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Hip Hops: They're not just for beer anymore

by | Feb 6, 2022

Aaron Connolly, general manager of Maine Mead Works, with a bottle of Honeymaker Hopped Mead. photo/Tom Major

Hops. They’re small, green, and pungent. And they’re not just for beer anymore. The cone-shaped hops flower has been used in beer for about 1,200 years. Lately, the wider beverage industry is waking up to the range of flavors that hops can contribute. 

Maine Mead Works’ Honeymaker Mead is a good example. The company has been fermenting mead (honey wine) since 2008, but released its first hopped batch about three years ago.  

“That one was fairly bitter,” said Aaron Connolly, Maine Mead’s general manager. “They did a boil on it, like a traditional beer, and … it took three years to mellow.”

The company shelved its hops program for a couple years, but recently released carbonated and still varieties of hopped mead. This time, the hops are not boiled, but instead added later in the process. Dry-hopping imparts less bitterness than boiling the hops, contributing complex flavor notes.   

Maine Mead uses sabro hops, which are said to add “tangerine, coconut, tropical fruit, and stone fruit aromas, with hints of cedar, mint, and cream.” Connolly laughingly admitted that he may have tasted that hint of cedar only after reading the description, but there is ample tropical fruit flavor to distinguish this from Maine Mead’s other varieties.  

“This one started off in a very nice place and will only get better,” Connolly said. “It tends to mellow out in the kegs, and in the bottles too. … We’re not trying to mimic a hazy New England-style IPA. We’re just trying to give another option to hops lovers and wine lovers.” 

A stone fruit’s throw down Washington Avenue from Maine Mead’s Portland tasting room, Reid Emmerich uses mosaic hops to add citrus and grapefruit notes to Root Wild’s kombucha. Emmerich first offered a hopped kombucha about three years ago, when Root Wild opened, but it was less popular than other varieties.  

“I was experimenting with different hops, and mosaic was one of my favorites,” Emmerich said. “People liked it, but there were people who were afraid of it. [Some were concerned] that there would be gluten in it because they associated it with beer. Then one time I added some grapefruit juice and some hibiscus to pinken it up a little bit, and it transformed into the Grapefruit Kombucha with hops and hibiscus, and that’s one of our best-selling products now.” 

Although grapefruit gets top billing on the label, the hops contribute most of the flavor. With roughly 80 hops varieties to choose from, Emmerich can experiment with more flavors. He regularly releases pilot batches in the taproom, and is considering canning a peach-flavored kombucha. 

Après, a craft seltzer and cider bar down the hill from Root Wild in East Bayside, adds hops to one of its ciders. Après’ head of production, Ian Goering, uses locally grown nugget hops in Dichotomie, a cider fermented with saison yeast. Unlike the dry-hopped mead and kombucha,  Dichotomie’s hops are added during a hot phase. 

“There was no dry-hopping utilized in this cider,” said Goering, who collaborated with Après’ neighbor, Austin Street Brewery, on Dichotomie. “Hot-side isn’t typically a process in cider fermentation — pressed juice does not need to be heated the way beer does in the brewing process. However, we wanted to utilize hops, and we knew that a hot-side approach was the best way [for the hops] to subtly contribute to the flavor profile.”

Goering has a few reasons for choosing nugget hops over trendier varieties. “We have a familial relationship to the Hop Yard, in Gorham, where, incidentally, one of our assistant brewers, Eileen Murphy, also works as an agronomy specialist. Nugget is one of my favorite domestic hops for bittering, and the terroir of Maine really lends itself to the citrus notes often associated with the hop.”

Goering said he strives for their hops to “subtly balance the ciders and support the natural apple and fermentation flavors. The IBU’s [International Bitterness Units] we calculate our ciders for are in the single digits, and would be laughed at by many hop heads.”

Like Emmerich, Goering has more hopped products headed for the taproom, and some may eventually be released in cans. A Belgian-inspired spiced cider is in development, and while hopped seltzers have not met Goering’s high standards yet, he continuously experiments. “This is something that we will continue to chip away at,” he said, “but we all agree that we won’t release a hopped seltzer until we achieve a product that truly shines.”

 

Hop on your computer and e-mail Tom Major at majorinbeer@gmail.com. 

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