A Far Journey From Falstaff

David | Blog | April, 28 2010 | 2 Comments

 John Isenhour spends as much time studying and talking about hops as just about anyone in the world.  As a hop ambassador for supplier Hopunion, that’s his job.  But if you are new to craft beer you might not know that he is also a brewing pioneer.

Long before today’s proliferation of American-made Belgian-style beers, Isenhour was among the first craft brewers outside of the Brussels area to create a beer similar to Belgium lambic. That was notable enough back in the mid-1990s for Isenhour’s work at Joe’s Brewpub, Champaign, Ill., to catch the attention of no less a beer writer than the late Michael Jackson. Once the story was eloquently told in Jackson’s books, Isenhour became legend.

“I wouldn’t say I was the first, but I was among the pioneers,” Isenhour says.  “I had the freedom at Joe’s to try some small batches and do some really interesting things, and I was lucky in that respect.”

Isenhour was a homebrewer, working on a PhD in information science. Joe’s was adjacent to the campus of the University of Illinois, which has one of the largest student bodies in the Midwest.

“The kids came into the pub of Friday nights and drank the AB and Miller products, so that kept the money coming in,” Isenhour says. “But once we got some publicity people were coming from several states away to try the lambic-style beers.”

More than 15 years later there are numerous breweries from coast to coast and around the world putting beer in barrels to encourage extracurricular fermentation. There is at least one that makes nothing but barrel-aged beers. Jeff Sparrow’s Wild Brewing informs homebrewers and pros alike on the traditions and the practicalities of making Belgian-style “sour” beers, and brewers have numerous commercially available yeast strains to get them started. Isenhour had none of that–not even the barells.

“I was pouring at a Chicago Beer Society event and I saved the dregs from a bunch of bottles of lambic,” he says. “I took it back to Joe’s and cultured it up and that’s how I got it started.”

Isenhour now lives near Atlanta, is a member of several professional brewing organizations, and is setting up a Southeastern chapter of one of them, while working for Hopunion since 1999. He has done consulting work with several breweries, and written for Zymurgy over the years.  Isenhour says he is very excited about where craft brewing has gone in the last 20 years, and he thinks the new Citra hop, introduced commercially just this year, is on its way to becoming a game-changing  ingredient.

“Once brewers figure out how to use it in concert with other hops, it’s going to be really amazing,” he says. “It has such a fabulous aromatic quality it could be used as a single hop, but I would blend it maybe with something English or a Willamette.”

Rare beers, wild beers, beer and food being paired seriously, people rating beers on the Internet—these are all great developments, he says, but they shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention.

“I went to an industry event back in the 1980s and Fritz Maytag (who just sold Anchor brewing after spending close to 45 years helping to reshape of American beer), said there would come a day when people would spend $100 for a beer.”

What else does Isenhour think is on the horizon? Believe it or not, session beers.

“I think Kolsch is great style that everyone should be making.”

Are today’s beer enthusiasts somehow different from the ones who came to Joe’s?

“When I am around people drinking good beer, it seems to me that I hear more intelligent conversation about beer than I used to. People are having more sophisticated conversations about it.”

I suggested to John that some of the youngest craft beer enthusiasts have had better access to information, and might have grown up sneaking sips of Anchor Porter or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale from their fathers. That took him back a bit.

“That would be a lot better than sneaking warm Falstaff on a houseboat on the Ohio River, like I did,” he says. “I thought to myself, jeez, what’s the big deal about this.”

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  1. Dan Carey

    Hey Dave – Great article. Anyone using the Citra hop already that you know of? How does a new hop emerge for the first time? Someone just starts growing it for the first time commercially?


  2. David

    Dan, Thanks. I know that Citra has made a splash in part because it is used in Sierra Nevada’s wonderful Torpedo IPA which rolled out in 2009. I’m pretty sure a bunch of commercial brewers and homebrewers are giving it a whirl–I plan to within the next few weeks. I would love to hear from some folks who know more about the hop business than I do, but I think new strains develop them same way they do in other segments of agricuture–trial crops are grown by commericial interests (growers, brewers, or both in tandem) or ag schools and if they seem to offer some benefit, they eventually make it into the market.

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