There are four hops varieties that are considered noble . . . but what makes them noble? Basically it simply implies that they were the hop varieties that are old-school. They were the ones monks and brewers from continental Europe were using during the Middle Ages to flavor and preserve their fermented brews. There are four varieties from Germany (and now the Czech Republic) that are known as the noble hops: Hallertau, Saaz, Spalt, and Tettnang. They are named after the region where they were grown, the lone exception being Saaz, whose region is now known as Žatec, which is the Czech name for the area formerly known as Saaz. These fours varietals share many traits in common such as low alpha acid content and a strong aroma profile. They, or at least their slightly modified descendants, are still popular these days, especially among brewers of traditional continental-style lagers and ales.
Found in Bavaria in the southeast part of Germany, Hallertau is located just north of the city of Munich. It has a long tradition of growing hops and Hallertau hops date back too far to even find their genetic origin. Hallertauer Mittelfrueh is the classic Hallertau hop varietal but unfortunately due to its susceptibility to disease it was nearly wiped out. According to the Oxford Companion of Beer, its acreage was reduced to just 1.5% of total hop acreage of Hallertau by 1990. But due to the surge in craft beer and their need for quality aromatic hops along with improved farming techniques, Hallertau Mittelfrueh has roared back. It, along with its descendent Hallertau Tradition, continue to be the backbone of many Bavarian-style ales and lagers. Its complex aromatics of earth, spice, and citrusy nectar means that it will often be added near the end of the boil or after the boil by brewers.
Traveling northeast from Hallertau, you will cross the border into the Czech Republic, where just west of Prague and north of Pilsen you’ll find the well-known hop region known as Žatec (Saaz is the German name), home of Saaz hops. Just like with Hallertau hops, Saaz hops are too old for geneticists to dissect its origins. Because this region was once part of the German empire, Saaz are often still considered a German noble hop. Saaz hop aroma has come to define the aromatic profile of Bohemian-style Pilsners, with its decidedly spicy and earthy oil components. Also having suffered from disease problems, new disease-free clones have been produced, which have helped boost yields of this hop.
The region just to the northwest of Hallertau is the slightly lesser-known hop region of Spalt. According to the Oxford Companion of Beer, this region has been growing hops since at least the 14th century and was the first region to receive the German “seal of hop quality.” Spalt hops display a mildly spicy note and are often associated with the hop profile of traditional Düsseldorf altbiers. Spalt hops are considered to be in the Saaz family genetically.
Travel southwest from Spalt, out of Bavaria and into the neighboring German region of Baden-Württemberg of southwestern Germany to find the last noble hop region of Tettnang. Hops have been cultivated here since about the mid-1800s according to the Oxford Companion of Beer. The namesake hop varietal takes the name Tettnanger and is often considered a very close match to Saaz hops in its profile, although it can take on a slightly more fruity or citrus quality, depending on the growing and harvest conditions. Just like Spalt, it is from the Saaz family and weissbiers can often be found with a Tettnanger hop profile in them.