by YES! Weekly staff

As the craft beer movement continues to explode across the Triad, so too does a beer drinker’s love for, and understanding of, the magic green flower that gives so much good beer its distinct flavor.

In a word, we’re talking about hops. Since the day long ago when brewers first discovered how well hops worked with beer, this potent, yet fragile, flower has pushed most other flavoring agents to the side. The federal government requires beer to contain hops in order to be classified as such, but over the years, as beer drinkers have sought more flavor, hops became the driving force behind the craft beer craze.

Hops first emerged in the 13th century as a flavoring agent for beer in Europe, coming to Britain about 100 years later. Controversial from the start, hops was condemned as a “wicked and pernicious weed” in 1519 and banned for use in British ale. But the quest for flavor could not be stopped, and by the 1520s hops was grown across Britain, coming to the Americas, by way of English and Dutch farmers, in 1629.

The vast majority of hops in the United States are now grown in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, with some 27,000 tons produced in 2012.

But just what are hops, what do they do to your beer, and how in the world do they give that citrus kick in one beer, while providing pine, spice or floral notes in another?

For some answers to the hop questions I turned to Adam Glover, one of the brewers at Natty Greene’s brewpub in downtown Greensboro. I had met Glover at an early tasting for Gibb’s Hundred Brewery last summer, where we were among dozens of tasters who lent our palates to Mark Gibb as he prepared to open a brewery on Lewis Street in Downtown Greensboro along with his wife and business partner, Sasha.

Glover took me down into the basement of Natty Greene’s brewpub, complete with its original low ceiling in the cooler. The rest of the basement had to be dug out an additional two feet, Glover said, in order to get the equipment inside. They keep about 1,000 pounds of hops in the cooler at any given time, Glover said.

He walked me through Cascade and Jarrylo, Centennial and Azacca.

“Some of these hops only had numbers at one point,” Glover said. “Really experimental hops have numbers because they don’t get a name at first. It’s kind of like constellations. Whoever finds it, they get to name it, but until they name it, it’s just a number.”

Azacca came on the scene last year, but was only known as “#483″ until given its name. Natty Greene’s used it early in their Experimental IPA series, and it really stood out for its intense tropical fruit and citrus profile.

Natty Greene’s is up to Experimental IPA #7, Glover said, which featured Jarrylo, a relatively new hop on the scene, which features a banana, apple and pear profile, but still has a high alpha acid. As I would learn later, high alpha acid equates to a strong flavor profile.

An early Experimental IPA featured Azacca, which is a much more citrus-oriented hop with hints of grapefruit.

“It’s something that people are very attracted to when they drink an IPA,” Glover said.

Hops can serve two purposes in the beer brewing process, and are classified as early or late addition. Early addition hops adds body and subtle bitterness to most beers, while late addition hops is where the flavor profile of your favorite IPA comes from. Late addition hops come into play either late in the kettle boil stage, or later as a dry hop in the fermentation tank.

Hops with lower alpha acids are used primarily for bittering early in the boil. Glover said customers often come in and ask for the least hoppy beer. Natty Greene’s has an excellent amber beer known as Buckshot, which usually fits the bill.

“They really want to know which beer has no hops,” Glover said. “Well, all of our beer has hops in it. Most of them that seem like they have no hops, those hops go in early in the boil.”

For Buckshot, Natty Greene’s uses Magnum hops, a cross between two styles that has no distinct aroma and is used for bittering. A German hops, Magnum first came on the scene about 1980.

The lead brewer at Natty Greene’s brewpub, Derek Meyn, was just about to drop a late addition hops into the kettle as Glover led me from the cooler up to the brew room visible from the restaurant floor. Using Southern Cross, a New Zeeland hop-blend described as a “delicate balance of citrus and spice, including a heady mix of lemon peel and pine needles,” they were in the whirlpool phase of brewing a new pale ale to be released in early April.

A dry hopped beer, on average, would have about 11 pounds of hops per 14.8 barrels of beer. In the whirlpool phase of the kettle stage of the brewing process, Meyn added 64 ounces of Southern Cross straight into the boil. The hops spin out, break apart, and are pushed to the center. This keeps the hop debris in the kettle, while the liquid goes next to the fermenter. Brewed on Friday, the batch will ferment for about 10 days, before being dry hopped for another nine days, and then moved to the bright tank for conditioning.

Natty Greene’s brewpub plans out its hop purchases about two years in advance, Glover said. The availability varies, depending on the crop yield on the back end.

“It’s kind of fun because it’s like a wish list that you forget about,” Glover said. “It’s a surprise in reality, because as it grows and that crop year comes closer, that margin can be a little bit smaller, or a little bit bigger.”

He told the story of a Multihead hops they got their hands on a few years back, but only about 30 pounds. They brewed two batches of their Multihead Pale Ale at the brewpub that year.

“It was a great hop, with perfect balance,” Glover said.

“You would think it was Azacca meets Cascade. It was the perfect balance for what you want in a great pale ale. It was amazing.”

They put in a request for more the next year, and a distributor told them the yield was expected to be higher. Natty Greene’s planned for about 100 pounds, but was disappointed when Sierra Nevada ended up scoring the rights to the entire crop.

