Hop Combinations

Paradoxically, recipe construction is at once an element of the brewing process that gets far too much attention — and also not enough. It gets too much attention in that too many brewers look at recipes as magic spells that, when properly constituted, will lead them to homebrewing nirvana. They tinker, tweak, and adjust. They debate, discuss, and argue. They develop rules of thumb on malt ratios and lists of secret ingredients. In so doing, they run the risk of overcomplicating the situation. Recipes don’t need to be complicated. Recipes don’t need to invent anything new to be great. Heck, to a great many brewers recipes aren’t even the most important part of this whole phenomenon, what with the huge contributions made by process and the variations one gets from one brew system to another. Enough, already. Recipes are easy.

But then again, recipe construction is also neglected. Sure, the recipe “simpletons” have a good point: SMaSH recipes —single malt and single hop — can make a phenomenal beer. They’re also correct that complex recipes don’t automatically result in complex flavors. Where the puritans might be stifling their disciples, though, is in pushing the narrative that recipe construction is actually unimportant, which is taking the conclusion too far. Beer recipes bear thinking about, particularly when we talk about hops, because hops are one of the major ingredients that makes beer “beer.” Sure, I know that gruit exists, but for practical purposes in the modern era, beer is closely identified with hops — if you doubt that, take a look at how many IPAs are on the market at the moment, and how craft brewers are experimenting with more hops and different techniques in all kinds of styles. In light of the hoppy trends, it’s surprising that so many brewers approach hopping so casually, and that we have so little scientific data to guide us.

The goal of this article is to give you some good, basic advice (and a strong cautionary note) about hop combinations, in order to provide a jumping off point for your own hopping experimentation. I’ll even provide some of my own recommendations. However, your mileage may vary, as they say — not only because of the vagaries of things like equipment geometry and water chemistry, but because, to be frank, we don’t know enough to provide hard-and-fast rules here. And only you know what you like, because taste is so subjective. We’ll be learning together.

Two’s Complicated

As I said earlier, there’s not a thing wrong with single hopping. As a frequent German lager brewer, in fact, a number of my beers are single hopped. The intrinsic advantage of single hopping is that you have a pretty clear sense of what you’ll be getting out of your hops, as any number of guides and descriptions exist of hop varieties to help you predict it. The unavoidable disadvantage of using just one hop in a beer recipe, though, is that you’re giving up on flavors that can’t be produced by a single hop, and that’s before we get into the idea that you’re counting on a single hop from (likely) a single crop for all of your hop flavors, aromas, and bittering. Call me paranoid, but I’m a bit wary of putting all my hop cones in one basket, which is why I tend to eschew single hopping for hop schedules. I’m not special in this aspect — I think most homebrewers probably do the same. But how much attention are we paying to it?

The answer should be “a lot.” Hops, as I’m sure many of you know, derive their flavor properties from aromatic oils. These oils include specific chemical compounds that can impart flavors of everything from grass to pineapples to sage. “So what?,” you might ask. “Can’t we just get a breakdown of which oils are found in which hop, and build our flavor profile from there?” No, theoretical discussion participant — I’m afraid we can’t. See, it isn’t just the presence or absence of the oils in question that determine the flavors available in the hop. It’s their ratio of one to the other. It’s how those low-level chemical interactions affect the flavor at the end of the process. And the bad news (was there good news?) is that we brewers don’t yet have a clear sense of the rules of hop oil interactions and their resulting flavors (although scientists are most definitely working on figuring it all out). The net result is that there’s still quite a bit of trial and error involved in coming up with winning hop combinations, but with some luck I hope to get you moving in the right direction.

Combining Hops

When coming up with a viable hop combination, first think of the flavors you want. Just because we can’t provide a this-then-that combination guide doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t start with what these hops taste and smell like, so a good hop chart (like Brew Your Own’s in this site’s Resource Guide) is a great place to start. There are two general strategies here: Amplify or complement. In the “amplify” approach you’re using hops with similar flavor profiles to create a more robust sense of that flavor, so if you’re looking for big-time tropical fruit flavor you might pair El Dorado and Citra®. If you want herbal, you might pair Saaz and Perle. Doing this means that you’re likely to improve your odds of getting a particular character in the finished beer, often along with some subtle secondary flavors that a single hop wouldn’t impart. A single hop also might not come through for you, depending on the batch, and when a style requires a particular hop character it can be a good idea to hedge your bets. If you’re thinking “complement,” then you’re looking for different flavors that pair well together. As you’ll see in the combinations I’ve shared on page 71, this can make for some strange bedfellows! But be creative: The pine and resin in Mt. Hood might be a good combination with the minty/woodsy flavor of Northern Brewer. The advantage here is that you can try to build flavors that you simply can’t get out of a single hop.

