I crave hops in the spring, and I'm not typically a hophead. I love pilsners, and revel in the toasty and caramel character of malt. But something about the change of seasons — lengthening days, rising temperatures, more opportunities to be outside — makes me desire the crisp, bitter bite and the citrus, resin and tropical fruit flavors that hops deliver.
This seasonal craving makes no sense. Hop season is early fall, when the towering bines are cut from their trellises and the tender, bright green cones are harvested. That's when fresh or wet hop beers — made with unprocessed flowers — are brewed and released to eager hop lovers. By spring, it's just a distant memory.
Thankfully, hoppy beers are by far the most popular in the craft-beer world, so there's always an abundance of choices available — both classic and new — to scratch this end-of-winter itch.
Pale ales offer balanced, lower-alcohol options for everyday drinking. Or up the ante with an IPA and all its manifestations — American, English, Midwestern, West Coast, Imperial, flavored and hazy, juicy New England-style. To get the bang without the buzz there are even low- and no-alcohol versions. The options are nearly endless.
The obvious go-to for American pale ale is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. One of the originals, it's still one of the best. On the tongue, Sierra Nevada starts with a quick flash of toffee-like malt. But hops are the centerpiece. A crisp, clean bitterness cuts the sweetness, leaving room for the distinctive floral and citrus flavors of Cascade hops. The finish is crisp and dry with lingering bitterness and a subtle return of toffee. If you haven't had this beer in a while, it's worth revisiting.
On the local front, grab a pint or pick up a crowler of West Bank Pub Ale from Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery. A true-to-form, old-school American pale ale, West Bank hits your tongue with a solid blast of citrus and floral hops. Assertive bitterness is balanced by a solid base of lightly toasted grain. It finishes dry and crisp.
For something new, try Mikerphone Drop, a double dry-hopped pale ale from Mikerphone Brewing in Illinois. This is a hazy hop bomb, with lemon/lime and mango hops dominating both the aroma and the flavor. It's a bit too sweet for the style and I wish the brewers had done something more with the malt. Nonetheless, Mikerphone Drop is a great pairing for a sunny spring afternoon on the deck.
India pale ale (IPA) got its start in England at the height of the colonization of India. English-style IPA is different from its American progeny. It's also hard to find in the Twin Cities. Enuff from Bent Brewstillery in Roseville offers a lovely example. This is what I call a "sniffing beer" — the smells of grapefruit, tangerine, marmalade and green tea are almost satisfaction enough. Drinking it is frosting on the cake. There is a nice balance of biscuity malt and citrusy hops, with medium bitterness that hits midway through on the back of the tongue. Enuff is a more moderate yet deliciously hoppy alternative to the aggressive American IPAs.
Everybody loves the hazy New England-style IPAs these days. And there is a bounty of them to choose from. Double Strata from Fair State Brewing Cooperative in Minneapolis is a hazy double IPA that clocks in at 8.6% alcohol. It showcases the flavor and aroma of Strata hops, one of the newest darlings of craft brewers. The aroma is all hops — pineapple, lemon drop and passion fruit. The flavor follows suit with a hint of biscuity malt that just peeks through if you look for it. Low bitterness makes it an easy drinker despite the elevated alcohol.
Mind Haze IPA from Firestone Walker Brewing Co. in California is another tasty hazy. It has an elevated bitterness compared with many beers of that style, giving it some structure on which to hang the copious amounts of hop flavor. Lemon and lemon zest hops give it a refreshing brightness. It's all supported by a bed of bready, wheaty malt.
If you prefer your IPA clear and crisp, Modist Brewing of Minneapolis has created a clear, West Coast-style alter ego to its hazy flagship Dreamyard IPA. Called Day of Another Dream, this one has the same citrus and tropical fruit hop character of the original. Mango and orange pulp and zest dominate. Bitterness is bracing. It goes out dry and bitter in true West Coast fashion.
I also enjoyed Northwest Connection from Urban Growler Brewing Co. in St. Paul. A throwback to the old-school Pacific Northwest-style IPA, it is beautifully balanced between hops and toasty/toffee malt. It maybe leans just slightly to the malty side. But tangerine, grapefruit and juicy tropical fruit are the shining stars. I even sensed a slight hint of coconut. It finishes off-dry with a long-lingering, resinous bitterness. A classic.
One of my favorite new finds is Solarized, a double IPA flavored with yuzu fruit from Odell Brewing Co. in Colorado. Yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit with a flavor resembling a mashup of grapefruit, lemon and mandarin orange, is a perfect complement to the beer's citrus-forward hops. And this beer is all about citrus. The unique character of yuzu dominates both the flavor and aroma, joined by notes of tangerine and lemon. Bitterness is moderate, but not quite as low as a hazy New England IPA. The super-refreshing profile more than hides the 8% alcohol. It goes down way too easy.
Blood orange is another fruit that works well with hops. Shakopee-based Badger Hill Brewing's Blood Orange Traitor IPA demonstrates this in spades. The smell of blood oranges hits your nose before you even raise the glass. The fruit melds seamlessly with the tangerine and grapefruit hops, with neither overpowering the other. It's joined midway by citrus pith bitterness that lingers long after swallowing.
If you want to cut out the alcohol, Run Wild IPA from Connecticut's Athletic Brewing is a great choice. Hops provide nearly all the impact. Bitterness is high and long-lingering. Hop flavors burst out with grapefruit and juicy mango and pineapple. A lack of malt flavor, sweetness and body leaves this feeling like hop-infused soda water. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's crazy refreshing and quite enjoyable to drink.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.