Most people know that there are four main ingredients in beer: Water, barley, yeast and hops. It is with these four ingredients that brewers turn out almost every kind of beer we drink. While each of these ingredients are essential, it is hops that are used almost exclusively in beer. Take a minute and think about other food or drinks that has hops in it. Hard to think of one isn’t it? This week, we are taking a look into these somewhat mysterious and often misunderstood flowers.
We know hops are in beer, but what exactly are they? Humulus lupulus, or the hop as we commonly know it, is a flowering plant that is a part of the Cannabaceae family. If the name sounds familiar, that would be because hops are a cousin of the Cannabis plant aka. marijuana. Not to worry, smoking or ingesting hops doesn’t have the same effects, because hops lack the chemical THC which is responsible for the effects of marijuana.
Hops are thought to have originated in China where they slowly spread westward, eventually reaching Germany where in 736 the first documented cultivation of hops was recorded. It is unknown as to when hops were first used in beer, but the first documented use in beer was around 1079. It continued to move west reaching modern day England by around 1400 and finally onto the US where cultivation started in 1629. The rest, as they say, was history.
Where do you find hops?
Hops can be found growing in many countries around the world and grow best in temperate climates. An interesting correlation is that wherever potatoes can be grown, hops can to. This is largely because both plants prefer the same type of soil and climate.
While there are many regions growing hops, the Hallertau region in Germany, Willamette valley in Oregon, Yakima valley in Washington, south-western Idaho and Kent in the UK are the five main growing regions.
Hops grow in a similar fashion to grapes – with plants being planted in a row and wires hanging down from a trellis (wire strung between posts). The plant grows up the wire to the top with the flowers, or cones, developing near the top.
Why are hops so important to beer?
Hops contain a resin that is made up of acids – Alpha and Beta. Alpha acids are bitter and when boiled will add a bitter taste to the liquid. That is why bittering hops are added at an early stage of the boil and usually boiled for about 60-90 minutes, as they will flavor the beer. The bitterness of this acid also acts as a natural preservative which is great for brewers who don’t pasteurize their beer after brewing.
Beta acids on the other hand will not be affected while boiling, instead they will give beer its aroma. That is why they are usually added closer to the end of the boil, so as to not impart a strong aroma that could be off putting to many drinkers. Hops that are high in beta acid and lower in alpha acid are commonly called Noble hops.
What are some different types of hops?
There are two main categories of hops used in brewing beer. The first is wet which is freshly picked hops. The use of fresh hops is actually quite expensive because wet hops can only be used when they have been recently picked which is usually done in the fall. It is for this reason that you don’t see many beers made with fresh hops.
The second category of hops used in brewing is dried hops. This is where the hops are picked and dried in a special house called an oast house. Once dried, they are normally pressed together into pellet form where they can then be stored until needed.
As we noted above, hops have two different types of acid. Different varieties of hop have different concentrations of the two acids and are therefore more suited to using for either flavor or aroma. Some popular hop varieties include:
- Cascade – A higher beta acid percentage and contribute to the aroma in many bitter ales brewed in the Western US and Canada.
- Chinook – A higher alpha acid percentage and contribute bitterness to many American style pale ales.
- Golding – Are a popular English hop used for aroma in many types of beer including English ales and lagers.
- Hallertau – Is an aroma forward hop that is most commonly used in European style lagers.
- Nugget – These hops are one of the most popular hops used in bittering beers.
- Saaz – Used primarily in the brewing of Pilsner lagers, these hops impart a clean yet slightly bitter taste.
- Willamette – A popular aromatic hop used in many American lagers and ales.
There are over 40 different varieties of hops in use today with many of them being used in specific types of beers. Next time you come across a weird sounding hop type, look it up on Google to see what it is used for.
Wish of the week
Pilsner is an interesting type of Lager. It is usually more bitter than other Lagers which results in a refreshing beer that goes down smooth on a warm night. I’m going to be honest and say I have yet to try this Pilsner from Tuatara in New Zealand. From what I have heard however, this is a crisp lager that is refreshingly bitter and is a perfect reflection of Pilsner.