For years, the Citra hop has helped push forward the evolution of IPA, a style that has come to define craft beer in the U.S.—and by extension in much of the world. The hop and style now seem more intertwined than ever.
In its latest report, the National Agricultural Statistics Service shows another year of wild growth for the aroma hop known for its citrus-and-tropical-fruit profile (depending on how it’s used and when it’s harvested). Citra added 2,653 more planted acres in 2019, a 42% increase from 2018, and roughly three times the amount it had five years ago. As a proprietary hop developed by the Hop Breeding Company, its expansion has exploded in recent years.
Part of that is demand—Citra yields fewer pounds per acre than perhaps America's most important hop up until now, Cascade. Despite surpassing Cascade in acres planted last year, Citra still yielded about 1.5 million fewer pounds. Given the ever-growing interest in Citra, however, that may soon change.
Based on 2018's year-end numbers, the two strains are on a collision course in terms of pounds harvested. Citra is already the most-planted hop domestically, and its acreage is now significantly larger than Cascade’s, as well as other popular varieties like Mosaic and Simcoe.
To put these competing varieties into perspective, Mosaic added 54% more acres from 2018–2019, Simcoe increased by "just" 9.5%, and Cascade declined by 14.5%.
The difference is even more stark when you look at it as a five-year trend. Citra has grown almost 202% in acres, while Cascade is in the red.
The runaway growth of Citra shouldn't come as a surprise. It's played a prominent role in beers created by some of the country's most beloved IPA producers, including Aslin, Great Notion, Monkish, Trillium, and Tree House. Citra (along with Mosaic and Simcoe) is also included in some of the fastest-growing IPAs among a more average set of consumers shopping at grocery, convenience, and other chain stores. Three Floyds’ Zombie Dust, an all-Citra Pale Ale, is another great example, having more than doubled its sales in IRI-tracked chain stores in 2018 (thanks to a massive expansion).
According to IRI data, brands that made the biggest jumps in sales through mid-June include Sierra Nevada's Hazy Little Thing (which uses Citra, Mosaic, and Simcoe), SweetWater’s 420 Strain G13 IPA (Simcoe), Elysian’s Space Dust IPA (Citra), and New Belgium's Voodoo Ranger Liquid Paradise IPA, which features Mosaic Incognito (a liquid hop concentrate). Along with Hazy Little Thing, Sierra’s New England-style IPA entry, Citra has also featured in NE IPAs created by Samuel Adams and New Belgium.
These factors raise the question of what the hop’s ascendency means for brewers, who could easily get caught in a sea of hoppy sameness if Citra is simply the cost of entry these days. Some are starting to look to other strains for differentiation, but it’s not as easy as simple as a plug-and-play from one successful aroma hop to something else.
Over on his Beervana blog, Jeff Alworth mentions Pahto, "a proprietary, super-high alpha hop that is used primarily for bittering," which carries "herbal, earthy, and floral" characteristics. Grown only in Washington, it had 2,073 acres planted in 2019 after just two years of existence. That’s an increase from 1,721 acres in 2018. CTZ (Columbus/Tomahawk, and Zeus, which is sometimes separated in classification), covered in part at the start of the year on GBH, is another bittering hop that continues to rank at the top of the most-acres-planted list. That said, it’s bouncing back from a downward swing in recent years, and in 2018 actually just rebounded to the number of acres planted in 2013.
El Dorado ("juicy stone fruit and tropical notes"), which also features in a number of popular beers (including Sierra Nevada’s Hazy Little Thing), grew 79% from 2018–2019. Its total number of acres is still modest, however, and increased from 538 to 961 in Idaho and Washington, about 10% of Citra’s acreage.
It all goes to show how much things have changed in the last decade. People want their dank, juicy, fruity, hop-forward beers, and farmers’ growth patterns have followed. Until 2013, bittering hops represented the majority of acreage in the U.S. In 2016, the ratio of aroma (78%) to high-alpha (22%) acres hit a peak which has since held. Because aroma hops typically yield fewer pounds per acre than bittering hops, and because aroma hops like Citra are so en vogue, there’s more land going toward these lower-yielding varieties that have driven flavors so often found in the modern IPA.
To put a bow on it, Brewers Association chief economist Bart Watson shared this stat on Twitter: “Citra is now the #3 global hop in acres (behind Herkules and Saaz) and will possibly be the #2 variety in pounds produced in 2019 (behind Herkules).”
At this point, Citra is widely acknowledged as a pivotal part of the modern beer industry. But these kinds of annual numbers are a reminder of just how much one single hop variety has shaped—then pushed forward—a generation of taste preferences. It does create a unique challenge for brewers, however. When IPAs drive almost all growth in craft beer—and considering Citra is among the most popular hops used in the style—where can differentiation take place? A mix of different hops in each recipe is a start. Sourcing from other countries is an option, too.
The story of Citra’s rise to prominence is now a big part of how we should look at U.S. craft beer. Cascade had its time, but modern tastes have dethroned the piney and citrusy hop.
The king is dead. Long live the king.