Hops A-Z; S is for Saaz

The region is the fourth largest producer in the world. The hop defines a classic beer style. Since the mid-thirteenth century, Saaz has sat at the top table of European hop nobility. But for how much longer?

Some things change; what was the city of Saaz, Austria is now Zatec in the Czech Republic. Some things stay the same; the aromatic hop that became synonymous with the city still thrives. Exploiting the climatic conditions, sheltered from heavy rainfall my the mountains to the north, the Saaz region and hop have a true sense of terroir. Indeed, the European Union granted Protected Designation of Origin to hops grown in the region, under the mark Zatecky Chmel. So what’s so special about Saaz?

For starters, it has more beta-acid than alpha-acid with a low cohumulone count, so imparting a gentle bitterness. A higher than average proportion of the hop oils farnesene to myrcene results in its characteristic earthy-spicy aroma. It’s also been suggested that a higher than average level of polyphenols improve stability and enhance the body of the finished beer.

And it’s those characteristics that result in Saaz defining a style of beer – Bohemian Pilsner. Often described as having a ‘clean’ taste, examples such as Pilsner Urquell are often copied around the world but never really equalled. No wonder, then, that two-thirds of Czech hop production is devoted to Saaz, making the region the fourth largest hop producer in the world after the output of Germany, USA and China.

But it’s not all rosy in the Czech hop gardens. Saaz isn’t a high yield crop and is prone to mildew. In recent years, its acreage has started to decline as higher-yield, higher-alpha varieties such as Sladek and Premiant take its place. These hops have nowhere near the same levels of farnesene, though – Sladek contains almost none – so are we witnessing the beginning of the end for this particular family of hop royalty?

I’d like to think not. New varieties have been developed around the world in an attempt to marry the characteristic high-farnesene aroma with higher alpha yield (such as Sterling in the USA) but…. it’s still not Saaz. There’s a certain something about a proper pilsner; delicate, light, a glissando across the tastebuds. I hope there’s a market for the ‘real thing’ for generations to come. And this really ought to be the year that I haul my reluctant bones over to Zatec and try the beer on its home turf. It’s the least that a hop with such an immutable sense of history and place deserves.

1 comment:

  1. Saaz is such a great hop... I personally love it even in late hopping in very simple, mono-malt "quaffable" golden ales. As you already said, its simple yet elegant aroma is unique.
    But I wouldn't use it in high gravity beers.. or at least nor alone.