Good Beer Hunting

Harvesting the Future of Hops — Citra Sets a New Record Among Changing Tastes


American craft beer, in terms of style and taste, has long been defined by the hop. From the debut of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in 1981, the floral, pine, and citrus characteristics of its signature Cascade hop has shaped drinker palates and innumerable, hop-forward inspirations. That agricultural ingredient, pivotal to the success of the first wave of U.S. craft brewers and so many others since, has been a cornerstone of shaping perception of fuller-flavored beer from the States.

But in this latest stage of the country’s brewing identity, the tide is turning. As juicy, fruity, and tropical reign supreme, often through the haze of a New England-style IPA, Citra is quickly becoming a new North Star for brewers to follow. It was first tracked by the USDA with 98 acres in 2009, but Citra is now expected to reach a whopping 6,652 acres for harvest this year.

It will also be the first time it eclipses Cascade, projected to have almost 650 fewer acres than Citra.

A one-year flip-flop of a harvested raw ingredient can seem like a small blip in the scope of beer, and Cascade will easily be #2 in 2018 with 6,009 acres compared to 4,864 for #3 Centennial. However, looking at the broader scope of change in how America’s prized style has taken the country—and world—by storm, the ascent of Citra to top-hop status almost seems telegraphed.

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In an analysis of best new beers as selected by industry pros, journalists, and enthusiasts, Citra was easily the most popular hop in 2016 and 2017 for some of the most beloved debuts in the country. (Spoiler alert: I conducted this analysis.) In 2016, 42 of 155 beers had ingredients referenced publicly, for which 22 included Citra. In a list of 150 beers in 2017, 53 had listed ingredients, which had 28 beers with Citra. Releases from IPA leaders like Aslin, Trillium, Tree House, SØLE Artisan Ales, Noble Ale Works, and others were included. On a regular basis, Citra also plays a prominent role for beers from hop-forward breweries like Great Notion and Monkish.

Because the hop has been such a big part of flavors behind the money-making powerhouse NE IPA, it’s also been featured in mass-produced versions of the style by Samuel Adams, New Belgium, and Sierra Nevada. Cascade will always play a big role in recipe creation for Pale Ales and IPAs, but in the last few years, the inclusion of Citra simply can’t be ignored.

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In terms of the most popular hop varieties, it’s also had some of the highest growth in harvested acres in the past five years. Between 2014 and 2018's estimated acreage, Mosaic (312%), Citra (278%) and Simcoe (108%) have had the most new plantings, according to USDA numbers. Those figures are heavily influenced simply by the hops’ availability and newness compared to long-established varieties like Cascade, but it’s impossible to ignore how demand has helped shape that as well.

As more breweries build IPA portfolios that rely on new-age hop flavor, it might be easy to project the impact Citra will have in the future. The rapid increase of acreage already shows demand will continue to grow, but as a base hop of modern IPA in the way Cascade once was for Pale Ale and IPA, it’s cemented its status as a game changer for the industry.

—Bryan Roth