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.