Consider the lowly Humulus lupulus — better known as “hops,” a key ingredient in the production of beer. Their flowers, which look like tiny green pinecones hanging from their vines, were originally introduced to beer to act as a natural preservative. The most common hop-heavy beer today, an IPA or "India pale ale," was in fact a beer highly hopped to better withstand the months at sea that it took to deliver the barrels to English forces stationed in India.
Over time, hops have become what may be the single most integral asset to a beer’s character and flavor. Hops lightly used can add zest to a lager’s light, refreshing quality, while hops fully loaded can take the forefront in a brew, their sharp bitterness crossing the tongue like an herbal wood rasp.
But hops are more complex than that and there are other flavor elements at work, not the least of which are fruit notes such as citrus, pomegranate and nectarine. The proper cultivation by brewers in isolating those flavor elements from the right varieties of hops have resulted in a relatively new sub-genre known as “tropical” IPAs, which lately have been taking tap handles by storm.
It may have been California's Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., which in January introduced a brew called Tropical IPA as part of its Beer Camp series that set the industry’s wheels in motion. Now brewers everywhere, including Wisconsin, are tapping into hop varieties old and new in an attempt to harvest their fresher, fruitier characteristics.
The most popular tropical IPA hop is called Citra, but that's just the zest of the lemon, as it were. El Dorado, Equinox and Azacca hops also have been popping up lately in area beers, and new varieties cultivated in Australia and New Zealand with names like Galaxy, Motueka, Nelson Sauvin, Pacifica and Wakatu have really broadened brewers' palates. Fine examples of the emerging style exist close to home and deserve to be added to your beer rotation.
Stevens Point Brewery proved an early adopter a few years back with Point Beyond the Pale IPA (6.5 percent ABV) brewed with Galaxy Hops, a boast that appears boldly on the beer’s label. Produced before there even was such a thing as tropical IPA, the beer pours golden, capped with a tall white head. A musty/citrus aroma greets the nose, and pine and citrus flavors highlight a grassy malt taste that provides the basis of this and many other tropical IPAs.
Madison-based Ale Asylum recently released High Coup (6.2 percent ABV), which invites imbibers to “Seize the Dank,” a reference to the musty quality that comes from various hops. The beer boasts a hazy, orange hue and high white head. The juicy fruit flavors collide with hop bitterness that offers hints of grapefruit in this complex, yet approachable varietal.
Lakefront Brewery raises the stakes with Hop Jockey Double India Pale Ale (8.2 percent ABV), a tropical thoroughbred with both kick and character. Centennial, Cascade and Citra hops combine to deliver grapefruit, pineapple and orange aromas and flavors, balanced against a fulsome, biscuity blend of lightly roasted caramel malts. This one is both a sipper and a keeper.
Speaking of raising the stakes, Milwaukee Brewing Co.’s Hop Freak (8.7 percent ABV) is a double IPA perhaps best known for the infusion of Rishi Organic Jasmine Tea in the blend. The tea does play a subtle role in the beer’s flavor profile, but Centennial and Cascade hops have been tapped to give off a strong citrus character. Sharper palates may detect lemon zest, orange peel, pineapple, light pepper and a big grapefruit presence in the beer. Hop Freak makes a strong statement, so make sure your taste buds are ready for it.
We’ve been fans of Founder’s Brewing Co. from Grand Rapids, Michigan, for a long time, so it came as no surprise that their Azacca IPA (7 percent ABV) ranked as a favorite in this category. Named for its hop variety that, in turn, is named for the Haitian god of agriculture, it pours coppery-colored with a full head and great aromatics. It’s a full-on tropical, with an almost pulpy mouthfeel and flavors of peach and mango. This a case where a single hop variety works exceptionally well. If you can still find it, we suggest you buy it.
If your idea of citrus is strong notes of tangerines on the nose and palate, then New Belgium Citradelic is your cup of, well, beer. Using a blend of Azacca, Citra, Galaxy and Mandarina Bavaria, the beer from Ft. Collins, Colorado, delivers fully on its flavor profile with an explosion of tangerine flavor. It helps, of course, that actual tangerine peel has been added to the boil, but whether or not that is the brewing equivalent of performance-enhancing drugs is the subject of a later debate. Citradelic’s bright flavors, on the other hand, are not.
Speaking of tangerine additives, Potosi Tangerine IPA from Potosi Brewing Co. in southwestern Wisconsin is one of the earlier examples of the style. As one of Wisconsin’s legacy brands — the brewery opened in 1852 and closed in 1972 for more than 20 years — Potosi has made a strong comeback in the past decade with a variety of brands, including its own tropical IPA, introduced about four years ago.
The brewmaster incorporates tangerine juice during the brewing process, resulting a well-balanced, juicy beer that well fits the tropical qualifications. Once again, Good Ol’ Potosi was ahead of its time.