The summer is winding down and I’m beginning to take stock of some the beer trends I’ve seen the past few months. Third wave breweries are growing and moving onto bottling/canning, barrel-aging programs are ramping up, and we’re all starting to accept the idea of a craft-brewed lager through such styles as German & Bohemian pilsners, Helles & Vienna lager, and kölsch (a hybrid lager-ale but you get my point). This last development is particularly exciting to me as we can do away with the notion that what separates “craft brewing” (whatever that is) and “macro brewing” (again, a little vague when some of the first/second wave craft breweries – Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, Stone, New Belgium, etc — are opening second breweries across the country) is not the style of beer, but rather the fullness in both spirit and flavor of the beer. Yeah, that sounds right. Anyways, I’ve made a point of finding some of these lager styles and I like what I’m tasting. Subtlety and cohesion should be admired as much as anything else.

The spark for this edition of BEER LEXICON came from two things: seeing the aforementioned lager styles (mostly German-inspired) and the realization that we are in the midst of that magical time of year, hop harvesting time. If you’re curious about what that looks like, check out Goodbeerhunting.com’s video from the Elk Mountain Hop Farm…

Click the image to see the video on GBH’s site

So, I had been thinking about hops and lagers, and naturally, hops in lagers. Then I landed, yet again, on the idea of Noble hops. It seems like every time I see those words, despite looking them up several times, I blank on what they specifically mean. And I’m tired of blanking.

[Side note: It should be said that Noble hops do show up in ales (i.e. hefeweizens, certain Belgian styles, etc), but they are usually showcased to a greater degree in lager styles where the flavors are cleaner, less complex and more focused on the malt-hop relationship.]

Let’s start with the problem. We go to a brewery, brew pub, online to read a review, look through the BJCP guidelines, etc, and we see something along the lines of the following…”A crisp balance of malt sweetness and Noble hop aroma & flavor with a bitterness that lingers into the dry finish.” Let’s pretend we’re not beer geeks for a second and figure out what we get out of that: the beer is crisp, balanced, and the finish is dry. For the non-discriminating drinker, that may work, but we are discriminating drinkers. We feel left out of the party and we need more information. “Noble hops this, Noble hops that.” That’s not quite good enough. And to be honest, we’re not entirely convinced the people doing the describing are “with it,” either. Let’s investigate…

Some noble people. Image from hist.umn.edu.

Some noble people. Image from hist.umn.edu.

So says the The Oxford Companion to Beer, “Noble hops, a term that has an undeniable ring of antiquity and distinction…is merely a marketing tag and [one] of recent vintage at that.” The term “Noble hops” has no technical meaning – it’s a buzzword thought up in the U.S., sometime in the 1980s. The designation is meant to set apart from the hundreds of other hops, a few Continental European varieties that were low in bitterness and especially fragrant. Before the expression was coined, they were just understood as “fine hops.”

There are four types of hops that are generally accepted as “Noble”: Hallertauer Mittelfrüh (German), Spalter (German), Tettnanger (German), and Saaz (Czech). What ties these varieties together are their delicate, elegant, herbal, earthy, slightly spicy and floral aromas. Additionally, they embody the idea of terroir, in that it is thought these hops grown in other places, besides their home territory, will not exhibit the traits that make them so notable. This characteristic comes from the fact that they have grown for hundreds of years in a soil and climate to which they have adapted. They’re used to it, we’re used to them and there’s no going back. Interestingly, the genetic history of Saaz, Spalter and Tettnanger suggest these hops may have originated from the same plant but their different growing environments have imbued them with morphological traits and brewing characteristics that makes them, in essence, different organisms.

Hop diagram. Image from Tasting Beer, by Randy Mosher.

Hop diagram. Image from Tasting Beer, by Randy Mosher.

This begs the question: why use the term in the first place? What makes them so special? Stan Hieronymus’ book, For the Love of Hops, includes a couple takes on that very question…

  • “The other side is, ’not Noble’ doesn’t tell you anything. Noble goes to perception. Noble says something you doing is more classical. (Jay Refling, MillerCoors hop products group)
  • “Elegant, almost symphonically complex…The aromatics, clean bitterness. Floral, spice, citrus. Pine, spruce, eucalyptus. Aromas you don’t get in any other hop. In fact, in no flower.” (Jim Koch, founder Boston Beer Company, which brews the award winning, Noble Pils. He puts Hersbrucker hops in the Noble hop group – this has partly to do with Hersbrucker essentially replacing Hallertauer Mittelfüh in the late 1970s).

Brad Smith, of BeerSmith, adds a sub-group of “Nearly Noble” hops, which includes the aforementioned Hersbrucker (German), Fuggles (English),East Kent Golding (English), and Styrian Golding (Slovenian, confusingly a variant of Fuggles, not East Kent Golding). These are not truly regal variations but they do share the trait of being highly aromatic and low in bittering substances (aka alpha acids). In order to avoid any setbacks due to disease or pests, variants of both “Noble hops” and these “nearly Noble” hops have been produced for possible substitution. They include Liberty (U.S., based on Hallertauer Mittelfüh), Mt. Hood (U.S., also based on Hallertauer Mittelfrüh) and Willamette (U.S., based on Fuggles).

In conclusion, “Noble hops”, while a marketing term that technically means nothing, are understood to be certain types of traditional European hops that are low in bitterness and high in pleasant aromatic qualities. The blue-blooded varieties, which are thought to be kingly, are really just perpetuated as such, without any real reason.

I can’t help but be reminded of a certain scene in a certain movie:

DENNIS: What I object to is you automatically treat me like an inferior.
KING ARTHUR: Well, I am king.
DENNIS: Oh, king eh? Very nice. And how’d you get that, eh? By exploiting the workers. By hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma, which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society…
WOMAN: I didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.
DENNIS: You’re foolin’ yourself! We’re living in a dictatorship. A self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working class…
WOMAN: Oh, there you go bringing class into it again.
DENNIS: Well, that’s what it’s all about!…
KING ARTHUR: Be quiet! I order you to be quiet!

Click the image to see "Constitutional Peasants" from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" on Youtube.

Click the image to see “Constitutional Peasants” from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” on Youtube.

If you have any suggestion for the BEER LEXICON series, let me know!

ferretthebeer.com


 

SOURCES:

  1. The Oxford Companion to Beer, edited by Garret Oliver. Entry on “Noble hops” by Adrian Tierny-Jones
  2. For the Love of Hops, by Stan Hieronymus
  3. BeerSmith blog by Brad Smith
  4. BJCP Style Guidelines
  5. beerlegends.com/hops-varieties
  6. imdb.com
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