PRIMER #2: HOPS

From time to time, we here at Aleheads will offer up a primer on various beer essentials. In our first primer, we tackled the all-important topic of ales and lagers. Today, we’ll be taking a look at everyone’s favorite strobile, the hop.

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Our recent Maltercation on IPAs made me want to delve into the world of hops a little more deeply (I mean really delve…like jump into a vat of Imperial IPA and drink in the hoppy goodness). It seems odd that this funny, little plant is essentially only grown to flavor beer. While it has some medicinal uses (mostly folk remedies*), the hop plant really only exists for one reason: to make beer better.

*My favorite Wikipedia-noted hop folk remedy is placing a pillowcase of hops under your head to help with sleeplessness. I’ve got a better insomnia-fix involving hops…drink half a dozen Triple IPAs. You’ll sleep like a goddamn baby.

THE ORIGIN OF HOPS

Hops were first cataloged as a plant species by the famed Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder.* He named the plant, “Lupus salictarius”, meaning “wolf among scrubs”. The term was apt as hops at that time grew wild amongst willows, much like a wolf roaming free in the forest. The Latin name for the plant was later changed to “Humulus lupulus” which roughly translates to (I think), “wolf of the earth”.

*Pliny the Elder, who was killed while watching the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79AD, was later immortalized by the Russian River Brewing Company with a beer bearing his name. The appropriately hoppy brew is considered one of the finest beers on Earth.

That’s some interesting shit right there, but how did the humble hop become associated with that most noble of beverages? History shows that hops have been utilized in brewing as far back as the 9th century AD, however widespread use of the plant in beer-making didn’t really occur until the 13th century. What was the hop used for before then? Who the fuck cares? Seriously. Shut up.

Prior to the Hop Revolution* other flavoring agents were used in beer like aromatic herbs, berries, and wormwood (get your hands on a beer in the gruit style if you want to know what these ancient brews tasted like). But once the marriage of beer and hops was made public, no one stood up to argue that the two should not be wed. It was truly a magical union, and not even the Space Pope himself could rend it asunder (not that he would want to…the Space Pope loves him some hop-bombs).

*Or Hopolution if you like poorly constructed portmanteaus.

HISTORICAL HOP MYTHS

The herbed gruit style of beer was phased out slowly by the introduction of hops for a variety of reasons (mostly because of the chemical and flavoring properties of hops which will be covered in the WHY HOPS? section). However, as is the case for many fuzzily recorded historical events, a few interesting “theories” about the hops takeover have been surmised.

My personal favorite theory involves the Reformation. Some historians believe that Puritans in Germany and the UK forced a switch from herbed gruits to hopped beers because of the stimulating aphrodisiac effect of many of the adjuncts used in gruit. This theory proposes that the Catholic Church championed gruits because they functioned like an “upper” and got people riled up into a spiritual fervor. Hops were thought to have a sedative effect, thus the Puritanical Protestants pushed for their incorporation into beer to encourage more serious, sober (in a manner of speaking) contemplation of religious matters.

The problem with this delightful theory? Hopped beer had all but phased out herbed gruits centuries before Martin Luther nailed his feces to the Church door.*

*Or was it theses? I feel like feces would have made his point better.

In truth, there were other more likely reasons for the switch. In Germany, monastic orders tended to have a monopoly on brewing herbed gruit beers. German nobility, flexing their muscles in the period before the Reformation, may have wanted to limit this revenue stream to the Catholic Church and thus promoted the brewing of hopped beer instead (which they could control, and thus, profit from). Even more persuasive than that argument is the “purity” theory. Herbed gruits used a mix of adjuncts that couldn’t be properly monitored. Occasionally, gruits were created which used psychotropic drugs or poisonous plants like henbane, hemlock, or nightshade. So the promotion of hops was more of a survival mechanism. By restricting the “spicing” of beer to one, non-toxic, easily monitored plant, German brewers could ensure that nothing poisonous would find its way into their product.

There’s also a somewhat pervasive myth that various attempts to ban hops were made in the 15th and 16th century in England. Some sources claim that hops were referred to as a “vile and pernicious weed” during this era. The truth is that no evidence has ever been discovered to support this theory. In all likelihood, this claim arose from the fact that laws were developed in the UK to establish defined differences between the older style of “ale” (which was unhopped) and the newer style of “beer” (which was hopped). But beer was never challenged or banned. In fact, it became tremendously popular and quickly supplanted the older style. “Beer” so thoroughly trounced “ale” in the UK that the two terms lost their original meanings and are now practically synonymous.

*Today, “beer” is the generic term for all fermented malt beverages and “ale” refers to beer made with top-fermenting yeast (beer made with bottom-fermenting yeast is called “lager”).

WHY HOPS?

So what’s so fucking special about the hop flower? Well, first of all, it’s a member of the Cannabis family just like everyone’s favorite plant, the hackberry! Oh, also marijuana.*

*So the Cannabis family provides humanity with hops AND weed. That’s a pretty stellar genus right there.

Second, hops have tremendously beneficial chemical effects on beer (so many, in fact, that it seems as if Satan invented them just to fuck with us). Hops provide an antibiotic effect that favors the activity of brewer’s yeast over less desirable micro-organisms (in other words, hops make the fermentation process much more efficient). Hops also aid in head retention which means that creamy, dreamy froth on top of your brew lasts just a bit longer thanks to our little friend, Hoppy Hopperson.  Finally, the acid levels in hops serve as a natural preservative to keep beer from spoiling.

