There’s increasing excitement in South Africa’s burgeoning craft beer sector about a new hop developed over the past 15 years by South African Breweries [SAB] on its farms in the Southern Cape region, and recently released to a select few microbrewers around the country.
“Because of this hop we’re able to make truly South African, full-flavored ale and can rightfully claim to have created a new style of beer. We can call it South African Ale. It’s going to happen soon. If I don’t do it someone else will,” said Moritz Kallmeyer, owner of Drayman’s Brewery in Pretoria and one of the country’s leading microbrewers.
Hops are the conical shaped female flowers of the humulus lupulus plant and grow on vines. They give beer its bitterness and flavor. Most of the world’s popular cultivars, such as the Saaz and the Cascade, are grown in Europe and the Yakima Valley in Washington state in the United States.
“This hop, because of its versatility, could be one of the best things ever to hit beer production in this country,” said Dirk van Tonder, owner of the Irish Ale House in Broederstroom in South Africa’s Northwest province. “SAB has come up with this aromatic hop and I’d say it’s almost as good as what we can get from the United States.”
He recently brewed what he calls an African Pale Ale [APA] using the SAB hop, as have other microbrewers in South Africa.
“Usually we have to use imported hops to make big bodied beers like pale ales. But with just this single hop it’s possible to make a wide variety of beers, depending on what the brewer wants to achieve,” said van Tonder. “With this hop, along with local barley, we’re able to produce a 100 percent African craft beer. The implications of this are enormous – not only for South Africa.”
Near-mythical, no-name hop
SAB’s chief brewer, Martin Brooks, based at the company’s Alrode brewery on the East Rand near Johannesburg, said: “This hop is so experimental that it doesn’t have a name yet. It’s in its infancy. We’ve only produced eight 25-kilo boxes so far. It isn’t even available to me and our New Product Development team.”
The hop is presently known only by its serial number, J-17-63, but already has near-mythical status in South Africa’s tight-knit craft brewing circle. Word about it has also spread around the world, and Brooks said SAB is receiving requests for it – and two other hops SAB has named Southern Passion and Southern Aroma – from the United States.
“We do have a captive overseas market and South African hops are starting to gain favor. It’s an acknowledgement of work that’s been done over the past 20, 30 years on our hop farms,” said Brooks. “I do get a sense right now that South Africa, and the world, [are] ready for hops like the J-17-63. If one looks at the beer industry around the world right now, and not just the craft sector, many new mainstream beers tend to be differentiated more by specific hops.”
SAB hop breeder Gerrie Britz began working on the J-17-63 in 1998. His colleague, Beverley-Anne Joseph, joined him in 2006 and took control of the project in 2010, when Britz retired.
“We recently started sending this hop to some microbrewers to see if they like it because it’s not what we normally grow and it’s certainly not what we usually use to brew with,” said Joseph. “The feedback that we’re getting back from them is just so phenomenal.”
She called the J-17-63 a “beautiful” hop.
“If you walk through the fields where we’re growing it you just smell passion fruit – actually a variety of fruit flavors, like gooseberry and blackcurrant aromas. If we kiln it we get that same aroma. It’s very different.”
According to Brooks, the hop contains an unusually high level of alpha acids – the principle components that make beer bitter.
“Typically a hop’s level of alpha [acid] will be around 10 to 11 percent. This J-17-63 is running at 14 percent, unusual for such an aromatic hop. That means it lends itself to high bitterness beers, like India Pale Ales. By comparison the Saaz hop used in the brewing of Hansa Pilsner [one of SAB’s top-selling beers] would be classed as an aromatic hop with three to four percent alpha bittering.”
The high bittering aspect, he said, supported by “very specific, distinct” aromatic properties make the J-17-63 hop “very special.”
“Because it offers such high bitterness, but then also fruitiness and even a hint of chili, it means brewers are able to use it to make very different styles of beers, depending on how much of this hop they add, and when they add it to the mix, and so on. By toning down the hop inputs, you can also make a traditional lager with this hop,” Brooks said.
That’s exactly what Kallmeyer has done. “This hop is fantastic,” he said enthusiastically. “There’s never been anything like it in South Africa.”
