Noble Hops isn’t just the name of a fine establishment in Oro Valley.
It’s also a term that refers to the traditional varieties of hops that were used to make early European beers. In the Middle Ages, water wasn’t usually safe to drink, so people drank beer instead. This Medieval beer was low in alcohol, but high in bitterness. That bitter tang came from the noble hops that were used to brew the beer. Early brewers began using hops to flavor their beers, and the ingredient stuck over time. Similar to wine grapes, hops’ flavor is influenced by terroir, or the climate and environmental conditions that affect hops as they grow. A specific crop of hops, used in greater or lesser quantities, can drastically change a beer’s flavor.
Today, the only ingredients allowed in German beers are water, barley, and hops. This is actually dictated by the German Beer Purity Law, or Reinheitsgebot, which is meant to preserve the traditional character and quality of the important beverage. There are four varieties of noble hop: Hallertau, Saaz, Spalt, and Tettnang. All four have German names, although Saaz is also grown in the Czech Republic where it is called Žatec.
Grown in the region of Hallertau in Bavaria, Hallertau hops have floral undertones with a strong, spicy flavor. They are somewhat delicate and susceptible to crop diseases, so brewers stopped using Hallertau in the 1970s and started using Hersbrucker hops instead. Hallertau and Hersbrucker make lagers and German-style pilsners.
Saaz or Žatec hops are grown near the town of Žatec in Bohemia, a region that has been German, Austrian, and Czechoslovakian at different periods in European history. Today it is the Czech Republic, where Saaz hops are used to make pale lagers (like Pilsner Urquell and Budvar), pale ales, and wheat beers, among other styles. Saaz hops have a spicy, earthy flavor without being too strong.
Nuremberg’s Spalter region, in southeastern Germany, is the home of Spalt hops. Spalt is the least widely used of the noble hops (except for Hallertau in recent times). Its flavor is slightly spicy and mild, but very hoppy. You can taste it in traditional German beers such as bock, alt, lager, pilsner, and helles.
Tettnang hops are grown near Baden-Württemberg, on the opposite side of southern Germany from Hallertau and Spalt. Named for the town of Tettnang, this variety is the most widely used noble hop worldwide. Used in Belgian and French ales, bocks, lagers, pilsners, and wheat beers, Tettnang has a floral but slightly spicy character that is similar to Saaz. This noble hop is claimed to have the best flavor, hence its huge global distribution.
When the noble hops aren’t available, brewers often use other, newer hop varieties instead. The noble hop substitutes are English Fuggles, Liberty, Mt. Hood, Vanguard, and Willamette hops. Another group of hops, known as the ‘nearly noble hops,’ are often lumped in with the original noble hops. These are English Fuggles, East Kent Golding, Hersbrucker, and Styrian Goldings. They have characteristics that are similar to the true noble hops, but they just aren’t quite the same.