Citra as Brand, Like Bacon as Brand, Like Chocolate as Brand

Detail from a 1943 advert for Lifesavers depicting fruit on a tree.

Every now and then we’ll reach a point in a conversation where the person opposite wants to know, “What’s a good beer I should be looking out for, then?”

This used to be fairly easy to answer, but with more breweries, and more beers, and what feels like a tendency away from the concept of the core range or flagship beer, it’s become tricky.

There are beers we like but don’t get to drink regularly enough to say we know, and others that we love but don’t see from one year to the next.

Last time someone asked, though, it just so happened that we’d reached a conclusion: “Well, not a specific beer, but you can’t go wrong with anything with Citra in the name.”

We were thinking of Oakham Citra, of course – the beer that effectively owns this unique American hop variety in the UK, and has done since 2009.

In his excellent book For the Love of Hops Stan Hieronymus provides a potted history of the development of Citra:

[Gene] Probasco made the cross in 1990 that resulted in the Citra seedling. At the time brewers didn’t talk about what would later be called ‘special’ aroma, but “that’s where all the interest seems to be these days,” he said. In 1990 he cross-pollinated two plants, a sister and brother that resulted from a 1987 cross between a Hallertau Mittelfrüh mother and a male from an earlier cross… [In 2001 hop chemist Pat Ting] shipped a two-pound sample to Miller… Troy Rysewyk brewed a batch called Wild Ting IPA, dry hopping it with only Citra… “It smelled lke grapefruit, lychee, mango,” Ting said. “But fermented, it tasted like Sauvignon Blanc.”

Citra was very much the hot thing in UK brewing about six or seven years ago. It was a sort of wonder hop that seemed to combine the powers of every C-hop that had come before. It was easy to appreciate – no hints or notes here, just an almost over-vivid horn blast of flavour –and, in our experience, easy to brew with, too.

We’re bad at brewing; Amarillo often defeated us, and Nelson Sauvin always did; but somehow, even we made decent beers with Citra.

Now, with the trendsetters having moved on, Citra continues to be a sort of anchor point for us. If there’s a beer on offer with Citra in the name, even from a brewery we’ve never heard of, or even from a brewery whose beers we don’t generally like, we’ll always give it a try.

Hop Back Citra, for example, is a great beer. It lacks the oomph of Oakham’s flagship and bears a distinct family resemblance to many of the Salisbury brewery’s other beers (“They brew one beer with fifteen different names,” a critic said to us in the pub a while ago) but Citra lifts it out of the sepia. It adds a pure, high note; it electrifies.

Since concluding that You Can’t Go Wrong With Citra, we’ve been testing the thesis. Of course we’ve had the odd dud – beers that taste like they got the sweepings from the Citra factory floor, or were wheeled past a single cone on the way to the warehouse – but generally, it seems to be a sound rule.

We were recently in the pub with our next door neighbour, a keen ale drinker but not a beer geek, and a Citra fan. When Hop Back Citra ran out before he could get another pint his face fell, until he saw that another beer with Citra in the name had gone up on the board: “Oh, there you go – as long as it’s a Citra, I don’t mind.”

All consumers want is a clue, a shortcut, a bit of help. That’s what they get from IPA, or ‘craft’. And apparently also from the name of this one unsubtle, good-time hop variety.

12 thoughts on “Citra as Brand, Like Bacon as Brand, Like Chocolate as Brand”

  1. Wine’s been doing it for years, at least in the middling price range of c. £6 to c. £12. Go to any supermarket and what the labels highlight to the browsing consumer is rank after rank of grape varieties.

  2. While I have to agree, that Citra is one of the safer hops and will most likely taste nice, Cloudwater’s releases in the summer using Citra were all awful through and through. I managed to taste most of them on a tap takeover in June and all of them had an intense Leberwurst/Pate aroma and flavour.

    It made me question the process that brewery has to buy their hops. As imho something like this should not fly and actually be sent back, especially with a brewery of that prestige.

    1. Beer is an agricultural product, and there seems to have been a lot of dodgy Citra from the 2017 harvest. Part of it is that there’s a really narrow harvest window to get it spot on form – you want to leave it as late as possible for the full development of the flavours expressed in dry hopping (see the recent paper by Lafontaine et al, “Impact of harvest maturity on the aroma characteristics and chemistry of Cascade hops used for dry-hopping”) – but leave it too late and it goes onion/garlic-y.