When deciding on hops you should also consider the other flavors in the beer. If you’re making a saison, you might think that you should be focusing on the herbal contributions of the hops — and you should. That doesn’t mean that you can’t add a bit of Cascade to help out in a beer that should also feature some orange notes, or Sorachi Ace for a touch of lemon. Use every ingredient in every way you can to get what you want — call it the “Law of Conservation of Ingredients.” This can be done within the beer, but it can also be done in the context of food pairings: If you’re making a beer to be served in a specific setting, you can try to build flavors that will pair well with other meal ingredients. For example, when my wife was making a cranberry beer to serve at Thanksgiving, she made sure to use a nice herbal set of hops, knowing that the cranberry and herbal flavors would be paired with turkey, and it rocked.

Finally, before you move on to my recommended pairings, a brief note on simplicity and parsimony in brewing: When in doubt, leave it out. Not forever, but at first. Single-hop beers give you the opportunity to see how a hop presents in a specific recipe on your equipment. Start with just one, and then in subsequent versions you can add in additional hops to see how the flavors change, but the only way to know for sure that you’re getting the most out of your hops is to let your recipes evolve over time. Or you can ignore this advice and hope you get lucky, which worked out well for me as a relatively new brewer! There are lots of paths to the top of the mountain here.

Try, Then Trust

There’s an unavoidable level of trial and error in the process of finding the right hop combination: I regret that the knowledge base simply doesn’t yet exist to be more definitive. That doesn’t mean that you’re flying completely blind, though. Try out my combinations. Build your own. Contact breweries that make the beers you like and ask them what they’re using (imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all). But keep at it — the value of combining and pairing hops is every bit as great as pairing foods with beer, and other beer ingredients with each other. There’s a whole world of flavors out there to play with, and it will likely be a very rare combination that makes a beer worse. Try out some combinations, take good sensory evaluation notes, and start finding your own blends!

Hop Combinations

These are some combinations of hop varieties that have worked well for me over the years. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should provide some good starting points as you develop your own recipes and combinations!

The Easy Way Out: Pre-blends

These are the Cliffs Notes version of hop combinations, since they come pre-blended (think Falconers Flight®, Zythos, etc.)! As a general rule, you’re usually safe combining hops from the same regional/national geographic areas, so while you may not be able to find an explicit “noble hop” blend, multiple varieties from German hop producers will likely make for decent hop combinations.

Flower Power: Hallertau and Northern Brewer

If you’re in the market for a great soft hop flavor or aroma, you can’t really go wrong with Hallertau (almost any variety – I’m a Hersbrucker fan, myself) as a base. You’ll get a pleasant base of floral/herbal notes. Layering Northern Brewer on top adds an aroma of dried bark and wildflowers that complements it perfectly – this hop combination drives my altbier.

Tettnanger Sarsaparilla: Amarillo®, Liberty, and Crystal

This was found by accident, and I can’t even believe I’m writing this. This combination of hops went into my second beer, an American brown ale. Between the light chocolate notes in the beer and these hops, you end up with a flavor that is almost exactly the flavor of sarsaparilla: Floral, wintergreen, a touch of citrus, and (when paired with the malts) a light licorice/anise.

Czech Saaz Herbal: Saaz, Styrian Goldings, and Tettnanger

You’re tripling down on the “herbal” here, which is really in the service of a definite Saaz character. My first four attempts at Czech Pils failed because the Saaz (for whatever reason – water chemistry is my best guess) just didn’t come through. As I started blending in other European hops with similar spicy flavors, it built up and rounded out the herbal/spicy notes to the point where only an idiot could miss it.


Earthy (but not Dirt-y): Fuggles and Glacier

Earthy can be a tough one because it can be mistaken for musty/dirty. Hops like Fuggles and Spalt have a great natural earthy flavor, and when you add in Glacier you double-down on it but also add a touch of melon that brightens the flavor enough to prevent someone from wondering whether you accidentally hit their glass with potting soil.

Piney: Chinook and Waimea

This combination is so piney that it will make you think you walked into a house with a ton of fresh Balsam wreathes at the holidays. Pine is easy – but the New Zealand Waimea adds a softness and a scent of fresh pine resin that is just perfect. Chinook will also bring a lot of grapefruit to the table.

Tropical: Citra® and Motueka

Citra® is a no-brainer here, but the Motueka is what ramps it up to “tropical mixed drink” status. Like a lot of “down under” hops (this one from New Zealand) it adds a bit of citrus, which in this case is a dose of lime that brightens up the sometimes-overly-sweet Citra® flavors.

Grassy: Mosaic® and Sorachi Ace

While most will cheat and just dry hop to achieve a grassy flavor, there are hops that provide it. This combination comes from a friend who makes some incredible American pale ales that come across as refreshing as anything thanks to their grassy/lemony flavor, achieved with this combination in a 2:1 ratio (Mosaic® to Sorachi Ace). Keep in mind that Sorachi Ace will also provide some herbal/dill qualities, while Mosaic® has some tropical fruit and aromas.

Issue: October 2016