Noble hops have a sense of regality about them. After all, noble is right in the name.
But what are noble hops? What’s so noble about these hops? Let’s discuss, in detail.
Noble hops defined:
Have you heard of Terroir? It’s a French phrase for the environmental factors that impart a set of observable characteristics to a given crop. The environment in which a plant is cultivated is as crucial as the crop variety itself. That’s why the dark wine grape, Malbec, grown in New Zealand tastes differently than say a Latin American Malbec. The same holds for the hops as well.
Noble hops are just like any other hop variety for the most part. They are flowers of the hop plant, typically trained to grow up lattices in hop yards. Added at early stages of the brewing process, they render beer the defining bitterness and bring in the aroma when added at the later stages. Plus, hops are proven preservatives, keeping the beer edible for longer.
However, what sets noble hops apart is their Terroir. This hop variety is exclusively cultivated in Continental Europe. The environment and other area-specific factors render these hops 2 to 7% AAU alpha acid. The relatively lower percentage of alpha acids translates into the right level of bitterness, and in certain varieties, even a delicate spicy flavour. The subtle, clean, aromatic characteristics are a result of high concentration of a critical component of hop oils, humulene.
The noble hops lend themselves exceptionally well to low IBU beers, lagers and many other conventional European styles. Typically, brewers rely on these hops for dry hopping, but many might use them across the entire brewing process. However, they do not store well, thanks to the high humulene content. Humulene is prone to degradation from oxidation, heat and light.
Interestingly, the regal name has no scientific backing. It’s a marketing term used to distinguish a group of hops from the rest based on their area of cultivation and a set of characteristics.
Types of noble hops:
What are noble hops types? It’s a contentious issue, as many varieties claim to be noble. But, there’s a consensus that the following four varieties make it to the noble category.
It’s the crème de la crème of the hops. It was initially grown in Hallertau, Bavaria, and hence the name. With 3.0-6.0% AAU Alpha acids, the hop is characterised by an intensely floral character and a subtle spicy flavour. Both American and German lagers count on Hallertau for a different flavour, aroma and longevity. As the traditional variety is vulnerable to fungi called Verticillium, we see trends favouring hybrid varieties, such as the Hallertauer Gold.
Wonder where the name comes from? It’s from the German region, Tettnang. Tettnanger is celebrated for its versatility with brewers using it for almost every other style. The hop brings in fruity and spicy character and mild bitterness, thanks to 3.5-5.5% AAU Alpha acids. The hop resists downy mildew, which is a boon for cultivators in a highly humid climate.
Another German-origin hop in the noble league, Spalt is limited. The reason being, it’s cultivated in relatively smaller acreage than the other three noble hops. Note that, the more readily available variety, Spalt Select, is not a true blue Spalt. Spalt’s claim to the hop nobility is a robust, exquisite aroma and a spicy flavour. Think Lagers, Bocks, Alts, and Pilsners, virtually every conventional German style features Spalt in varying concentrations.
You get Saaz from Czech Bohemia. The hop derives its name from Zatek, a city in the modern-day Czech Republic. (Germans call Zatek as Saaz.) The floral aroma with a subtle, earthy and spicy flavour makes the hop a permanent fixture in lagers, pale ales, and continental beers.