Masters of suspense

Every dream begins with a dreamer


The experimental Alora hop was unveiled to the world via a November 2023 blog post, into which its creator, the grower and supplier Hopsteiner, nonchalantly dropped a quite remarkable fact: “Alora™ contains over 50% of unidentified total oil uncommon in hop chemistry”. In other words, more than half of the flavour and aroma-imparting hop oil contained in this exciting new varietal is a complete mystery.

While the post went into some detail about the new hop’s known characteristics, you’d have to be a brave brewer to leap into production with a beer which put the mysterious Alora front-and-centre, for all the world to judge. Fortunately, Siren Craft Brew is just such a brewery.

“It’s interesting because it’s really high in the kinds of oils you want to see in hops, but there's a lot of unidentified hop oils, according to this blog, making it a new kind of world to explore,” says head brewer Sean Knight. “The blog talks about some really nice peach, apricot, sweet melon and yuzu notes, which are quite interesting, but then there's also a lot of bound thiols. Exploration into that kind of thing has kind of died off in the UK because you normally need genetically modified yeast [which isn’t currently approved for use in Britain] to unbind those thiols and let the real flavours come out. You’re still going to get a bit of that biotransformation happening in fermentation anyway, so Alora is still a really interesting hop from that point of view.”

As daunting as it may be to create a beer showcasing a hop you’ve never used before, this is precisely the kind of experimentation that Siren’s Suspended series exists to facilitate. The series started in 2017, a time when brewers everywhere were watching the rapid rise of the New England IPA, and weighing up when to embrace the craze. Meanwhile bars were fanning the flames of a hunger for novelty; the weirder the beer, the more wonderful, the bigger and badder, the better. 

Inspired by the chaos, Siren created a range of beers in which one ingredient, usually a hop, would be changed every time the beer is brewed, inviting drinkers in pursuit of novelty to support an active outlet for experimentation. 

“At one stage, quite a few years ago, bars were just always looking for a rotating tap, so if you got on a bar, they’d take your beer off once the keg was finished and you’d be back at the end of the queue, waiting for your turn again,” says Sean. “Suspended became a vessel for us to have a habit of constantly changing beer, while simultaneously always making a beer that was the same price, the same 4% ABV, and a very similar recipe.

“Each month – though we were probably brewing every two weeks at one stage – we would do a different Suspended; so, for example, a Suspended in Centennial, then a Suspended in Citra. On the label, the hops were the only thing changing, but in reality we’re changing things in the grist, we’re changing things with the fermentation profiles, where we dry hop, how we dry hop. Suspended was named after the beginning of the New England IPA craze, because what the team really took from the opportunity to experiment was how to make a beer hazy. Ever since it’s been a real cool way for us to innovate and explore things we don't know. So if we have an idea for an IPA, we can always trial that in a Suspended beer first.”

Over time the series has evolved as needed, experimenting with rye, oats, and wheat, across cask, keg and can. Suspended has even earned permanent taps on countless bars, in spite of what comes out of those taps being different every time. Yet for all this, Sean is quick to note that Suspended isn’t the perfect medium for experimentation; everything in a beer affects its mouthfeel, so if you’re changing the hop or grain, and tweaking even one other feature, you can end up unsure of what change resulted in the desired effect. Suspended’s base recipe has matured over the years, and these days the team doesn’t have to tweak it too much; it’s inert enough to be reliable, and elastic enough to be adaptable. 

If you’re thinking this kind of tweaking over time isn’t anything special in the brewing industry, you’re right; brewers are constantly tinkering with recipes without advertising changes that may or may not be noticeable to drinkers. However, inviting the drinker to take an interest in experimentation happening at the brewery — whether or not they know the full extent of that experimentation — makes the Suspended series feel as progressive as Alora. Both ask more questions than they answer, and rally curious people to the campaign of experimentation. 

I’m interested to learn, however, that the element of unknown embodied by Alora goes a layer deeper for brewers who, in being closer than drinkers to hop growers, developers and suppliers, are only more aware of what we don’t yet know. For example, a hop’s picking window is decided by the hop farmer, who is checking the crop’s aroma on a daily, if not hourly, basis in the run up to its general harvest time. Once the farmer decides that the hops are ready to be picked, chaos ensues, and it’s all hands on deck to harvest the hops as quickly as humanly possible. 

By that point, the hop’s character will be changing with every hour of sunlight it’s exposed to, so hops harvested during the early stages of its picking window will differ dramatically from hops picked days later. Given this, it is perhaps surprising that brewers generally have no control or visibility on whether the hops they order are early or late harvest. For example, when I ask Sean if Siren has a preference for early or late stage Citra, he tells me that he has a preference for certain characteristics, but that he’s not told by the supplier whether those characteristics correlate with early or late stage picking. 

“Once the supplier gets data on what we select, and if they see a similarity that we're always selecting early, then we will be given samples of early Citra,” says Sean. “However, at the moment, we're probably given a sample of one early, one in the middle, one late, and maybe one from another state. We may not like any of them, and have to ask for more samples, but all this is about the supplier getting an idea of what we like, and building up data. Obviously they’re going to want some brewers to enjoy early Citra and some people to like late stuff, and within that window it should all fit into the brand of Citra, though it's definitely possible to get good and bad stuff.” 

I’m struck here both by the trust between brewer and supplier, and their shared belief in the scientific data that this trust allows our industry to build. Of course, drinkers trust brewers to make great beer, in the same way brewers trust farmers and suppliers to provide them with great hops, even if we don’t, or can’t know exactly how the end product reaches us. Yet I can’t help but see this trust in the scientific method as coming at the cost of beer culture. Knowing the provenance of a grape, and gaining insight into how its cultivation influences taste, allows us to feel connected to the wine we drink in a way that we can’t feel connected to beer, without an equivalent understanding of when, where and how a hop is grown and picked. 

I might be projecting my own furious curiosity about beer’s terroir, in saying that our industry’s hunger for understanding is a positive, motivating force, even if it’s frustrating, and generates debate. Yet the success of Suspended is a testament to just how widespread and vivacious curiosity is in our industry. Trusting Sean has served drinkers of Siren’s beer well, thanks to beers like Suspended, which open up conversations about experimentation; we’re not as far from the front line as we might sometimes feel. 

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