That last point was crucial in the days before refrigeration, and probably the reason hops were initially used in the brewing process. But that’s not enough to explain the overwhelming ubiquity of the hop plant in beer starting in the 13th century. After all, there are far more acidic plants out there that could have served the same purpose. No, the reason that hops became THE key adjunct in the brewing process had less to do with the chemical properties of the beer. That leads us to third, and most important reason behind the little, green plant’s overwhelming hopularity: taste and aroma.

As Doc noted in our last Maltercation, without hops, beer is really just fermented, boiled sugar. A hopless beer is liquid bread with a dash of alcohol. Is it drinkable? I guess, but it’s not enjoyable. The sweetness of the wort needs something to balance it. Something sharp. Something tangy. Above all, something bitter. When ancient brewers discovered that hops provided the perfect bitter complement to the sweet malt of beer, the floodgates were opened. Hop production exploded and today the plant is so intrinsically linked to beer that when most people are asked what beer is made of, they’ll reply, “hops and barley”.*

*Ask an Alehead what beer is made of and they’ll reply, “moonbeams and angel wings.” We’re a poetic lot.

BREWING WITH HOPS

Hops contain alpha and beta acids which are directly responsible for the bitter flavor and floral aroma that most people associate with the plants. The alpha acids are the primary contributor to the bitter flavor in beer, while the beta acids generally contribute more to the aroma. The higher the alpha acids in the hops, the more bitter the beer. Old world hops, like the beautifully named “Noble Hops” of Germany, have fairly low alpha acid contents by weight (5-9%). In comparison, New World hops like those found in the Pacific Northwest have much higher alpha acid content (8-20%).

The boiling time of hops is the main factor in determining the flavor and aroma they impart. Incorporating the bitter taste of hops can only be achieved by boiling since the alpha acids would be insoluble otherwise. But since boiling destroys the essential oils which give hops their distinctive smell, there’s a fine line between imparting the necessary bitter flavor to beer while not detracting from the aroma. That’s why most brewers use a variety of hops in their beers. Since different varietals have different alpha acid contents, the brewers can figure out how to get the bitterness they want in the beer while still getting that perfect hops aroma. Beyond using different types of hops, brewers will also add the plant to the boil at various stages of brewing, and in many instances will toss some “dry”, unboiled hops into the beer at the end of the brewing process just for the aromatic enhancement they provide. The proper incorporation of hops is a complex and challenging process…that’s why most of your homebrew experiments taste like ass.

Hops add all sorts of aromas to brew…from floral to citrus, spicy to spruce. Again, different varietals will add different notes. The noble hops of Germany (Hallertau, Saaz, Spalt, and Tettnang) and the two main UK varietals (Fuggles and Goldings…which some consider noble in their own right) provide primarily subtle, floral aromas. In contrast, the Pacific Northwest hops like the three C’s (Cascade, Centennial, and Columbus) as well as Willamette, Chinook, and Amarillo have much more citrusy, almost grapefruit like aromas. Finding the perfect blend of aromatics from hops is one of the great challenges of master brewers everywhere.

HOP PRODUCTION

Today, hops are grown in vast quantities to satisfy the unquenchable thirst of the world’s Aleheads. The Hallertau Valley in Germany, the Kent region in the UK, and the Yakima and Willamette valleys in the US are some of the most productive and well-known hop-producing areas of the world (and, not coincidentally, tucked into some of the biggest beer-swilling nations on Earth).

Hops grow in “bines” like other climbing plants. They are trained up wire supports which allows more plants to grow in a smaller surface area (similar to beans, peas, and grapes). Apparently, providing structural support for the plant also frees up energy that the hops would have used to build structural cells which allows for more crop growth. Is that latter fact interesting? Not really. But it’s a free blog and you get what you pay for.

Only female plants are grown in hop fields to prevent pollination. This proves Homer Simpson’s maxim that “A woman is like a beer. They smell good. They look good. You’d step over your own mother to get one. But you can’t stop at one. You wanna drink another woman!”

In days of yore, massive labor pools were used to harvest hops, but, thanks to Eli Whitney and his fucking cotton gin*, all of those Hop Wranglers were put out of work. Today, massive hop harvesting machines ruthlessly take care of business…at least until Neo and/or John Connor puts a stop to them.

*Note: Not really…I just like blaming Eli Whitney for everything.

CONCLUSION

Hops are awesome. The end.

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3 comments

  1. [...] had the Pliny so I know that Russian River can do even more spectacular work with the humble humulus lupulus. A great start to a beer-fueled weekend. Lots more notes to [...]

  2. [...] I briefly discussed in our Primer on Hops, before everyone’s favorite strobile became the most common adjunct in beer, brewers used an [...]

  3. [...] The problem with determining a “Best” Imperial IPA list is that most breweries worth their salt make a pretty solid version of the style. There are hundreds of worthy Imperials out there which can make determining a Top 10 list virtually impossible. Plus, Aleheads are VERY passionate about their favorite Imperial IPAs since flavor profiles within the style can vary tremendously. Some favor huge, citrus fruit flavors while others focus on sticky weed and pine. Colors range from pale yellow to a deep copper with varying degrees of haziness and clarity. And while malt backbones are all over the map, ALL Imperial IPAs hit you with a huge hop profile. That’s what this style is all about…a showcase for how well the brewer can handle the humble humulus lupulus. [...]

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