers are served in 20 cl tasting glasses, which is sensible if you’re intending to work your way through the list; these are “proper” IPAs at 6.8% ABV. They are served a bit too cold for my liking, making it hard to find the “nose” of the beer. Some hand rubbing and glass swirling later, the Cascade gives up some resiny, zesty secrets, but Mount Hood seems resolutely un-aromatic. Challenger is a staple of many English beers, but what does it do when you see it naked, I want to know. Cim goes for the American variety Centennial. Again, my choice provides little on the nose, but a lovely bitter fruit balance to the toffee-ish hops and a bitter back bite on the finish. It has 51 IBUs. Cim finds sauerkraut in the Centennial (56 IBUs) and rotting veg. in the cellar*. A little harsh, I think, but she claims it was “in a nice way”. I can’t argue with the MaltCim nose, but I am reminded more of very overripe mandarins. There’s grapefruit and more mandarin orange on the palate and a nice hop-oily finish. The third round now, and we know we can’t do justice to the whole range, so we have to pick and choose. Do we go for familiar types or the brave New World? We decide to get into the heavier-hitting IBUs, and so forego the Amarillo and Citra for Nugget (95 IBUs) and Simcoe (ditto). “Cat piss” she announces, and this is not an outburst of Tourette’s from MaltCim but a nosing evaluation. I check and she’s right; it is almost overpowering. It makes me wonder how anybody decided to put this in a beer. The flavour, though, is grassy, and citrussy – very refreshing, but the aroma is even weirder than the Play Doh and bubblegum of BrewDog’s Sorachi Ace IPA is Dead. It makes the wet wool and wood shaving notes for my Nugget seem positively understated. Nice candied and dried apples (like crumble), too. Fourth up, we go for a comparison of the Galena (94 IBUs) and Super Galena (96 IBUs). They seem related, but more like cousins than brothers. The Galena is slightly musty with some attractive forest berries on the nose, which turn into a blackberry tinge on the palette. A lovely balance between hop bitterness, aromatics, fruit and malt. The Super, in comparison, has some struck-match sulphur to add to the mustiness, but without the forest fruits. It does have baked apples and a nice, resiny finish. For the last round we choose the top end of the IBU range: Bravo at 103 IBUs and Warrior at 115 IBUs. Cim’s Bravo has ice cream (rum&raisin) and a spicy palate (with a hint of bubblegum). My Warrior is earthy (cellar-like), musty, vegetal. It has dried cranberries on the palate and some soaked dried fruits I can’t quite place. The A4 tasting sheet invites us to vote for our favourite, with a chance to win a case of beer containing all 19 hops, blended in a sort of proportional representation ration, depending on the percentage of votes each variety gets. Perhaps Alternative Vote system might have been better. We both choose the Galena as our winner – independently. It’s a wrench to leave, with 9 beers left untouched. There seems to be time for one last sample, and we plump for the Cluster, which despite dropping down 30-odd IBUs to 66, is perfectly discernible even after the big hitters. It has some spicy ginger and a slightly sour nose (Cim says bitter almonds). Inevitably (it seems), there are citrus flavours and we agree they are of the lemony custard creme variety you might find in English biscuits. I might even have voted for it. From an idea that started with the Mikkeller Single Hop range, the baton was in turn carried further by BrewDog, with their IPA is Dead range showcasing four of the newer hops sourced from New Zealand and Japan, this weekend seems like a culmination. Mikkeller has proved that not only is IPA still not dead, in some cases, it smells even funnier**. An illuminating experiment; one result perhaps showing that not every hop sort is meant to be in a single-hop beer – and I don’t just mean the Simcoe, some, like Mount Hood, need a boost from something more fragrant. If either of us wins the case of the IPA 19-hop blend, I’ll be sure to post my thoughts here. —— * Subsequent research suggests that the “rotting veg” might be an off-aroma caused by over-boiling aroma hops (high beta acid content). I await comments with interest.