How hops could become part of beer's marketing lexicon
With the advent of the craft brewing boom, consumers know more about hops than brand owners give them credit for. Stephen Beaumont believes this awareness offers a marketing opportunity for beer brands big and small.
rowing up in the 1960s and '70s, I recall the labels that adorned the wines my parents drank being a jumble of largely indecipherable (mostly) French and (occasionally) Italian words and phrases. Later, as I became more fluent in French, the words began to make sense, but only as places and estates. What it all meant was quite beyond me.
Fast-forward to the North American wine awakening of the '80s and early '90s, as increasingly impressive domestic producers adopted a new vocabulary to help us better understand our wines.
A wine labelled Chardonnay would be "buttery and rich", while a Riesling might be "leaner and more acidic". Cabernet Sauvignon could be reasonably expected to be "bold and tannic", while a Pinot Noir would be "more delicate", and a Zinfandel "more jammy". Nuance arrived later, but as a society, we were beginning to get a handle on the basics.
We may be approaching the same epiphany where hops are concerned.
Hop varieties developing ‘brand recognition’
For most of the last Century, brewers didn't talk much about the hops they used, much like French and Italian wine marketers largely avoided discussing grapes. Those inside the industry knew that proper Czech pilsner contained Saaz hops and a true English best bitter would be seasoned with Fuggle and Golding.
However, not much was mentioned about even these classic hop varieties in the public sphere. Hell, most beer drinkers, in North America at least, didn't know what a hop was.
Not that there was a strong argument to be made that they should. Throughout the majority of the 20th Century, the role that hops played in the flavour of beer stayed on a decidedly downward trajectory, to the point that American light beers minimised their impact almost to the point of irrelevance, at least where the average drinker was concerned.
That started to change with the popularity of the Cascade hop, beginning with Sierra Nevada's transformational Pale Ale in the late 1970s.
Even so, the most influential hop in the US was not generally recognised as such until the new Century, after which it was very quickly joined by a host of other hops, from the New Zealand Nelson Sauvin to the Japanese Sorachi Ace and the American Mosaic.
Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale paved the way with its launch in the ‘70s
All of these hops – and many more, including Australian Galaxy, the massively-popular Citra, and rising star Ekuanot – have appeared in the names of well-known beers around the globe, a testament to their new-found recognisability.
As more hops develop 'brand recognition' among drinkers, it's a safe bet that they will be joined by such new arrivals as the Kiwi hop Nectaron (formerly known as Hort 4337), Argentina's Patagonia Red, and South Africa's African Queen.
Hops may now be entering their 'varietal' moment when, like wines identified by their constituent grape, they become the defining aspects of the beers they flavour. This won't be the case for every beer, of course, just as there still exists a plethora of wines that make no mention of their grapes.
Expanding consumer knowledge is key
Several factors figure into this speculation, the most important being that hops continue to in some way greatly influence the beers in which they are used, whether via strong aromatic compounds, as in the intense, hop-derived tropical fruitiness of many New England IPAs, or the citric bitterness of a Centennial-hopped double IPA.
If they play distant second fiddle to the malt or some flavouring – the chocolate in a chocolate stout, for example – then obviously using the hop as a defining feature wouldn't make much sense.
If the beer is hop-forward and there is a broad public understanding of what each individual hop brings to the glass, mentioning the hop by name makes perfect sense. So long, that is, as brewers make sure they don't get too far out in front of beer drinkers.
To return to the wine analogy, grape varietals caught hold of the public consciousness because the flavour characteristics of a single grape, such as Grenache or Syrah, were easier to understand than, say, the complexities of the blend found in a typical Côtes du Rhône.
The key is to expand knowledge and understanding of specific hops while simultaneously evolving the language of beer.
However, since beer consumers by and large understand that a pale ale or IPA is hoppy and – except in the case of those identified as New England style – tends towards bitterness, the identity of the hop or hops used adds a secondary narrative rather than the principal storyline.
The key is to expand knowledge and understanding of specific hops while simultaneously evolving the language of beer to the point that a casual imbiber won't feel foolish asking a bartender what they have in Mosaic-hopped IPAs – and the bartender has sufficient knowledge that they might thoughtfully guide the consumer to the right choice!
Tools to achieve this goal include clear, non-exclusive language on beer labels – explain the hop when identifying the hop! Further development of popular non-beer uses for specific hops, such as the growing field of sparkling 'hop waters’ will also develop consumer knowledge, as well as elevated tastings that spotlight various hop varieties once post-pandemic times are upon us.
Taken together, such efforts could help clarify a style-based beer lexicon that becomes increasingly muddled with each new, increasingly-absurd variation on the IPA theme – and make life just that little bit easier for beer drinkers, brewers and beer marketers alike.