“You do get beat out,” Glover said. “Even a place like Natty Greene’s that has had hop contracts for 10 years. ” When Mark Gibb was planning to start Gibb’s Hundred in Downtown Greensboro last year he planned his hop stash for about a year in advance. Based on their core recipes, Gibb set about securing the hops he would need from Yakama, Hop Union, Hopsteiner and Indy Hops. Where he came up short, he chased down supply from brewers across North Carolina, Michigan, and a couple of other states.

Gibb said brewers work together, often trading excess supply of hops around in their own free market. A few years ago the price of hops doubled, and supply became very scarce. Gibb said brewers watch the hops market very closely.

On the day we spoke, Gibb said his wife was in Charlotte delivering kegs and picking up a supply of hops from Heist Brewery in the NODA district.

Gibb’s Hundred makes a delicious pale ale known locally as Greensboro Pale Ale, but with the official moniker Blind Man’s Holiday. The brew uses six hops in all, with one going in early, and four or five added at the dry hop stage, Gibb said. The Greensboro Pale Ale uses Apollo, Cascade, Centennial, Amarillo, Chinook and Simcoe.

“We always use the same hops, but they don’t all go in at the same time,” Gibb said. “All of those hop varieties that I’ve mentioned contribute to it. That’s the thing about it. If you get different varieties in there, it lends the complexity to it that you don’t get from just one hop variety.”

The GPA clocks in at about 6 percent ABV, or alcohol by volume. It could qualify as an IPA (India Pale Ale), Gibb said, but they classify it as a pale ale. A lot of hop heads come into the brewpub asking why they don’t brew an IPA.

“They like hops and they expect an IPA,” Gibb said.

“We say, ‘well we don’t have that, but try this pale ale. It’s pretty hoppy.’ We think it’s as good as most IPAs out there.”

But that’s not stopping them from planning for a seasonal IPA, which they intend to brew this week. Gibb hasn’t named the brew yet, but said they will shoot for a 7 to 8 percent ABV.

Both Glover and Gibb agreed that hops and the quest for flavor played a large role in the explosion of the craft beer movement.

“I think when people wanted more flavorful beers, that was definitely the easiest and quickest way to really dial up the flavor of beer,” Gibb said, referring to the prominence of hops as a flavor profile for beer. “Plus, they are very versatile. There are so many varieties that have so many different aromas and flavors to them. It gives you a really big palate to work with.”

Glover said that even casual beer drinkers are becoming smarter consumers.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if people really start profiling their hops beyond just a name,” Glover said. “So if they like Azacca and then they start trying some other ones, soon they can try Southern Cross and wonder how it compares to Azacca. Hopefully our bar staff and brewers will say ‘this one gives off more lemon peel and a pine needle resin to it, as compared to Azacca, which is going to be grapefruit and citrus.’ They will really start profiling what their palate is like, what do they like in a hop, as compared to just saying ‘I like IPAs.'”

“Do you have that new double chocolate stout on nitro?” Ten years ago, this inquiry may have stumped a few bartenders who had become used to slinging domestic light beers over the counter to patrons, but the world of bartending has change drastically with the rise in popularity of craft beers and microbreweries.

The Triad, an area that has long relied on the manufacturing of textiles and economic support from the tobacco industry, is finding itself to be a haven for microbreweries and craft brewers. Between Greensboro’s Natty Greene’s Brewing Company and Winston-Salem’s Foothill Brewing – the two largest players in the local hops game – there are more and more outfits popping up in areas of town that are finding gentrification to be a successful model of resurfacing a city.

According to the Brewers Association, a trade organization that represents the independent American craft brewers, the data from 2014 shows monumental growth in the beer market. Last year, the market share for craft brewers reached 11 percent, marking the first time that the niche companies landed in the double digits. This data also lends itself to the fact that craft brewers as a whole also saw an increase of 22 percent in the retail dollar value.

This is where retail stores like Stella Brew in the Ardmore neighborhood of Winston-Salem, and Gate City Growlers located off of Battleground Avenue in Greensboro, come into play. Greensboro’s Beer Co. is another one, and with a centralized location in downtown Greensboro, the business model seems pretty solid.

These small businesses, owned and operated by those who are passionate about beer and even more passionate about sharing their knowledge, are an unintended consequence, albeit a good one, from the boom in demand for craft beer.

Racks and coolers are filled with hundreds of craft beer options, each bottle just a slight helping of hops (or any number of ingredients) different than the one next to it, and each one ready for tasting. All three of the aforementioned retail beer locations offer sampling of beverages that are on tap – Gate City Growlers owning 20 different options for growler filling and sampling – which helps rookie patrons find out what kind of beer really fits their palate.

Is it a Gose? Is it a Hefeweizen? Could it be a double IPA?

These residual brands that are capitalizing on the shift in flavor preferences help keep the interest alive in the Triad for new beers from local and national breweries alike.

Because there are so many options out there now for sale, these small businesses are serving as the encyclopedias of beer knowledge for an industry that is growing faster than you can thumb-swipe on your smart phone.

