Funny that a tagline for Foster’s Lager fits as a descriptor for the lupulin juice bombs that have become so popular. Here, think of amber as the traffic light rather than the fossilised Baltic tree resin – that’s too clear to the eye (plus the tiny fauna trapped inside would make for a less pleasant experience).
I recently had a glass of a collab beer made by both a renowned British and American brewery. The first time I tried it (pictured at the top of this post), it tasted of how leather polish smells. I didn’t actually like it. It was way too much.
There are rumours of large blokes standing on Camden street corners whispering “Citra, Mosaic, Motueka” at passers by. Our cravings are driving hops ever more malign.
The second time I sampled it, this harshness had diminished even though it was from the same keg. Whether this was down to a small upward shift in my tolerance (that perfect band name – the Lupulin Threshold Shift), that I was already anticipating the taste, the tastebuds were skewed by what I’d eaten beforehand or even just the state of my volatile mind. For whatever reason, it drank less aggressively.
But how are these flavours getting ever more sanguine and unctuous? I think it’s a combination of the visceral demand for hops, the chemistry being used and the equipment used to do it.
Though industrial brewing of cask ale flourished through innovation, mechanisation and supply chain discipline, one consequence following CAMRA’s inception and the perception of real ale in our own age, is that new technology or procedure can breed suspicion and distrust.
By contrast, unfettered and keenly-welcomed technology is one of the best things about craft brewing – ideologically, there is no bias against technological change. With craft beer, it’s as broad as science can push it and needn’t bother with tradition, which is always cobbled on retrospectively anyway.
Going back to this amber nectar – it had used a technique piloted in Boston, Massachusetts whereby hop pellets are shaken mechanically to remove non-cone detritus. They’re then chilled down to minus 35 degrees. The effect (somehow) is that more hop character can be isolated. This means you can either “up” the flavour more potently than before, or generate the same level with a lower yield.
Similar experimentation is happening with the inclusion of cryo hop – a concentrated hop powder that only retains the essential neat “hoppiness”. These techniques are about defining new sensory boundaries.
These kinds of beers are turning into nectars, concentrates, resins, essences or even saps. However you might regard the DIPAs and hop/juice bombs, they are essentially becoming ever more intense and weakening previous experiences.
There’s no sign of this trend abating, so how exactly do you keep ramping things up from here?
We can get machinery to milk every last drop of oil, but what about approaching this from the other end. Might the thirst for ever-verdant profiles actually push hop evolution through genetic modification? I believe we’re destined to explore it.
As a nation, the apprehension towards genetic modification has also changed. In 2000, Tony Blair had to climb down from plans to introduce it due to public pressure. That was my view at the time too, but as with many things, I’ve urned 180 degrees since.
For some reason I was persuaded that GM caused cancer. Now I think the biggest risk would be vast monopolies on ingredients, after all, only companies that already had millions to spend on research would benefit in the first instance. But I’m an optimist.
The United States is less squeamish and has even genetically developed a beer that dispenses with hops completely – DNA from mint and basil plants has been spliced with the brewer’s yeast.
The U.K might have more cause to use GM crops than most. Because of the climate, our terroir is prohibitive to many hop varieties. We could create a hop strain which includes the genes responsible for high oil output but which also has the DNA that tolerates a soggy climate.
It might be in the greenhouses of Northumbria that UK hops are harvested – the towering gardens of Kent and Shropshire being relegated to postcard nostalgia. The vast unpopulated expanses of Scotland could be put to malt and the cultivation of red wine vineyards. Genetic modification could change a lot.
Consider how much of our hop intake is currently shipped in from the US. This is hardly environmental neither is high water intensity; hops are green to the eye but not to the environment – each pint of beer requires roughly fifty pints of water to grow the hop trellises.
Some varieties are also resistant to pests like black fly. Little sequences of their code can be woven into another’s variety to eliminate pesticides too.
So to cut down on intensive watering, the deep carbon footprint of travel, the potential to lessen or eradicate pesticides, and not least the ability to develop ever more pungent (in the good way) luminous hops, isn’t genetic modification inevitable.
Otherwise for that instant fix, we might wind up gnawing on freeze-dried hop sticks like folk in the Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula who develop ulcers from the frenzied chewing of Khat. How soon before I see people vaping hops, perhaps even rubbing lupulin snuff into their gums or injecting it straight into the bloodstream.