One of the FAQs of The Pour Fool, out of several thousand emails, in our first ten years, is this one or variations thereof…
“Can you help me understand hops? I know what they do but there are so many of them that I can’t keep them straight. How do they taste? Are they about more than bitterness? What’s the deal with these things, anyway?”
Well…how much time do ya have? This is a HUGE subject.
There are, certainly, a finite number of hops. They’re not endless…unless you figure in that new varietals are being hybrided all the time, by our superb Yakima Valley labs/growers like Hopsteiner and Haas and HopUnion and Yakima Chief and family growers like Carpenter, Brulotte, Gasseling, Morrier, Gamache, Perrault, Loftus, Smith, and many others. Hops are a BIG business, in Washington’s Yakima Valley, where a whopping 75% of America’s hops are grown. Figure that we’re verging on 100 different commercially-available varieties and 8,000 breweries in the US and you can roll down your car windows, when driving down I-82, and practically hear the cha-ching of cash registers.
But, at the consumer end of the path from Yakima dirt to your glass, many beer fans – even many grizzled veterans – confess to not being able to tell which is doing what in their glass.
Occasionally, in the past ten, twelve years, breweries would experiment with using a single hop in a single beer. It was usually branded as a Single-Hop IPA, to showcase that particular flower, and usually not packaged for retail sale for one simple reason: the fresher the hops the better. I’ve tasted every one of these beers that I could find and some were very memorable, particularly a series of single-hopped Double IPAs at the marvelous Terminal Gravity Brewing of Enterprise, Oregon, where Columbus and Centennial and the workhorse Cascade were showcased in excellent, beautifully-balanced taproom-only beers. As I don’t live in Enterprise (or anywhere nearby), my experience of these were limited but, in talking with TG brewmaster, Frank Helderman, during a 2011 visit, I asked if these would ever include my two all-time fave hops, Amarillo and Simcoe. “Well,” he smiled, “Ya never can tell.” No, Frank, ya really can’t but if he did ever produce them, I wasn’t around for it.
But now, another iconic Oregon brewery has managed to make and bottle at least half that equation and to do it in a way that beautifully expresses the experience I had in a Seattle hop shop, chewing on actual buds of Simcoe and having an “Aha!” moment.
Double Mountain Brewery, located in the heavenly little village/beer hotbed of Hood River, Oregon (arguably America’s most beautiful beercation destination), has now bottled something called “Simcoe A GoGo“, a clean, crisp, balanced, ultimately flat-damned delicious ale that perfectly expresses what Simcoe hops are all about. Simcoe is very much a schizoid little resin bomb. It shows forward flavors of berries (red and black), pears, apricots, mixed citrus fruits, tangerine, and an under current of melon, all of which play beautifully against a chewy earthiness: pine resins, fresh cut wood, grass, and forest vegetation. Every one of those flavors and much of the aroma shines through in this stunningly transparent ale.
As with eating grapes off the vine and then tasting wine made from those same grapes, the fermentation process either adds to or subtracts from (depending on your viewpoint) the raw flavors of the plant. In certain wines I’ve tasted, the change is almost undetectable and those wines tend to stand out. Here, the character of the fresh Simcoe bud changes very little from field to glass and what’s on display here is flat-out delicious. Fat berry compote notes, apricots and citrus zest and an intimation of wildflowers harmonize with a broad, palate-washing wood and pine/spruce stratum to make a beer that satisfies on both a visceral and intellectual level. The whole is balanced off expertly by a core of luminous, comfort-food grade malts, giving this beer a fulness and roundness seldom found in most NW IPAs. It calls to mind, in structural terms and a bit in flavor, Laurelwood’s classic, possibly-NW best, “Workhorse” and certainly shares that icon’s compulsive drinkability.
Double Mountain “Simcoe A GoGo” is one of my favorite ales to come out of the PNW, here in 2019, and has real staying power for continued drinking. Just a fine, classy, casually-brilliant beer. 98 Points
CONFESSION: Several years back, I was kinda “Meh” about Double Mountain. I confess to liking their cultural whoopie cushion attitude a bit better than what was in the glass. Their beers were never sloppy or gratuitous and I could happily sit down and drink one, any time. And did. But there was nothing in their roster that made me sit up and go pop-eyed and gasp, “WOW!!” I have loved Pale Death Belgian IPA from the git-go and would seek out Vaporizer about once a year and enjoy it fully. And that communal-cray-cray is, happily, still intact.
But lately, DM is, well, killin’ it. KILLING. IT. Each new release – especially, shockingly, their new cider operation! – breaks new ground (the Pear Cider is to die for, if you’re into cider at all)(which I usually am not) and the brewing chops are becoming so routinely excellent that it’s hard to imagine them ever reverting to that old unevenness. In a town that used to be all about pFriem and Full Sail, Double Mountain is producing some big ol’ waves upon the mighty Columbia and those waves taste exactly like success.