A balmy summer evening calls for frothy chilled beer. For the discerning and curious, commercial beers don’t make the cut, though. They head for the craft brewers offering season-special draughts with ingredients like cucumbers and mango, elevated with hops.
“Hops are to beer what grapes are to wine,” says Ankur Jain, chief executive officer and founder of Bira 91. Cone-shaped flowers whose characteristics are determined, like wine, by the terroir, hops are the soul of beer. They have a distinct bitter taste but they can also have flavour notes of citrus, pine, even mango.
Perhaps never before, though, have consumers had access to such variety as craft brewers experiment with hops for bolder flavours, defying the perception that Indians enjoy light wheat beers, like a Belgian Witbier and Pilners, as humidity rises. Meant to be savoured, these craft beers tend to be more expensive than their commercial counterparts, which use fewer hops.
So, Pune’s Great State Aleworks has partnered with Bengaluru’s 7Rivers Brewing for a soon-to-be-released hoppy mango IPA (Indian Pale Ale). Windmills Craftworks in Bengaluru has introduced a hop extract to intensify flavours. And Bira 91 has launched a robust beer named Bollywood IPA, with tropical notes. It is, in fact, coming up with hoppy wheat beers, hazy IPAs and English Ales, among others.
It all sounds promising but somewhat technical for a regular beer drinker. What, after all, are hops and IPAs and why do brewers love them?
You need four ingredients to make beer: malt, water, yeast and hops. Malt yields starch, yeast ferments, and hops preserve, balancing the sweetness of the starch with their inherent bitterness and adding flavour. The popular story about the origin of IPA and use of hops to preserve beer suggests that British colonisers forced to spend months journeying to India filled their ships with beer brewed with hops to extend its lifespan. Over time, it developed a strong, bitter flavour. This is now known as IPA. Today, however, there are various kinds of IPA: Not all are sharply bitter but each contains a significant quantity of hops. Fruity, spicy and piney flavours and aromas can be extracted from the hops too. Fresh hops are compressed into pellets for packaging and selling around the world. Brewers in India import the pellets from countries like the US, Germany and the Czech Republic.
Just like the spectacular diversity of mangoes, there are different types of hops. One of the most popular is Citra, known for its strong citrus flavours. It is so widely available that Citra hop pellets can be bought on Amazon. The other popular variant is Amarillo, which has spicy and floral notes. Nelson Sauvin, another hop variety, is known for its white grape taste notes. It’s this hop that has been used for a cucumber beer launched by The Merak Brewhouse at JW Marriott in Bengaluru this summer. “It adds a layer of complexity and freshness,” says Merak’s brewmaster, Karthik Singh.
For a well-balanced beer, it’s not enough to merely add hops. Brewers aim for specific flavours, even combining different hops to make one beer. “I would usually pair hops that are complementary, something with grapefruit notes with another having orange flavours. But there are brewers who experiment with contrasting tastes and that’s fine too,” says Singh.
It’s also essential to know when to add hops in the brewing process. In an IPA, for instance, a whole lot of hops go in right at the beginning, when malt is boiled with water. It is left to boil for 60-90 minutes to extract the maximum flavour. “Think of it like making chai: When you boil tea leaves with water for a long time, it becomes more bitter,” explains Manish M.K., brewer, Windmills Craftworks. To round it off, they add a small quantity of hops at the last stage for greater aroma and flavour. The reasoning is similar to sprinkling ground cardamom when you finish boiling chai, to retain its beautiful aromas.
For beer geeks, one of the most fashionable terms to know is dry hopping. It’s the process of adding hops at the peak of fermentation. Windmills Craftworks is believed to be one of the first craft breweries in India to introduce beers using this method. Last month, it went a step further and used a SPECTRUM hop extract to add more finesse. This is a liquid containing intense flavour notes and aromas of hops to upgrade the beer experience. Once again, it should not come as a surprise that it was used in the ever popular IPAs—these are priced slightly higher.
Hops are perhaps the most expensive ingredient in a beer, with prices per kilogram ranging from ₹3,000-9,000. “For a hop-focused beer, like an IPA, we use about 10kg in 1,000 litres,” says Manish. Mass-produced beers use fewer hops, cutting expense, so these tend to taste less hoppy or bitter.
The other reason commercial beers use fewer hops is the way they are meant to be had: They are chugged. In contrast, a hoppy beer with complex flavours is sipped slowly for complete enjoyment.
Craft brewers swear by hops, so new launches are natural in summer, when the palate veers towards sweeter- or sour-tasting drinks rather than bitter ones. It’s an indication of how the craft beer market has evolved.
“As more breweries brew ‘hoppy’ beers, the consumer is definitely starting to warm up to them. At Great State, our flagship IPA (called Sunny Afternoon, designed for summer, hence the name) is tied with our lighter Belgian Witbier in terms of sales. This says a lot in a country which, until a few years ago, only consumed wheat beers,” says Nakul Bhonsle, director of Great State Aleworks.
So call for that hoppy beer. There is a world of flavours waiting to be discovered.
Also read | 5 refreshing summer beers to drink now