No ingredient is more glorified in American beer culture than hops. Those little green cones have become virtually omnipresent in contemporary beer branding. Consider: HopSlam, Hop Stoopid, Hoppy Ending, Hopocalypse, Mmmhops, to name just a few of the many hop-centric labels in today’s marketplace. Food Republic contributor Tom Acitelli even titled his excellent craft-beer book The Audacity of Hops. (Unsurprisingly, there’s also a craft beer with the same name.)

Avid fans of hop-forward beers are commonly known as “hopheads.”

Few brewing enthusiasts embody that term better than Sam Calagione, founder of Delaware-based Dogfish Head Brewery, which has been making some of America’s best hoppy beers since the 1990s. Last year, Calagione and his crew brewed up what is believed to be the hoppiest beer ever, called Hoo Lawd. (The name is a nod to the loud exclamation that inevitably follows the drinker’s first bracing sip.)

U.S. brewers measure the level of hoppiness in beer using a standard known as International Bittering Units (IBUs), which works somewhat like the Scoville scale used to quantify the heat of spicy peppers. Suffice it to say, the Hoo Lawd turned out to be a doozie. One lab pegged it at 658 IBUs — more than 10 times the level of Dogfish Head’s basic hop-forward 60 Minute IPA. A second lab reported an ever higher score: a whopping 870 IBUs.

Given his record-setting status on the subject, we asked Calagione to school us on the finer points of this acclaimed crop. Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.


By Johann Georg Sturm [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
What are hops? 
Hops are a flowering plant. I think the Latin is Humulus lupulus, if I’m pronouncing that right. It sounds like a Sesame Street character, but that’s actually its Latin name. Traditionally, beer is made with four ingredients: water, yeast, hops and barley. Barley is what presents the fermentable sugars that the yeast converts to alcohol, and hops is the bittering agent. That bitterness helps to counterbalance the sweetness of the barley. If there were no hops, even in really light beer like Coors or Bud, beers would be unpleasantly sweet.

We seem to be living in a golden age of hops. People really like hoppy beers, especially on our side of the pond. Can you put that into perspective for me?
The style most synonymous with hop-forward beers is the India Pale Ale, the DNA of which goes back many hundreds of years to England, back when India was a colony of Britain. By process of elimination, the brewers in England would learn that when they’d send their regular Pale Ales over to India, if it was just a 4 percent alcohol Pale Ale with normal hops, it would get there and be spoiled. So the next time, they tried to brew it stronger and it still got there spoiled. And the next time they brewed it stronger in alcohol and added extra hops, and then suddenly it arrived in India in great shape because both alcohol and hops act as preservatives in beers. That happened hundreds of years ago, and the style developed through that process.

Flash forward to the craft-brewing renaissance in America, which I’d really date as about 1980, when Sierra Nevada opened. Their pale ale was really the original session IPA. Sierra Nevada pale ale had a nice crisp cascade Northeast hop quality. And so that pale ale IPA style kind of simmered, with some breweries playing around with it in the 1980s. Then in the 1990s, a number of breweries started doing really intensely hoppy beers.

There’s never been a single style in the 35-year history of the craft beer renaissance that’s had such a big impact on craft beer as the IPA style. It’s the style that exploded and brought craft beer out of this little niche beer-geeky world and into the mainstream, and I think that’s because consumer could really get their head around the idea of “OK, there’s this thing in beer called hops, and I notice when I drink it, it has a super-pleasant citrusy thing going on.” But what they’re subconsciously probably not recognizing is, hops is astringent and bitter. When you drink something that’s astringent and bitter, it makes you look forward to taking the next sip, whereas if you drink something sweet, it’s more sating and you feel full faster. So just by virtue of it being bitter and dry, the IPA style has gotten more people suddenly into good beer.

Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione. (Photo: Dogfish Head.)

“The average craft beer drinker, or craft-curious beer drinker, is going through what we call a ‘lupulin threshold shift.’ Basically, what it means is, once you start digging on hoppy beers, you’re gonna keep digging.”

It’s also a good fit with food, right? You think of an IPA being the classic pairing with a burger. It helps cut through the fat.
Yup. A beer that’s gonna be hop-forward is gonna be rich in the resins and oils of hops, and both the hoppy-ness that’s in the beer and the alcohol and the carbonation all help to cut through fat when you’re eating fatty foods. Also, it goes really great with salad because many of the IPAs have that really citrusy component. It also goes really well with asparagus.

Asparagus is the quintessential food that wine has no partner for.

So beer makes you pee and the asparagus makes your pee smell?
[Laughs] It’s funny you say that because we did this beer called Hoo Lawd, where we wanted to brew the hoppiest beer in the world. I had like five nights of it during Extreme Beer Fest in Boston and my pee did smell like asparagus, or something like asparagus [laughs].

As brewers we all calibrate hoppiness off of the scale called International Bittering Units [IBUs] and that is what defines how much measurable quantities of hop bitterness is in a beer. All beers have some level of IBUs. Something like a Bud light, Miller Light, Coors Light, where you’d say “I don’t taste any hops,” is still gonna be like 9, 10, 11, 12 on an IBU scale. Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA is 60 IBUs.

So a number of brewers have talked about doing these super-duper hoppy beers, but they’re just going by the weight of the hops. We wanted to go fully immersed in the science and use a sophisticated third-party laboratory to actually prove how hoppy we can get a beer, and I can confirm the number for you.

I have it printed out right here. You have one lab that pegged it at 658, and another place even had in the 800s.
It was really off the charts.

That’s gotta be expensive to do.
Oh yeah, we spent thousands of dollars verifying the equivalent of eight kegs of beer. That’s all we made of it, and we spent many thousands of dollars to do this journey and prove it.

