Local heroes

A visit to Madrid gets Matthew Curtis thinking about terroir and locality in hops.


I recently had the opportunity to visit Cervecera Península, in the Spanish capital of Madrid. This exciting, young brewery is knocking out the kind of beers you and I likely fawn over; namely (but not exclusively) hazy, juicy pale ales and IPAs. Península has the uncanny knack of dialling the juice levels up to 11, while still creating beer that’s dry, drinkable and downright delicious.

My visit coincided with a collaboration brew between the hosts and South London’s Anspach & Hobday. During the latter stages of the brew, hops were weighed out by the bucketful, releasing heady, grapefruit aromas into our immediate surroundings. It was then that Península’s owner and founder, Román Jove, scooped out a handful and placed a few of the pelletised hops—each a compressed nugget of intense flavour and aroma—into my outstretched palm.

He told me that this was Spanish grown Cascade, from the Órbigo Valley, to the north, near the city of León. This was the first time, to my knowledge at least, that I had experienced hops from this region. Crushing it between my hands, my skin was coated in a pungent oil, releasing aromas of citrus rind and freshly mowed grass as I did so. The aroma was remarkable, and in rubbing these hops I was immediately excited about their potential, and what they could impart within today’s brew.

Cascade is one of the hops that could be credited with triggering the modern craft beer revolution. Its use by Californian brewers in heavily hopped ales in the late 70s – beers such as Anchor’s Liberty Ale and the now ubiquitous Sierra Nevada Pale – began to change consumer perceptions around bitterness and aroma. It now seems silly to think that everyday beers such as these were revolutionary at the time, and it’s Cascade, with its intense, grapefruit notes, that was at the heart of this.

While Cascade may have fallen out of favour with some brewers over the years (where it was once the most cultivated hop in North America, that title now belongs to Citra) it still maintains popularity due to its reliability. It’s also now cultivated in several distinct hop growing regions outside the United States, including the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Spain. What’s interesting about Cascade is that – other than a prefix such as UK or NZ – it’s name doesn’t change when it’s grown in other countries. In other instances they have been renamed; take Willamette, for example – better known to you and I as Fuggles, when cultivated in England.

What was remarkable to me about the Spanish Cascade is that is bore a great deal of resemblance to the US cultivars I’ve managed to sample. Namely, the hops were highly aromatic, with citrus notes at the fore. By comparison I’ve found hop cones from Cascade plants grown in the UK to have completely different characteristics. Instead of bright and citrusy, they are often full of earthy, peppery notes – something many British hops have in common. In New Zealand the same variety will yield crops with vinous, wine-like notes and flavours of gooseberry.

But why does the same variety of hop taste different when it’s grown elsewhere? And, similarly, why did the Spanish grown Cascade I tried give me aromas similar to its North American brethren?

The answer is down to a number of physical and environmental factors. This could be the type of soil, to the insects that live within it or its relative acidity or alkalinity. The plant is also influenced by the amount of rain, sun or extremes of temperature it is exposed to. Handily, French winemakers coined a term to describe how the environment influences their grape harvest that could equally be applied to hop farming: Terroir.

It’s important to remember that wine and beer terroir aren’t directly comparable. When it comes to wine, that winemaker will harvest grapes from their vineyards, before pressing, fermenting and packaging a product that is a direct expression of place. In beer, hops are packaged and then sent all over the world to brewers, where in turn they are blended with other ingredients – chiefly barley – perhaps removing some of the “place” inherent in those ingredients.

However, I do believe that hops are imbued with the character of where they are grown, giving them their very own sense of terroir. And this brings me back to the similarities I experienced between US and Spanish Cascade. If you were to draw your finger around the globe, following the lines of latitude that lead from the Órbigo Valley in northern Spain, to the Yakima Valley in the south of Washington State, you would not have to deviate far from that line. The environment is similar in both of these places too: hot, dry days and cold nights. Perfect conditions for hop growing.

It should come as no surprise, then, that several other North American hop varieties are thriving in Spain, including Nugget, Columbus and Chinook. And while not exactly the same, that Spanish craft brewers like Península can brew intensely aromatic beer using locally cultivated hops adds an extra dimension to the beers they’re producing.

This is what excites me the most about hops, when talking about the characteristics they draw from the land that surrounds them. You can taste the Kentish countryside when you enjoy a pint of best bitter, and you can be immediately transported to the hop fields of Bavaria when enjoying a snappy, herbaceous helles lager. American hops are loud and full of intensity, just like an intense Double IPA. Australian Galaxy has all the laid back cool you’d expect from a surfer riding the waves at Bondi beach.

But what does any of this mean when a brewery in Southampton is using Nelson Sauvin shipped all the way from New Zealand, or a brewer in Tokyo is throwing armfuls of Yakima Valley Citra into a “West Coast” style IPA?

Producers of wine or cider have a unique opportunity when it comes to selling a product that is imbued with such a sense of place. However, I believe brewers can tap into that too, by celebrating the ingredients they use and telling the story of these ingredients to their customers. Championing local ingredients is always a positive, but this doesn’t always make the best beer. So if brewers are using imported ingredients, they need to express the importance of this to their customers – even if that expression is as simple as excellent flavour and freshness.

There is, however, one other factor to consider as we consider hop terroir, as well as the sustainability of farming this wonderful resource: climate change. Not only does weather and environment influence how your hops taste, but the plants are also notoriously picky about where they grow. They need cold winters to begin germination, and then warm summers with plenty of sunshine and water to ensure a healthy crop.

As the Earth continues to experience hotter summers, the cultivation of hops – along with other crops important to beer such as wheat and barley – could become more challenging to grow. In next month's issue, I’ll be exploring the potential threat climate change could pose to your pint. For now, the next time you enjoy the hoppy character of your favourite beer, give a nod to where those hops came from, and how they might have influenced what you’re tasting.

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