Hoots Beer Company, for instance, has taken off in terms of popularity in Winston-Salem. After crowdsourcing funds to purchase the breweries first keg washer, Hoots began brewing beer in the humble warehouse space through the double-doors from the bar. With the little funds founder Eric Weyer and Eric Swain had leftover, they pooled their resources to construct the antiquated look that has become home to many local craft beer fans. Before opening, though, they were testing out various homebrewing options for mass distribution.

“We took it step by step, found investment on our brewing end, and took the jump,” Weyer said. “But taking the leap from homebrew to this is just night and day.”

Weyer said that the first couple brews at the operation had to be successful in order for them to succeed, and thankfully, they were. He likes the idea of staying local and is enjoying growing at a manageable pace.

“We really want to embrace ourselves as Winston’s brewery,” he added.

Dave McClure, the master brewer at Hoots, nonchalantly talks about his work at the microbrew operation making waves down in the West End part of town.

“Our style of beer is a real sessionable style,” McClure said. “Our beers are not overly aggressive one way or another, and we like to keep a good, balanced flavor.”

McClure is a self-proclaimed beer nerd who got his start over 20 years ago with home brewing. That interest rolled itself into a career that took him from Atlanta all the way up to Winston-Salem where he started working with Foothills. He was apart of the transition that Foothills made when it outgrew its brewpub manufacturing outfit by adding a 50,000 sq. ft. plant.

And of all the beers that McClure has worked with Hoots to develop, he recalls the Octoberfest from last year.

“It was a true lager beer, so the process takes longer.

It was a very traditional German-style Octoberfest,” he recalled.

He remembers that they were a little bit under the gun to get it to come out, but didn’t want to rush the process. In the time they had, McClure said that in his 20 years experience working in beer, that beer was “technically, one of the best beers I’ve ever made.”

And as important as flavor is, McClure also acknowledges the existential realm of beer consumption: “But, the greatest beer in the world could suck if your girlfriend just broke up with you “¦ and at the end of the day, it’s a beverage, but that doesn’t mean I don’t put my heart and soul into each batch.”

He went on to explain that although Hoots operation is relatively small by comparison to some of its regional peers, the 10-barrel (approximately 300 gallons) brewing operation allows them to closely monitor the flavor profiles, perfecting each brew with proper yeast management.

Like McClure is to Hoots, David Gonzalez sits in the same position at Foothills Brewing, although he is overseeing just the brewpub portion of the company’s manufacturing.

Gonzalez, a transplant to Winston-Salem by way of Charlotte, and before that a few locations in the northeast part of the country, has been brewing with Foothills for roughly three and one half years. Before coming to Winston, he was brewmaster at Rock Bottom Brewery, a chain microbrew and restaurant that is found in big cities all over the country. Because he’s been in the industry for so long – some of the people buying the beer for the first time were born the same year he started brewing – he’s also been able to watch the industry of craft beer ebb and flow.

“We go through cycles, and everything in life is cycles,” Gonzalez said. “When I was getting into this in the mid- 90s it was in a boom, and that didn’t burst, but it slowed down a lot.”

Gonzalez went on to explain how in the later 2000s, it started to pick up steam again, but now feels that the industry, in terms of growth, is starting to plateau. Laughing, he recalled the time when people wanted to get into microbreweries to get rich, to capitalize on the craze, but he passed that off by saying that the only way to get rich in the industry is to sell a crap load of beer. Perhaps this is also a testament to the passion that these brewers and industry folk have: The only light at the end of the tunnel is the one you turn off when you leave your job at the end of the day.

“I think the number of breweries will go down, as will brands, and there will be a consolidation, the likes of which we are already seeing,” he said. But on the opposite side of the argument, he explained that the American taste buds are placing a higher demand on quality beer.

Locally, that demand has been met. In Winston-Salem, nearly every local bar and pub carries at least one local beer on tap, a credo that Quiet Pint in Winston-Salem has taken to task.

“We always carry a Foothills product, so, for instance, when Sexual Chocolate came out, we made sure to have one of those,” said Jared Lee, the new general manager at Quiet Pint. Coming out of the service industry, having worked and built up restaurants all over the country, Lee knows that sourcing locally is one of the smartest things you can do to establish yourself as a new business. He also name-dropped Gibb’s Hundred out of Greensboro, Olde Mecklenberg out of Charlotte, and Wicked Weed, which sits at home up in Asheville.

“We like to keep a heavy local presence, and because North Carolina is one of the emerging brew states and we have a lot of passionate brewers, we are lucky to get our hands on a lot of that,” he added.

The business of craft beer is relatively simple: Brew quality beer and sell it to people who like to drink. However simple it may be, the complications hide in the nooks and crannies of the business; bacteria can build up in a tank that is not properly cleaned and ruin a batch; a pump could break overnight causing an entire batch to be flushed; the temperature gauge could be broken; a hot water heater could go out and ruin a batch; and any number of other technical problems.

For businesses like Hoots, or even a place like Small Batch, which is also situated in Winston-Salem, these can be detrimental to the entire business. But the risk comes with a reward, and seeing your beers on tap at other bars isn’t just another drop in the bucket, but more a pint in the keg. !