He said the fruity aromas of the J-17-63 are “all nicely balanced,” unlike previous hops he’d received from SAB. “They leaned too strongly to litchi or to mango or to grapefruit, very single, dimensionally. This new hop covers a wide spectrum of fruit flavors. That makes it more suitable to brew a lager, because you don’t want a lager to have a massive flavor profile. The hop must be there, but it must do its job quietly.”
But as a further indication of the hop’s versatility, said Kallmeyer, he’s also using the J-17-63 to make English-style bitter ale, and he’s certain it could be used to make stout.
Van Tonder agreed that the new hop’s strength is its “extreme versatility.”
“Because it has such huge aromatic and bittering qualities, we can make single hop beers without having to use different hops for aroma, and different hops to make beers bitter. It also means we can use less imported hops. This is all much more cost effective.”
He added: “The new SAB hop does have quite a sharp aftertaste in comparison to the American hops. But I think this should be maintained because that’s what makes it unique and it could stamp a signature on South African beer.”
Joseph and Brooks said giving experimental hops to craft brewers to test is part of SAB’s commitment to assist independent brewers in South Africa.
“The microbrewers offer us a perfect platform. They can make small batches of beer very fast and give us quick feedback. That enables me to see if a hop, such as the J-17-63, has long-term potential or not. From what we’re hearing, it has immense potential,” said Joseph.
“Having a flourishing craft beer market is obviously good for the microbrewers but it also benefits SAB because it creates excitement in the beer category and ultimately means more South Africans drinking beer,” Brooks said.
Van Tonder added: “The hops that SAB grow are basically for use in their commercial, easy-drinking beers. They are standard hops, not big on taste and aroma. That’s why they’ve so far never branched out into producing a specialist, craft-type beer. I believe this new hop could change this situation.”
Brooks did not rule out an entrance by SAB into South Africa’s craft beer sector but said “at this stage it isn’t in our short-term plans.”
According to SAB research, sales of craft beer are currently less than one percent of the country’s total annual beer output. But a thirst for the artisanal products is growing, especially among more affluent consumers.
“We’re watching this situation. We’d be stupid not to,” said Brooks.
Pioneer craft beer brewer Steve Gilroy, owner of the Gilroy Brewery in Muldersdrift, near Johannesburg, called for “healthy skepticism” when considering the attributes of the J-17-63.
“This hop is, through word of mouth, developing legendary characteristics that in reality will never, ever come to fruition,” Gilroy maintained. “I don’t believe there’s a miracle hop. I don’t believe there ever will be. Is there such a thing as a truly versatile hop? I’d say no. I don’t believe you can make so many diverse beers of magnificently different flavors using one hop. It’s not possible .… There’s no such thing as an apple-banana-orange flavored hop; it doesn’t exist.”
Then Gilroy smiled and said: “Look, I’m a Luddite. I stick with what I know makes good beer. And if I want to make English ale, I use English barley and grain and Kentish hops. If I want to make German lager, I use German hops.”
If brewers are making a wide range of beer styles using the J-17-63, said Gilroy, it isn’t because the hop is “incredibly versatile” but because the brewers are skillful.
“This hop, no matter how wondrous it is, can’t make beer. Brewers make beer. So even if this new hop is as good as people say it is - if the brewer using it isn’t skilled he or she is still going to make bad beer.”
Kallmeyer, though, is adamant: “I believe this hop will make a name for us in the world; it’ll give a signature to South African craft beer that sets it apart from the rest of the world.”
Andre de Beer, of the Cockpit Brewery in Cullinan, in Gauteng province, is also a fervent fan of the new hop, saying that in the hands of a skilled brewer, it’s a “potent tool.”
“The challenge is going to be keeping it alive,” he said. “The craft beer industry in South Africa is very small and if SAB decides not to make beer with this hop then I doubt whether SAB is going to continue growing it. I’m concerned because this hop offers intense flavor, and SAB doesn’t use such flavorful hops in its beers.”
Brooks responded, “As long as there’s a demand from the local microbrewers we will keep our experimental cultivars going from year to year. Based on the demand we will look at increasing production to meet that demand going forward. Nothing would give us greater pride than for the South African craft beer industry to be based on locally developed, well-differentiated hops.”