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When I first started homebrewing and began researching hops, I was floored at how many different varieties of these amazing flowers were available, and how much they differed. You can use a hop like Magnum to create a clean and incredible bitterness while leaving almost no other hop aroma or flavor, even if you add it in zounds at the whirlpool. Alternatively, you can use a hop like Azacca to get a spicy and catty bitter, as well as notes of papaya, mango, and other tropical fruit in later additions, and just about any other flavor combination you can think of.
So why, I wondered, all this talk of ‘Noble Hops’? What makes Hallertau, Czech Saaz, Tettnang and Spalt so special, especially in a world of high alpha, high terpene, chocolate vanilla milkshake-swirl hops? This week we’ll talk about where these hops came from, the best places to use them, and the effect that terroir has had over the course of a few hundred years.
Noble Hop Varieties: What’s in a Name?
While everyone talks about noble hops, not many really know what makes them noble. The simple answer is marketing, but the history goes a bit deeper than that. In the 1500’s, high quality hop varieties became more and more sought after. Until 1538, there weren’t so much specific, named varieties as there were hop plants that grew in certain places that had better flavor. When added to traditional lager beers and English styles, these hop cones seemed to produce better flavor and longer lasting beer. This, of course, eventually led to the India Ale or Pale Ale that we all know and love today due to hops natural antimicrobial properties, but that’s another story.
Once they found and continued to cultivate these seemingly better hop varieties, of course vendors trying to make an extra farthing would sell these ‘quality hops’ at a premium, even though many times they were whatever hops that they could find or trade for, marked up to pad their purses. This led to stringent restrictions and inspections, and in 1538 Spalt hops were the first official hop variety to be granted the German Hops Seal, meant to ensure lineage and quality to brewers. Thus began the practice of ensuring varietal accuracy that has been practiced since, and is still practiced today with beer hops all over the world.
Where Do They Get Their Crown From?
The term noble hop represents four basic hops that have been grown in their specific terroirs, or areas, for literally hundreds of years. The thought is that the area where they’re grown imparts very specific characteristics, and if it’s true in wine grapes, then why wouldn’t it be true in hops? Climate, soil, and specific regional conditions will always affect the plants therein, and these hop varieties have been in their locations for so long that they have a pleasantly distinct flavor profile.
You can see this in many hop varieties. US grown varieties, even noble varieties planted stateside, are known for having a distinct citrus quality, while Australian and New Zealand varieties are world renowned for big, fruit-forward characteristics. What makes the four noble varieties special is not only their history, but their complex flavor profiles and what they add to classic style beers.
Czech Saaz, or Zatec if you want to get crazy, are grown near the town of Zatec in Bohemia. This region has been controlled by the Germans, Austrians and the Czech Republic throughout history. Saaz generally has low alpha acids, but carries a distinct spicy character that is known worldwide in hoppy lagers. The delicious earthy flavors are backed with a lightly floral aroma that pairs well with classic lager yeasts and lighter beers. We’ve also found that Saaz mixes very well as a small part of the hop bill in more modern IPA’s, adding a lightly spicy and earthy contrast to bright citrus and tropical hops.
Hallertauer mittelfrüher, also known as just Hallertau or Hallertauer, hails from, yep, you guessed it, the Hallertau region of Bavaria. This subtle variety boasts herbal and woody characteristics, with a delicate floral aroma that also pairs well with lighter, German styles. Hallertau is considered to be the quintessential noble hop due to its flavor complexities and smooth, subtle bittering quality.
Tettnang, sometimes called Tettnanger (literally meaning from Tettnang) are grown near Baden-Wurttemberg in Southern Germany, opposite of the Hallertau region, around their native village of Tettnang. Tettnang hops are quite similar to Saaz, although they have a smoother spice character and a slightly more subtle and balanced herbal and floral aroma.
Spalt hops are, keeping with the theme here, grown in the Spalt region of Germany. They also have a similar and distinctly noble profile, with notes of earth, spice and lightly balanced floral characteristics. The aroma profile of Spalt is said to be very fine, and many brewers prefer it to it’s noble counterparts.
Where To Use Noble Hops
At their core, what makes noble hops ‘Noble’ is their distinct terroir. Just as you drink a pinot noir from Anderson Valley and a cabernet sauvignon from Napa, noble hops have a cemented place in some beer styles. Not that you shouldn’t explore these styles with American hops or make a west coast IPA with all noble hops (Edel-IPA??), but to recreate some classic styles as authentically as possible, especially German and Belgian styles, you really NEED the flavor and aroma profiles that these hops provide.
That being said, this is the new and bold world of brewing, and while keeping certain hops in their original place is good, for us homebrewers exploration is the key! As I said above, we’ve found that adding Saaz to a west coast style hop bill can add perfect counterweight to new wave hops and hop flavors, and even help accentuate many of the more tropical and citrusy characteristics. Even doing a noble S.M.A.S.H. with a typical American Pale Ale hop schedule comes out pretty phenomenal, and gives you a good idea as to where they fit and what kinds of hops they might fit with.
Thank you all for reading! Let us know about your favorite noble hops in the comments below, and share your knowledge on brewing with them! Don’t forget to connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to stay up to date on all of the fun happenings, and check out all of our fun and informational videos on BrewChatter TV on YouTube! Brew On!