Before the first round of American craft beer booms in the ‘60s, pretty much all the domestic breweries until then were founded by European immigrants who brought their skill sets to the new world. These brewers were making beers using hops varieties brought over from their native countries. After many years of cross-breeding and isolating the best wild American hops, we’ve now got countless hop varieties to choose from, sourced everywhere from the Pacific Northwest to Slovenia and New Zealand. With this abundance comes a classification: Old World hops and New World hops.
Much like the wine world’s vinifera and hybrid grapes, these titles indicate where the hops come from. But in this case, boiling it down to the location of origin is a bit reductive. Given that Old World hops traditionally lend themselves to the ingredient bills of lagers and pilsners while New World hops are more at home in IPAs, the difference between the two camps is more complexly rooted in brewing history, terroir, and flavor profiles. So from a brewer’s perspective, the biggest difference between the two categories lies in what type of beer one is setting out to brew.
Old World hops come from Europe, and they’ve been cultivated since long before the U.S. existed. While this category encompasses hops from Germany, the Czech Republic, and England, the most important of the bunch are the four “noble hop” varieties used to make pilsners and lagers: Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, Tettnanger, Spalt, and Saaz. These four hops were each named after the region they came from, and all draw heavily from their respective terroirs.
“Old World hops tend to have more refined aromatics,” says Sam Richardson, co-founder and brewmaster at Brooklyn’s Other Half Brewing Company. “They’re more floral with some light citrus notes and some spicier notes.” They also are relatively low in bitterness due to their low alpha acid content. “Old World hops range anywhere from 2 to 7 percent alpha pretty regularly,” Richardson says. This is due to a number of factors including the variety itself and the generally cool climates they thrive in.
Given their low bitterness and earthy aromas, Old World hops are incredibly pilsner- and lager-friendly, which explains why Saaz is the go-to hop for many Czech pilsners. There’s also a whole slew of British Old World hops out there like Fuggle, Challenger, and Northern Brewer, the sole hop in California’s own Anchor Steam beer. These British hops are akin to German and Czech varieties, but they also carry minty and tea-like aromas. Seldom do any of these Old World hops get top billing on cans that advertise their hop bill, but most lagers on the market — even in the U.S. — still employ them to this day. They may lack the sexier marketing appeal of exciting newer varieties, but without the Old World stalwarts, we wouldn’t have the Citras, Mosaics, and Moteukas that people line up for these days. As Richardson points out, “a lot of today’s hops come from crosses of Old World hops.”
New World hops can come from just about anywhere, but they predominantly hail from the Pacific Northwest, Australia, and New Zealand. In the U.S. (the original birthplace of New World hops), things really started to pop off in the late ‘60s with the cultivation of Cascade in Oregon. It was made from crossing the aforementioned Fuggle variety and a Russian hop called Serebrianka back when German noble hop fields were plagued by Verticillium wilt, a disease that caused hop import prices to soar. After a few macro breweries tried to incorporate Cascade in their lagers to little success, smaller craft operations like Sierra Nevada Brewing Company saw its potential in pale ales and IPAs. From then on, more New World hops slowly emerged, and due to their intense bitterness, they became the default IPA hops for American brewers
New World Hops do tend to be more citrus-heavy, fruit-forward, and all-around bold than their Old World ancestors. There’s a lot that dictates these flavors and aromatics, but they’re predominantly driven by the hops’ high oil contents. As far as the massive bitterness levels that are symptomatic of New World hops, that can be attributed to high alpha acid content influenced by certain climates like that of the Pacific Northwest.
“The main growing region in the U.S. is a much drier, hotter place than these growing regions in Europe,” says Richardson. That means that even if someone were to grow Old World varietals in Washington State, they’ll tend to have a higher alpha acid content than when grown overseas.
Similarly, New World hops grown in New Zealand tend to take on even more tropical fruit aromas thanks to their unique terroir. While we have our stateside industry heavyweights like Cascade, Citra, Simcoe, and Mosaic, Australia and New Zealand are catching up with their own darling varieties like Galaxy, Nelson Sauvin, and Motueka. They grow Cascade over there as well, but according to Richardson, these countries don’t permit rhizomes to trickle in from other nations in order to protect their crops from foreign pests and diseases. So while we can import hops from the lands down under, we can’t cross-breed them with American New World varietals — minus a few exceptions that slipped into the NZ and Aussie gene pool years ago, like Cascade. And just like in America, a lot of these hops are crosses of European and wild domestic hops.
There’s even New World hop breeding going on in Slovenia, where they’re trying to replicate the profile of Pacific Northwest varieties. Richardson points out that Slovenia is “a little bit of an outlier,” but given its quasi-Mediterranean climate, the country stands a solid chance of producing some expressive New World varieties down the line.
As exciting as all this New World momentum may be, there are quietly a lot of new hops being cultivated in the Old World, too. “They grow Amarillo and Cascade in Germany,” Richardson says. “There’s also U.S. Tettnang, but it’s a bit different. Terroir plays a big role.” This explains why the New Zealand-grown Cascade is much more fruity and lime-forward than the floral, grapefruit-heavy Cascade from the Pacific Northwest. And with all the crossover experimentation underway, new lager-friendly hops are emerging in the Old World — take Ariana, a German variety first released in 2016. Unfortunately, Richardson says, climate change has become a hindrance on Old World breeding.
In short, the difference between Old and New World hops is more a matter of style compatibility than anything else. That said, Richardson says hop cultivators aren’t going out of their way to cultivate hops with a specific style in mind; it all comes down to circumstance.
“It’s not like there’s a breeding program just for IPA hops,” he says. “They’re planting acres and acres of single plants and trying to select out the ones that have interesting characteristics.” It then comes down to whether those hops are profitable, appealing to brewers, and ergonomically stable regardless of whether they belong in an IPA, lager, stout — or hell, even a hop water.
*Image retrieved from nevodka.com via adobe.stock.com
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