Part of my series on neomexicanus hops.
Think about all the hottest new hops you know about: Mosaic, Azacca, Hallertau Blanc, Equinox–scores more are bursting onto the scene every year. Did you know that your favorite new hop is one of a small handful of its sisters that started its journey over a decade ago? The path to naming and releasing a hop is a long and highly selective process in which vary few varieties make it past even the first year of cultivation.
Breeders begin by crossing popular existing varieties that they think will 1) produce interesting flavor characteristics and 2) possess the right agronomic traits (e.g. disease resistance, high yield, good storage, etc) and whittle the plants down year by year until only the fittest and most interesting make it into the market. In the latter stages of the process–years 8-10+–select breweries are given the opportunity to experiment and give feedback to the growers; Russian River Brewing famously rescued Simcoe from the brink and popularized it back when it was still an experimental hop variety. Finally, when the breeders, growers, and brewers all agree the variety is worthwhile the hop is given a name and released to the general market. In the mean time, the variety will unceremoniously be referred to by its codename (e.g. HBC 123, YCR 456, USDA 123456, etc).
Those of us fortunate enough to attend the 2015 National Homebrewers Conference in San Diego this past year were treated to a special debut: a single-hop session IPA made by Russian River Brewing named Ron Mexico, the nickname of HBC 438, the experimental hop variety used to make it. The offspring of a Neomexicanus variety “Chuck’s Mexican” cultivated from the wild by Chuck Zimmermann and an unknown Lupulus father, HBC 438 is a rising superstar amongst the brewers who have had the rare opportunity to use it. Described as “tropical and stone fruit” with notes of “exceptionally unique herbal and mint” and possessing high levels of total oils and alpha acids, HBC 438 has taken an unusual path and jumped from a single hill to becoming commercially available much faster than most other varieties.
The biggest treat of all, however, was for those those in attendance of the seminar titled Brewing With Experimental Hops: A New Hop Variety Just For Homebrewers led by Jason Perrault, Karl Vanevenhoven, and Vinnie Cilurzo: a double whammy of 1) the breaking news that HBC 438 is going to be available to homebrewers exclusively starting this August/September and 2) that everyone in attendance was going to take some home with them! Through some finesse and friend-wrangling I managed to grab a total of five ounces of HBC 438, three of which I decided to dedicate to a single-ish hop review beer and two to blend into a multi-hop beer in the future.
Read on for details and my review.
HBC 438 Stats
You might recall from my reviews of Chama, Latir, and the Medusa beer from Sierra Nevada that, while loaded with amazing flavor, Neomexicanus’ Achilles heel has always been low oil and alpha acid content. By all accounts HBC 438 is looking to blow other Neomexicanus varieties out of the water: with alpha acids higher than many so-called “high alpha” varieties and total oil content eclipsing oil-heavy varieties like Citra this may be the one hop to rule them all.
Sadly, no broad analysis of oil content is available like it was for Latir, but I imagine we will be seeing more info after this latest harvest season when it will be available at homebrew supplies.
Availability: August/September in US Homebrew Supplies.
Description: Stone, tropical fruit, orange, minty herbal.
Alpha: 14 – 18%
Beta: 6 – 7%
HSI: 20 – 25% (stores decently)
Total Oil: 2.5 – 3.5 ml/100g (very high)
Ron Diego Pale Ale
In celebration of HBC 438’s nickname of “Ron Mexico” and the 2015 National Homebrewers Conference in San Diego I have dubbed this beer “Ron Diego.” The recipe is similar to the recipe I brewed for the Chama Pale Ale, but I dropped the flaked wheat and swapped out the Munich malt for some Munton’s Mild Ale malt I was given after chatting up the Munton’s rep at the NHC trade show booth.
My hop approach for this beer was similar to the Chama Pale Ale: use Warrior for some clean bitterness and save HBC 438 for the whirlpool, where I could lock-in the majority of aromas and flavors. I differed this time by opting to use two of the three ounces as dry hop additions instead of two late boil additions. All the cool kids are talking about biotransformation of hop character by yeast, so I wanted to experiment with “in medias res” dry hopping during the last day or so before fermentation died down as well as a traditional post-fermentation dry hopping. I chose Vermont Ale from The Yeast Bay because 1) it does an awesome job accentuating hop character and 2) I wanted to see how the hops could synergize with yeast character.
A low/moderate bready/earthy malt provides a nice backbone for the moderate/high levels of orange/tropical hop character. The hop aroma reminds me a bit of orange soda and passionfruit with a dash of basil-herb and a minty aftertaste. A low peachy ester from the Vermont Ale yeast synergizes nicely with the fruity hops. Otherwise clean.
Compared to my previous reviews of Neomexicanus varieties I am surprised at the low level of dank, weedy character in HBC 438. This is likely due to the fact that the variety is a hybrid with Lupulus, which cut the dank character significantly. I also have to note that the aroma has faded fairly substantially in the month or so since I brewed the batch, a bit faster than the other varieties I have reviewed.
A crystal clear golden orange (the pictures do not do the color justice). A fluffy, off-white head with excellent retention and lacing. Given that I did not use any head-building malts (e.g. flaked malt, Carapils) and only a small amount of Crystal I can only assume the hop’s high alpha acids have contributed significant isohumulones, which are known to boost head retention.
A low bready/earthy malt flavor again gives a solid backbone for the high levels of fruity hops. The orange soda hop character is a bit more dominant in the flavor with moderate passionfruit tropical and minimal herbal/minty/dank that was present in the aroma. Assertively balanced toward hops, the aftertaste is firmly bitter, but smooth in the finish. A low/moderate peachy ester again blends nicely into the fruity hops. Otherwise clean.
Moderate body and carbonation. Lightly creamy and no alcohol warming. The bitterness is firm, but not astringent and lingers lightly toward the back end of the tongue. Despite the high alpha percentage I am pleased with how smooth the bitterness is. If I had more to use I think it would be a great hop throughout the boil.
Is HBC 438 worth checking out this fall? A thousand times, yes! While not the dank bombs of the pure Neomexicanus varieties I reviewed this past winter, there is still plenty of dank character to go around and the dominant candy orange/passionfruit character is unique amongst any hop I have ever tried. My only real disappointment is that the aroma seemed to fade a bit faster than the other Neomexicanus varieties, but that may be a function of me doubling down in dry hopping vs late boil additions. If I had more to use I would likely have gone 1 oz at 10 minutes, 2 oz in whirlpool, and 2 oz each for two dry hop additions–even then I would be pushing the limits of Pale Ale IBUs… the alphas are just so high!
HBC 438 represents the future of Neomexicanus I was secretly hoping for all along: hybridization with Lupulus varieties to form unheard of combinations of flavor and aroma. After all, it was the cross-breeding of American native variety Americanus with English Lupulus that created the bold hops for which America is renowned today. You might want to invest in some shades… ’cause the future of Neomexicanus is brighter than ever!
- Brewing With Experimental Hops: A New Hop Variety Just For Homebrewers –
NHC 2015 (Members Only)
- Birth of a Hop – craftbeer.com
- Hop Varietal Development Research Flow Chart – usahops.org