Before Brandon Skall and Jeff Hancock opened DC Brau last year, they had intended to brew their Corruption India pale ale with one of the beer world’s rarest ingredients. They didn’t want to use just any kind of hops, the pine cone-shaped flowers that give IPAs their bitterness and aromas ranging from grapefruit to pine. The proprietors of the District’s first modern brewery dreamed of using Citra.
“We got laughed at,” Skall says. “Everyone was just like, ‘Good luck.’ ” The two ended up substituting the more common Columbus variety. They released their first all-Citra beer, a double IPA named For Others, only a couple of weeks ago, after winning a lottery to buy about 300 pounds of Citra from a larger brewery.
Scoring some Citra is like hitting the jackpot. In an industry flooded with new, aromatic hop varieties, it has become what Cristal is to the wine world or Chanel is to perfume: a luxury to be lusted after, one associated with IPAs containing lush, fruity flavors and aromas of orange, mango and litchi.
“We’d like to get more, just like everybody else,” says Mitch Steele, brew master at San Diego’s Stone Brewing. “It’s a unique hop, but it still retains some of the characteristics of the classic American hop with the big citrus flavor. What seems to be particularly hot right now is the resinous, oily character, and Citra has that. It also is not harsh.”
The variety, developed in 1990, didn’t become prominent until 2009, when Sierra Nevada Brewingreleased Torpedo Extra IPA, the first well-known beer to feature it. This long gestation and the sudden success that followed are hallmarks of a hop breeding industry that resembles both laboratory science and runway fashion.
On one hand, commercialized hops result from field trials in Oregon and Washington, the two main hop-growing states in America, involving tens of thousands of genetically distinct specimens and often taking at least a decade. On the other, the few superstar hops that survive this process — including not only Citra, but also Simcoe and Amarillo — often become the new IPA flavor of the week (or the next several years).
For now, though, the Citra craze isn’t abating. Sierra Nevada brew master Steve Dresler says his production of Torpedo, the country’s best-selling IPA, has grown by about 60 percent this year, while the brewery’s overall production is up about 8 percent. The hop is also a favorite of boundary-pushing artisans such as Gabe Fletcher of Alaska’s Anchorage Brewing, which uses the hop in its Love Buzz Saison and Bitter Monk Belgian-style IPA.
Closer to home, Citra is responsible for the popularity of the Orange Whip IPA brewed by Mad Fox Brewing in Falls Church. “The Citra flavors just meld so nicely with the caramel malts,” Chief Executive Bill Madden says.
Like Mad Fox and DC Brau, the District’s3 Stars Brewing has experimented with Citra. A recent batch of harvest ale included 70 pounds of the freshly picked hop, rather than the more common dried form.
Citra’s tight supply relative to the outsize demand translates to a simple imperative for consumers: If you see a locally brewed beer made with Citra, pounce. It might not be available for long.
The 3 Stars harvest ale features delicate notes of litchi, orange and honey. DC Brau’s For Others has a bolder aroma, with juicy citrus, mango, pineapple and even a hint of onion.
Meanwhile, Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo is always available. The smell is a classic, appetizing Citra mixture of orange and tropical fruit, and the beer tastes like oranges and caramel, with a lingering bitterness.
Luckily, DC Brau hasn’t used up its 300-pound Citra windfall. Expect more Citra beer, possibly another batch of For Others, in the coming months.
3 Stars Brewing also hopes to show off the ingredient in future creations. “When we can get our hands on Citra hops, we will be looking to use them,” 3 Stars President Dave Coleman says. Still, he adds, “hop contracts for Citra for 2013 are pretty much all sold out.”
Yet he has a good reason to stay optimistic: “There’s always another hop on the horizon.”
Fromson, a freelance writer, lives in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @dfroms.