      Citra seems particularly difficult in this regard, farmers in the early years really struggled to hit that sweet spot, and I wonder if the recent huge expansion of acreage has put it on new farms that are having to learn the same lessons. Plus 2017 could just have been one of those difficult years – we’re more used to vintage variation in the UK, where 2015 was a superb year for eg EKG, but the dull August of 2017 made everything a bit earthy.

      1. I understand how complex the whole thing is, but my point is that those hops should not have been bought, or at least a company like CW should have the power (or money) to buy other quality hops. I cannot justify paying 5€/300ml when their ingredients (or at least their QC processes for said ingredients) are that substandard.

        To make a comparison, last years galaxy harvest was milled too finely causing heavy hop burn in a lot of brews. Galaxy was one of the hot hops this past year, but for some reason Lervig never released a beer with it, and my stipulation is that they had a processes in place which caught said problem.

  3. I mostly agree that YCGWWC, and I think Mosaic is probably similar, if less common. But it’s interesting that this flies in the face of years of CAMRA traditionalists insisting that lightly-hopped bitter is the default easy-to-like starter beer and anything else (particularly beers like Oakham Citra) should be considered extreme and challenging and strictly for the advanced classes…

    1. I have never heard CAMRA traditionalists insisting any such thing.

      Recently crops of Citra seem to be more cat pee than lemon, which has put me off several beers I used to enjoy.

      1. I’m not saying it’s ever been official CAMRA policy or the view of a majority of CAMRA members, but as an example, I definitely remember seeing people defending the GBBF’s preponderance of brown bitters back when the “craft” thing started taking off by explaining that its purpose was to showcase cask ale to normal people rather than to excite beer geeks, and that no normal person could be expected to like a beer that tastes of tropical fruit rather than marmalade and toffee…

        1. I agree, you hear this all the time from the main middle-aged camra-bubble bloggers who can’t understand how anyone could possibly find light, pale, hoppy citrussy beers more accessible and easy drinking than the darker, earthier beers prefered by the older drinker. Point this out, even politely, and you get called a troll or an idiot.

  4. I agree with you thesis regarding Citra as a brand in its own right.

    Huish Hugh is absolutely right to say the wine industry have been doing it for years and now also the cider industry with their single varietal ciders.

    I have often heard it said that Citra when over done or insensitively done can resemble cat pee, but haven’t experienced myself.

    I only realised recently that the main hop in Adnams Ghost Ship is Citra. Which is probably why I enjoy it as a beer so much.

  5. To appropriate a recent term, this seems to be a late cycle problem. Uncountable amounts of breweries, weaking of referential meaning in times of an influx of novices, everfaster new beer releases. I’ve been arguing that (most) beer shops are at the mercy of distributors & facebook trends, many having lost their local agency to the latest trends fueling the memes. Structurally distributors care less about their products, but volumes. But once products become exchangable and commodities everywhere, local shops lose or move their business model elsewhere. But you’re making a good argument to look even higher up the chain, hop growers and not coincidentally a patented variety.

    While I’m with you that ‘craft beers’ greatest acclaim is raising the quality and availability of beer masssively (by standardising/homogenizing distributing and sales channels, serving styles, concepts, beers and drinking culture. beer as economic commodity foremost) and also creates its weaknesses: cutting of the few exceptional beers a nodge but dislodging them from their earlier economic/production models, loss of diversity of people, beer, brewing and drinking culture. cloudwaters romantic reapproach of czech smoked amber and vienna ambers isn’t happening by coincidence. so while citra might be a safe choice, it’s also a choice which conceptually binds beer to a limited model of expensive, global culture lacking in confidence and experience. you’re arguable lucky having locals like Oakham Citra (early Citra punts) around, but tis isn’t true of the rest of the world.

    From that perspective, and without disrespect, I’d recommend anyone asking to avoid a beer labeled Citra. The contemporary need to make the best choice at all times while also trying ‘unknown’ options startles me endlessly.

  6. Interesting thread, and even more interesting comments below the line! It appears that, while You Can’t Go Wrong With Citra, some eminent brewers evidently can.

    But to return to your original thesis, you seem to be forgetting something: taste. Some drinkers just don’t like beers made with Citra. Or am I the only one? To me, it’s like someone recommending the music of Frank Sinatra or The Carpenters.

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