Hops, the Spice of Beer

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man holding Hops

The Second of the Four Primary Ingredients in Beer

Sugar and Spice

If malts represent the sugar in beer, then hops surely represent the spice. As a matter of fact, hops are used in beer in much the same way that spices are used in cooking. The primary purpose of hops is to accent the flavor of beer and, most importantly, contrast the sweetness of the malt. And, while this may be the most obvious of hops’ contributions to beer, there are others.

Long before hops were discovered brewers used all manner of organic ingredients to offset the cloying nature of the malt flavor in the beer. Until hops were widely used in the 15th Century, brewers used berries, herbs, spruce needles and even tree bark to create a contrasting flavor balance in their ales. It should surprise no one, then, that the first beer style made with hops came to be known as “bitter”.

Hop Properties

Once hops were in widespread use for beer-making –both for their spicy bittering and pungent aromatizing properties—brewers realized that there were yet additional advantages to using hops. It was eventually discovered that hops also provided the beer with natural bacterial inhibitors and clarifying agents that yielded a clearer, more stable brew with a longer shelf life –a boon to both brewer and consumer.

All told, hops contribute five things to beer:

  • Bitterness
  • Zesty flavoring
  • Pungent aroma
  • Bacterial inhibitors
  • Natural clarifying agents

It should be noted that the bittering properties of hops are distinctly different from their flavoring. Different hop varieties –of which there are dozens—provide different taste characteristics, often described as spicy, floral, herbal, earthy, grassy, piney, and citric. Many commercial brews get their distinctive aroma and flavor from the specific variety of hops used to make the beer.

The How-to of Hops

Exactly how the hops are used in the brewing process has a lot to do with their effect on the finished product. In order for hops to provide their goods, they must be boiled along with the wort (the brewing term for beer before it is fermented) in the brew kettle. The longer hops are boiled, the more bittering acids they add to the brew. The less hops are boiled the less acid they add and the more flavor they add. Hops that are added for a very short time in the boiling process (15 minutes or less) yield virtually no bitterness and a little flavor, and plenty of aroma. Be aware that because hop aroma is found in its essential oils, it can very easily be boiled away.

Homebrewers have complete control over the hop signature of their beers. And there’s no need for newbie homebrewers to fret over which types are needed as these are regularly called out by name in homebrew recipes.

Note that hops are used rather sparingly –at least in comparison to malt. Only a few ounces are needed in the typical 5-gallon batch of brew. The least bitter beers, such as wheat beer or brown ale only use an ounce or two. The more bitter beers, such as Pilsners and pale ales may use up to three ounces. On rare occasions, a recipe for a particularly bold and briskly bittered brew may call for four or more ounces of hops, but these are the exception more than the rule.

Hop Heaven

Some of the more popular varieties you are likely to encounter are Cascade, Hallertauer, Saaz, Kent Goldings, Mt. Hood, Fuggle, Willamette and Northern Brewer. Most hop varieties get their names from their country or region of origin. Most hops are commercially grown in one of several locations around the world, including Australia, Bavaria, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, England, British Columbia and the American Pacific Northwest.

As mentioned earlier, each hop variety has its own distinctive flavor and aromatic profile, making experimentation and discovery an interesting and integral part of the homebrewing experience.

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