Monday, March 12, 2012

Nugget Nectar (Tröegs Brewing Company)

I've just had a bottle of Nugget Nectar from only of my favorite breweries, Tröegs. The "nugget" in the name comes from one of the three varieties of hops used in the beer -- Nugget, Warrior, and Tomahawk -- so I thought this was a good opportunity for a long overdue digression about hops.

Hops serve two purposes in beer-making. Added to the brew kettle at or near the beginning of the boil, they add bitterness to balance out the sweetness of the grain sugars. Added later in the boil (or even in the fermentation tank, a technique called "dry hopping"), they add pleasant aromatic qualities that come across in the nose and in the finish.

Chemically, the resin of hop flowers contains one type of compound (alpha acids) that is good for bittering, and one type (beta acids) that is good for aroma. Different hop varieties contain these acids in different proportions.

Hops are known to have been used in brewing for close to a thousand years, both for flavor and for their preservative properties -- bacteria don't care for a substance called lupulin in the hop oils, it turns out. In a classic example, British brewers of the 19th century found that pale ales made with extra hops were better at surviving the long, inhospitable sea voyage to India. It is unlikely they foresaw the influence this reformulation would have on the future of beer in a certain ex-colony called the United States.

I would love to read a scholarly investigation of why the India Pale Ale style has captured the fancy of the contemporary American beer enthusiast. Perhaps it is a case of supply creating demand, and the preference is rooted in the success of hop farming in the states of Washington and Oregon. Perhaps it is a biologically-driven craving: hops have long been used in folk medicine as an antispasmodic and a sedative. Are we subconsciously self-medicating by drinking IPAs?

Whatever the reason, it is indisputable that, out of the profusion of styles the craft brewing movement has brought to the market in the last 20 years, IPA has emerged as the most popular. In fact, research by SymphonyIRI Group reveals that not only does IPA outsell all other styles in the craft beer segment, but the number of different IPAs for sale in the U.S. grew 43% between 2010 and 2011, from 177 to 253.

So, Americans have a taste for the hops. As a result, the botanical science behind hop cultivation is thriving, and new strains of the plant are being developed to produce cones with unprecedented levels of alpha acids -- we're talking three to four times the amount in traditional German and English hop varieties.

Which brings us to the hops used in Nugget Nectar. Nugget is the old-timer of the bunch, being introduced in 1983. It is the second most widely grown hop in Oregon, behind Willamette (which was more or less custom engineered for Anheuser-Busch), and it contains 10 - 14% alpha acids by weight, in comparison with 3 - 5.5% in the "noble" old world hops. Warrior and Tomahawk are relative newcomers branded as "super alpha" varieties, and a whopping 14.5 to 18% of their weight comes from alpha acids.

What does it all add up to? Well, for one thing, Nugget Nectar is one hell of a bitter beer! But let's back up a bit and do this the usual way...

The beer pours a deep amber hue, with half an inch of clumpy off-white foam. The fresh, sweet aroma is evokes grapefruit, predominantly.

Take a swig, and you're hit with a bitter blast -- you can tell it's bitter in your mouth before you even swallow. This bitterness takes a long time to settle over the tongue. Next comes a fruit punch fruitiness edged with black pepper. The carbonation is more fuzzy than fizzy, and the beer is of medium weight.

I know there is a malt platform under there, but nothing that tastes clearly like grain can muscle its way to the foreground past the imposing hops statement, just some caramel sweetness. The beer has, of course, other hop flavors beyond "bitter," those being mainly citrusy and slightly piney. Surprisingly, Nugget Nectar is designated as an "imperial amber," not even an IPA. Sure tastes more like a hopped-up IPA than a bigged-up version of Tröegs' delightful HopBack Amber, one of my very favorite beers.

In lieu of the obvious caveat that this is a drink for hop-heads only, I'll observe that on, after 1,998 user-submitted reviews, Nugget Nectar has an average rating of 97 out of a possible 100. And, in a sense, Tröegs has the British Empire to thank for that success.

From the bottle's label:

Hopheads Nirvana. Experience a heady Trifecta of Nugget, Warrior, and Tomahawk hops. 93ish I.B.U.'s

Featured beer:
Nugget Nectar

Honorable mentions:
HopBack Amber Ale

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