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What Are Noble Hops?

What Are Noble Hops?

The term noble hops often appears on beer labels and brewpub menus, but what does it mean? It may sound regal and traditional, but the term is actually one used by brokers to sell hops and by brewers to sell beer rather than one that scientists have defined.

Call them noble, call them fine, call them from a good family, but nearly 150 years ago an author surveying the best hops available made it clear that some are more special than others.

P.L. Simmonds wrote in his The Cultivation of Hops in England, Europe, America, Australasia and India that “The hops of Spalt are the best, and the German and French brewers who make beer which has to be kept long are obliged to employ Spalt hops with those of Saaz in Austria, which are the finest and most aromatic hops grown. The products are of a high reputation, and are the Chateau Lafitte, the Cose Vougent, and the Johannisberg (sic), as it were, of hops of continental growths.”

Saaz and Spalt Spalter are known as noble hops. How that came to be and what other varieties should be called noble is not as obvious. What Germans called “fine aroma hops” in the 1970s sometimes became known as “noble aroma hops” in other languages, and “neither term was ever officially defined,” explains German hop scientist Adrian Forster. “Therefore, not all brewers and hop merchants have the same understanding of which hop varieties rank among fine aroma hops.” 

By consensus, Hallertau Mittelfrüh and Tettnang Tettnanger belong in the club with Saaz and Spalt as official noble hops. Others would add Hersbrucker Spät from northern Bavaria and Strisselspalt from the Alsace region of France. All six are products of natural selection, each having emerged by the 19th century as an essential ingredient in beer for which brewers would pay a premium price. Hops traded in Nuremberg, the continent’s largest market, were classified into 10 groups, based upon where they were grown. Those from the towns of Saaz and Spalt commanded the best prices, which could be six to eight times more than those from the least desirable regions, such as Russia.

Der Praktische Gutsvewalter (“The Practical Estate Manager”), published in 1846, discussed the evolution of Edelhopfen hops, the varieties that would be cultivated and sold to brewers, from wild hops. Nearly a century later two English hop scientists translated edel as noble. They could have also chosen fine, or precious, or of a good family, but noble seemed to suit what had become the most valuable varieties.

hop plants growing vigorously
The term "noble hops" may sound regal and traditional, but the term is actually one used by brokers to sell hops and by brewers to sell beer rather than one that scientists have defined.

Hop geneticists refer to the varieties that farmers chose to propagate over the course of centuries as landrace hops. Val Peacock, long-time manager of hop technology at Anheuser-Busch and now a consultant, explains the decision was pretty basic. “We like the hop that grows on this side of the road. We’re not so happy with the hop that grows on that side of the road.”

Until hop breeding programs began at the start of the 20th century all hops were landrace hops. By the 1970s, those in the hop trade sought ways to categorize varieties with a much wider range of characteristics than in the past. “Fine aroma hops” emerged as a term to distinguish traditional, some would say classical, varieties from the new strains. In Asia and North America, Forster recalls that marketers introduced the term “noble aroma hops.” Soon brewers began promoting beers made with “noble hops.”

The Boston Beer Company, in particular, has advertised the use of noble hops in Samuel Adams Boston Lager and other beers. In the aughts, it introduced Samuel Adams Noble Pils, hopped with Mittelfrüh, Saaz, Tettnanger, Spalter and Hersbrucker. Although that beer is no longer brewed, Boston Beer founder Jim Koch speaks in excited bursts while describing what he finds sets noble hops apart from others. “Elegant, almost symphonically complex. The aromatics, clean bitterness. Floral, spice, citrus. Pine, spruce, eucalyptus. Aromas you don’t get in any other hop. In fact, in no flower.”

Breeding programs exist not only to create varieties with more exotic aromas and flavors, but because the traditional varieties are more vulnerable to disease and climate change. Newer varieties such as Saphir and Diamant (Diamond in English) have been bred at the German Hop Research Center as potential “fine aroma hops.” But the original four — or five or six, depending on who is making the list — remain the standard that breeders compare new hops to.

acres of hop plants
The Boston Beer Co. has advertised noble hops heavily in its Samuel Adams Boston Lager and other beers.

Saaz from the Czech Republic, Spalter from the Spalt region of Bavaria, and Tettnanger from the Tettnang region in southeast Germany are so genetically similar that they are grouped together as “Saazer hops,” but still exhibit different aroma qualities. Almost 10 years ago, German hop supplier Barth-Haas commissioned two wine sommeliers and a perfumist to characterize the aroma of hundreds of hops. Their descriptions in The Hop Aroma Compendium of these three siblings make it clear they are not exactly alike:

Saaz: “Spicy, woody, such as tarragon, lavender, cedarwood and smoked bacon.”

Spalter: “Woody aromas . . . reminiscent of tonka beans and barrique, with slightly sweet notes of ripe bananas.”

Tettnanger: “Woody aromas and cream-caramel components, such as gingerbread and almonds, predominate, combined with fruity blueberry notes.” 

Likewise, the descriptions provide an idea of what these other traditional landrace hops may contribute to the aroma and flavor in a beer beyond their nobility:

Hallertau Mittelfrüh: “Spicy, woody aromas, such as licorice and hay, with slight notes of blackberries. Additionally, bergamot and aniseed.”

Hersbrucker Spat: “Aromas such as fir needles and lavender, combined with flavor notes of geranium and melissa. Additionally, lime and black tea.”

Strisselspalt: “Citrus, bergamot, grapefruit and orange, red berries, plus chamomile blossom and tea.” 

These aren’t the only landrace hops still being harvested. Most notably, the two best known English hops, Fuggle (also known as Fuggles) and Golding, have much in common with the noble continental landrace varieties. The Hop Aroma Compendium describes “marjoram, cardamom and woodruff aromas at the fore” of Golding, resulting in a “woody-spicy flavor, combined with tangy citrus notes.” The aroma of Fuggle is dominated “by woody spiciness, like tonka beans, cognac, hay and curry.”

In contrast, America’s landrace variety, Cluster, shares much in common with modern hybrids. It contains genes from American wild stock and European plants imported to the United States, which means its aroma compounds are far different from the standard European noble hop varietals. Compendium tasters found Cluster quite floral with “sweet fruits such as honeydew melon, banana and apricot combined with red berries and spicy notes.”

In other words, noble also informs brewers and drinkers what not to expect. The blueberry notes that might be found in a beer hopped with Tettnanger are much subtler than one hopped with Mosaic. Noble hops don’t produce the tropical, papaya, mango and coconut flavors that makes varieties like Galaxy, Citra and Sabro so popular.

Instead, Jay Refling, who worked in hop product development at MillerCoors for more than 30 years, suggests that the term “noble” lends more to perception than anything flavor-wise or chemistry-wise. “Noble says you are doing something more classical.”

attractive field with hop plants growing vertically

All Images Courtesy Stan Hieronymus

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