Photo: Dogfish Head Beer

And why did you do that?
Whenever Dogfish does an extreme beer product or something that hasn’t been done before, it’s easy for the naysayers to say, “Oh, they’re just doing it to be different or to get attention,” or whatever. But when you’re doing stuff with these ingredients and there’s no context in your industry for what you’re doing, it makes us better brewers. We learn so much. We’re pushing the envelope of hop capabilities when we’re doing something like Hoo Lawd. So maybe Hoo Lawd’s not a beer that we’re going to make a zillion barrels of and sell coast to coast, but that process made us better brewers.

It sounded like an all-day adventure.
Yeah, it was! [Laughs] And then so the beer itself, we did it as a relatively dark beer because the more hops you add to a beer, the more it’s gonna make it hazy, and this has so much that it would have been very cloudy.

So hops don’t just add flavor, they add color?
It doesn’t really add color, but an unfiltered beer with a shit ton of hop oils in it is gonna have a very cloudy appearance and not like a weak-beer pleasant white cloudiness; it’s got a murkiness to it. So we intentionally brewed Hoo Lawd as a dark or black IPA knowing that it would have this cloudiness to it. And then we laid it down — we didn’t drink it for about three or four months. Normally, for an IPA, from the day a brewer brews it to the day a brewer sells it is about a month. So we made this beer, laid it down for a few months, let the hops kind of coalesce and calm down through the beer, and then we put it on tap. We served it in a snifter with another snifter that just had [Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA] in it. So you could have a sip, and if you’re like “Ugh,” you can dilute it and create your ideal hoppy beer by using it as like a tincture into a regular 60 Minute [IPA]. But we were amazed by how many people were like, “I’ll have another snifter…just the Hoo Lawd.”

Really?! You thought you were gonna kill palates left and right?
Yeah, I mean it does. It obliterates your palate, but some people are hop masochists, you know? And the average craft beer drinker, or craft-curious beer drinker, is going through what we call a “lupulin threshold shift.”

Right? [Laughs] Sounds technical. Basically, what it means is, once you start digging on hoppy beers, you’re gonna keep digging.

“They would tell people to fill your pillowcase with hops and at night you’d sleep on a pillow full of hops and that would help you sleep. It’s still a homeopathic remedy for insomnia.”

As a beer maker, you’ve developed this reputation as someone who likes to play around with different ingredients. Is hops the most fun element to play around with? Or is it just one of the more important elements?
I would say it’s the most acceptable spicing ingredient to play around with. We’re a top 20 craft brewery that makes all these hop-forward beers. We have amazing direct access to the world’s greatest hop growers and hop scientists because we buy a lot of hops, so we get their attention. And we use that to say, “Let’s talk about experimental projects with you.” And they’ll be like, “Oh yeah! This weird shit’s happening on this hybrid on Hill 19 in Oregon, where it’s a hop but somehow it’s throwing bourbon character in its aromatics.” And we’re like, “OK, we’ll take 20 pounds of that and do a little test batch.” So the way we innovate is to try and look at different varieties that haven’t been used before or even different formats.

So there are a lot of different kinds of hops (Amarillo, Centennial, CitraNelson Sauvin, Simcoe, to name a few). Do we have any idea of how many different kinds there are? I read somewhere that it’s more than 80, but that’s probably a low estimate.
Yeah, I think it really is. And there’s different families of hops, and there’s always these little experimental batches. Right now, I’m playing around with an experimental hop that’s like 4-2-7. It doesn’t even have a name. It’s experimental hop 4-2-7. And then you have the noble hops, which are the European hops. So, yeah, hundreds. Let’s at least say hundreds.

Where do the best hops in America come from? Is it Oregon? Is it Washington?
Those two states produce the most. Anyone can grow hops, basically, in America, but they’re probably not living near a major processing plant to turn it into hop pellets or hop oil, which means, when they use it, they either have to dry it very carefully and just use it as whole-leaf hops, or they have to use it right after they harvest it in what’s called wet-hop beers. I know that right now there’s little tiny hop growers opening all over the place.

“I think our sense of adventure as a nation is part of what makes people excited to drink hoppier beers, to drink more diverse beers, and I don’t think there’s ever been a better moment in the history of beer to be either a beer lover or a beer brewer than in this moment and in this country.”

Is it true that hops are botanically similar to marijuana?
Yup. They say it’s like one molecule away, but obviously that one molecule…

That does something.
The magic molecule!

Is that why IPAs smell like weed?
Yeah! Hops are related, and in the same way that in certain states medical marijuana is legal, I believe it can be prescribed for insomnia. Hops used to be prescribed to people for insomnia.

No shit?
They would tell people to fill your pillowcase with hops and at night you’d sleep on a pillow full of hops and that would help you sleep. It’s still a homeopathic remedy for insomnia.

Why do Americans love hoppy beers? Is it just because Americans like big flavors?
I think that’s it. Look at everything we do. Look at the international stereotypes of Americans [laughs] — loud, big, obnoxious. We want to be the biggest, the best. That’s the negative association, but the other cool thing that’s woven into American palate DNA is the sense of adventure. So many of us came to America and were like, “Fuck what’s going on in the Old World. I’m going over there inventing my own lifestyle.” So I think our sense of adventure as a nation is part of what makes people excited to drink hoppier beers, to drink more diverse beers, and I don’t think there’s ever been a better moment in the history of beer to be either a beer lover or a beer brewer than in this moment and in this country.

So I guess that raises the question: What is the future? Is there a limit to how much you can push the hop factor?
Well, I think there’s no limit to how brewers can put their creative thumbprint on hoppy beers. There’s probably a limit to the IBUs you can get into a beer and, as we kind of showed with Hoo Lawd, it’s not gonna appeal to a broad spectrum of people.