Confessions of a hop head

By Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Call Phil Hoechst a “hop head” and in return you’re likely to get a sly smile and an enthusiastic admission of guilt.

“I enjoy using hops in cool combinations,” says Hoechst, who along with his wife Sara owns Hop Haus Brewing Company, a 2-year-old brewpub in Verona, just south of Madison. “Their popularity isn’t going to fade anytime soon.”

Hops — along with water, malted barley and yeast — are the key ingredients in beer. Originally added as a preservative before there was refrigeration, hops have taken on a new mystique in the craft beer era.

For the Hoechsts, hops are the not-so-secret ingredient in compelling elixirs that keep craft-beer aficionados coming back for more.

“We produce unique beers, but not weird ones,” says Hoechst, pointing to the 12 tap lines in his 2,600-square-foot brewpub. “There’s no room for boring beers here.”

Hoechst is a licensed physical therapist who works part-time for the state, providing therapy to inmates at prisons in Portage and New Lisbon. He discovered brewing in 2009, when he and his wife were living in Denver. Sampling neighbors’ handiwork led Hoechst to try home brewing.

“I went for it right away, brewing as my first batch a Belgian dubbel,” Hoechst says. “I remember thinking, ‘Holy crap, this really turned out well!’”

The die was cast, and in 2012 the couple moved home to Wisconsin — Sara is from Verona and Phil grew up in neighboring Fitchburg — to start brewing full-time. Hops, of course, figured prominently in the brewer’s batches.

Hops to the rescue

Hops — their flavors derived from the cone-shaped flowers of the plant that’s part of the cannabis family — determine the character and bitterness of a beer.

How and when the hops get added during the boil governs the level of influence the flower has on the beer, Hoechst says.

“You can do 10 different beers using the same hops and the point at which you add those hops will govern what the beer tastes like,” he says.

Big American IPA hops like Centennial, Cascade and Chinook, mostly grown in Oregon, add bold floral flavors to the blend, Hoechst says.

But even “boring” hops like Hallertau, Willamette, Pearl and Magnum have their own roles to play.

“They do their job and bring down the sweetness of the malt,” the brewer says. “They have a ton of alpha acids, which is good for a clean bittering, but not much else.”

In the Belgian-style beers that he brews, Hoechst favors Sterling and Styrian Goldings hops to add more spice and peppery flavor to the mix.

Hoechst hops up his Magic Dragon — the most popular beer Hop Haus produces — with Citra, Mosaic and Columbus hops, producing a double IPA that weighs in at 8.2 percent alcohol by volume. The combination produces an intense tropical-citrus aroma popular among craft-beer drinkers and ends in an assertively bitter flavor and clean finish.

El Andy, Hoescht’s West Coast-style IPA with a 6.6 percent ABV, relies on El Dorado hops to create a delicate floral nuance to go with its bright citrus style. The high notes are most evident on the nose, while the palate defers to the hops’ more resinous characteristics, coupled with a splash of grapefruit.

All brewers have their favorite hops, but Hoechst thinks a few too many may be tapping Citra, which as its name implies adds a strong citrus quality to beer.

“Citra is a great hop, but too many people use it just to say that they used it,” Hoechst says.

In addition, Citra ages quickly and its floral flavors become earthier, in the worst case adding a “dirt-like” flavor to the beer, Hoechst says.

Chinook, one of Hoechst’s favorite hops, often is overlooked by craft brewers searching for new styles on the hops horizon.

“Chinook has kind of fallen out of fashion, but it has a resinous, piney flavor and balances the blend so you’re not being hit over the head with fruit flavors,” he says.

Wisconsin hop resurgence

Before Prohibition, southern Wisconsin was one of the country’s leading hop-growing regions, especially on the north side of the Wisconsin River running through western Wisconsin.

The local industry is returning thanks to such groups as the Wisconsin Hop Exchange, a cooperative connecting small growers to buyers.

Gorst Valley Hops, located in Sauk Country, is one of the state’s largest growers, providing hops to 30 of the Midwest’s leading craft brewers, including Wisconsin Brewing Company, New Glarus Brewing Company and others.

As passionate as he is about hops, even Hoechst knows there’s more to beer.

“It comes down to water science and a bunch of other elements working together,” he says. “When I go somewhere, I will always ask for a sample before ordering a pint, then smell the beer so I can anticipate what I am getting.

“Always smell your beer,” Hoechst advises. “There’s more to it than just the hops.”

On tap

Hop Haus Brewing Company

231 S. Main St., Verona

608-497-3165, The tasting room is open noon–8 p.m. (Sunday); 4–10 p.m. (Monday through Thursday); 3–11 p.m. (Friday); and noon–11 p.m. (Saturday).

In stores

El Andy, El Dorado and Plaid Panther Scotch Ale are available in six-packs thanks to a relationship Hop Haus formed earlier this year with Octopi, Dane County’s newest contract brewer located in Waunakee, north of Madison.