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.

Marks & Spencer Single Hop Ales

Marks & Spencer Single Hop Ales

Ten years ago, Marks & Spencer stocked a limited range of unexciting beers, generically packaged, with no information about where they had been brewed, or by whom. We would never have imagined then that we would one day be able to order from them a mixed case of four pale ales each designed to showcase a single hop variety.

  • Elgood’s Sovereign Golden Ale (5%)
  • Crouch Vale Hallertau Brewer’s Gold Golden Ale (4%)
  • Castle Rock Cascade Pale Ale (5%)
  • Oakham Citra IPA (4.9%).

The labels of all four bottles not only provide all of the essential information you might expect but also a potted history of each hop variety, e.g.:

The brewer’s gold hop was originally developed at Wye College in the UK in 1927 as one of the first ‘higher alpha hops’ and is now mostly grown in the renowned Hallertau region of Bavaria where hop planting dates back to 736AD.

Most casual buyers won’t be terribly interested in that level of detail — they don’t need to know about Wye — but they will pick up the intended message: it’s sophisticated stuff, this beer.

The range isn’t quite a Brewdog-style pseudo-scientific exercise in palate-training: each beer in the M&S range is made by a different brewery to a different recipe, so the hop variety is far from being the only variable in play. Nonetheless, three of the four do a good job of putting the hop to the fore.

Castle Rock’s amber-coloured Cascade IPA reminded us, perhaps unsurprisingly, of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale: restrained by modern standards, but citrus-juicy and full-bodied. The Crouch Vale Brewer’s Gold has a mellow central European character, lemon-sherbet hoppiness being balanced by bready malt: it would be good by the litre. Oakham Citra is one-dimensional, in a good way, being all about bright, Technicolor tropical fruit flavours and aromas. After each, we felt somewhat better educated.

The dud is the Elgood’s Sovereign. It doesn’t taste bad, as such, but like a beer with a dash of chocolate flavouring in it, presumably from whichever dark malt gives it its red-brown hue. The cheap Easter egg character overwhelmed what is, anyway, a fairly delicately-flavoured hop entirely. Weirdly, in the small print (as Simon pointed out to us) ‘honey flavouring’ is listed as an ingredient. Why is it there? And is it the source of a tacky vanilla essence note? The beer certainly didn’t taste of honey.

We bought our case of twenty 568ml bottles (five of each) from the M&S website where it was on discount from £40 to £36.50, plus £3.50 delivery. UPDATE: we also bought a case of ‘dark beers’ for £40 and have posted some brief tasting notes on our Facebook page.

Fashionable hops

Hops

  1. One of our friends: “So what exactly are hops? Are they the thing that makes up the main body of the beer? Are they a cereal or something?”
  2. Mark ‘Bottled Beer Year’ Dexter on beer labelling: “Hop varieties listed as an enhancement are great. But on their own – they leave too many clueless.”
  3. Another friend drinking our Citra pale ale: “What’s Citra? Is that a type of beer?”
  4. Description of Penzance Brewing Company’s Trink pale ale in the programme for a local beer festival: “…featuring the ever-so-now Citra hop”.
  5. Another brewer on Twitter: “We’ve given in and brewed a beer with Citra now everyone else has stopped going on about it.”
  6. Numerous beer geeks: “Needs more hops.”

Lots of people don’t know what hops are or what they contribute to beer.

Many others don’t understand that different hop varieties, in different proportions, added at different times in the process, affect the flavour of the finished beer.

And hardly anyone can actually tell the difference between one hop variety and another from the aroma and taste alone. (We certainly can’t, though we make a lucky guess now and then, and God knows we’ve tried.)

The very idea that there might be fashionable hops would surprise many.

In conclusion, we think hyper-awareness of hops is one of the biggest differences between those who simply enjoy beer and those who obsess over it, and it’s another thing to add to the list of perspective checks.

Picture by Duncan from Flickr Creative Commons.

At the end of the learning curve

Barrels outside Brodie's Beers brewery, from their website.

When we heard in 2008 that brewing had begun again in the small set up at the back of the William IV pub in Leyton, only a few minutes from our house in Walthamstow, we were very excited. We were only more excited to discover that Brodie’s planned to brew a wide range of beers, from traditional milds through to fruit-flavoured beers, via imperial stout. At that time, London breweries were few and far between, and this was right on our doorstep.

In those early months and years, however, we were painfully aware that these were brewers on a learning curve and others (see the comments on that article) agreed. When James and Lizzie Brodie kindly sent us a box of beers to review, of the ten or twelve provided, only a handful were really impressive. The others hinted at greatness but had too much of the plastic-bucket homebrew about them — too much yeastiness, muddy flavours and, er, variable conditioning. (Beery carpets. Joy.)

Well, it seems safe to suggest that, now, three years on, they have reached the end of that learning curve. We keep reading breathlessly admiring comments on their beers on Twitter from all kinds of discerning people, and the pint of their Citra (3.1%) we had at Cask in Pimlico last week was as good as any pale and hoppy beer we’ve had from any other brewery. Crisp, well-defined, clean flavours; sparkling carbonation; and all at barely any alcoholic strength at all. A real knockout.

If you’ve been wary of Brodie’s having been a disappointed early adopter, it’s time to give them another go, and see what all the fuss is about.