If you’ve ever watched the TV Commercials describing the “Triple Hops Brewed” beer, then you know that hops are an integral part of a beer’s composition. I’ll restrain myself from poking fun at this less-than-descriptive marketing ploy, and instead tell you what hops really are, and how they are used in brewing.
OK. Hops being used in European beer date back to the later half of the 11th century, and in some areas, even further. Yes, that is a long time ago, but beer has been around for the past 6,000 to 10,000 years, so in comparison, hops are relatively new.
Before hops were used in beers, there was something called gruit, which consisted of a blend of various spices and herbs such as coriander, rosemary, wormwood, nutmeg, ginger, and heather. This combination of these spices was strictly kept a secret by the Catholic Church of the day, which held a monopoly selling the spices to local brewers. Eventually, hops slowly made their way across Europe and became the new ingredient in beer that replaced gruit almost completely by the mid-1500′s.
Hops are used in beer-making for a couple of reasons. There is a very bitter oil in the hop flower that is used to counteract the leftover sugars from the malted barley. As gruit was used in the same sense, hops could better accomplish the job while contributing a much more neutral flavor. If hops are added in greater quantities, the beer will become more bitter, and the flavor of the hops become more prevalent.
The part of the hop that is mainly used is the bitter oil found inside the cone’s leaves. This oil, called Lupulin oil, needs to be boiled in the beer in order to permanently mix in, a process called isomerization. The longer you boil the hops, the more bitterness will be extracted, however, a shorter boil will impart more aroma and hop flavor, not just bitterness, giving the beer more complexity. This is why many beers in existence are “Triple Hops Brewed,” some breweries just tend to use more hops than others.
Hops also hold a preservative quality, helping to prolong the life of the beer. If you’ve ever heard of an India Pale Ale, you will probably know that IPAs are very bitter, and that’s because they had to be in order to survive the long voyage across the Atlantic when the sailors thought they were still navigating a path to India.
Hops come in many varieties, and like to grow in very sunny climates. As the hop vine can grow up to 20 feet tall, they need a great deal of water and nutrients in the soil. Germany grows more hops than any other country in the world, but England and the United States are both well known for their hop varieties. With different varieties, hops can contribute unique characters to beer such as peach, grapefruit, floral, citrus, pine, and grassy.
When used properly, hops can make a beer very complex and enjoyable. If you don’t prefer the taste of hops, you may want to steer clear of the pales ales and IPAs, but there are dozens of beer styles available that accentuate the malt flavors over the hop’s. Having sampled a gruit beer in the past, I enjoyed the flavor and historical aspect for what it was, but am happy with the fact that a far superior ingredient took gruit’s place.
If you are able, find out if there is a local hop farm near you. For those of you in the US, Yakima Valley in Washington is a superb place to visit regarding hops, and beer for that matter. For those of you who don’t know what hops taste like, go to your local liquor store or pub and ask for a pale ale. Once you taste it, you’ll get the idea.