Hop Substitutions

So what should you do if you’re planning to brew a recipe, but your homebrew shop doesn’t have the hop variety or varieties that you need? The first and most obvious solution is to pick a similar hop variety and substitute it for the missing hop. And the easiest way to do this, if you aren’t personally familiar with a lot of hop varieties, is to consult a hop substitution chart. In most cases, you should be able to find a reasonable alternative.

Of course, if your local shop doesn’t have a particular hop variety, you can expect the most well-known substitutes to dry up fairly soon after that. Then what? When that happens, there are a couple general hop substitution strategies (which are mostly just applied common sense) to consider and one way to think about the problem in a slightly larger context.

All Hops Taste Different . . . Yet the Same

OK, so let’s say your recipe calls for “hop A” and your shop is out. You check with a substitution chart and see that the substitute hops — hops “B” and “C” — are also out of stock. Now what?

Let’s start at the very beginning. If two hop varieties are named differently, it’s usually because they taste different. (Occasionally, the same hop variety may be available under a couple different names. For example, Columbus, Zeus and Tomahawk are all the same variety.) Conversely, all brewing varieties of hops are descended from one (or perhaps a few) wild progenitors. They all have hop resins (most importantly, the alpha and beta acids) and hop oils (such as humulene, myrcene and a host of others) and they all basically taste like . . . hops. So, all hops taste different, but they also all taste similar. Thus, the success of any hop substitution is going to be a matter of degree.

The Good, the Bad and the Fuggle-y

The easiest situation you could hope for would be a recipe that calls for a mix of “neutral” hops (hops without a strong varietal character). In this case, you would not need to come up with substitutions on a hop-by-hop basis — just pick a variety of other neutral hops. The actual number of hop varieties you choose need not even be the same as in the recipe. For example, if a recipe called for Hallertau, Tettnang and Saaz, you might choose a mix of Sterling, Vanguard, Santiam and Mt. Hood as a substitute.

Many German lager recipes call for noble hops, which are all fairly neutral (although they each have subtle varietal differences). If that is what you usually brew, you should be in good shape. Because the world’s largest breweries drive the research and development of new hop varieties, most new hop varieties are bred either for high alpha or for high-yielding dual-purpose or aroma hops that won’t stick out in an American or International-style Pilsner (such as Bud, Miller, Heineken, Stella Artois, etc.). So, a lot of the new aroma or dual-purpose varieties you run into will be low cohumulone hops with a mild aroma. Often, the primary oil in these hops is humulene. In the accompanying story, “Meet the New Hops,” on page 38, four new hop varieties are profiled. Three of these of hops can be used as noble hop substitutes.

For English ales, Kent Goldings is the most common “neutral” English hop. If you can’t find this, First Gold is a good substitute. Things get a bit more ugly when you consider Fuggles. Styrian Goldings is usually the first hop people mention when they need a substitute for Fuggles, but both these varieties are in short supply this year. The new hop Glacier — the last of the four new hops profiled in the above-mentioned story — should be an acceptable, if not outstanding, substitute for Fuggles (or Styrian Goldings for that matter).

The most difficult situation is coming up with a substitution for a single variety with a strong varietal character. Hoppy American brews featuring Cascade, Centennial and Amarillo hops have been very popular among homebrewers and beer drinkers. Finding a good hop substitute for these is going to be difficult. If you’re lucky, you’ll run into some Ahtanum. Ahtanum — profiled in this issue’s “Homebrew Nation” — is fairly similar to Cascade. If you’re slightly less lucky, you might find some Palisade, which also has some “American” hop characteristics. (There’s also a brand new hop called Bravo, but there isn’t a lot of info out on it yet.) If you can’t find any “C” hops or these suggested substitutions, you’re probably out of luck for capturing the citrusy blast of a hoppy American-style pale ale or IPA. Northern Brewer is another “characterful” hop for which finding a substitute will be difficult.

The last resort for any hop substitution is a mix of neutral hops. This will work well for most lightly-hopped or balanced beers. For heavily-hopped beers, you’ll still get a nice, rounded hop character, but the “edge” may be gone. For most homebrewers, it won’t ever come to this worst-case scenario — and even if it does, this is far preferable than having to resort to non-hop bittering agents.

Iron Brewer — or, Let the Hops Lead

When deciding what to brew this year, one option will be to see what hops are available first and make your recipe decisions second. When I said that Glacier would not be an outstanding substitute for Fuggles, the converse is also true. Both Fuggle and Glacier have their own “personality.” In the TV show Iron Chef, chefs are given a random assortment of ingredients on the spot and asked to come up with a meal. The winning iron chef is the one that makes the most of the ingredients at hand. The losing chefs frequently try to cram the ingredient into whatever style of cuisine they are used to cooking. This year, you may need to brew at least a couple beers as an Iron Brewer — pick a new hop variety and see what you can get it to do.

Issue: March-April 2008