A closer look at beer: hops

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First Posted: 2/18/2014

Next up on our beer ingredient list is hops. These wonderful plants have been at the forefront of many craft beer lovers’ minds in the past few years, but what exactly are they and what do they add to the beer?

Hops have been used in beer for a number of centuries, but were not an original ingredient in early versions of beer. It is thought that the first commercially cultivated hops did not appear until the late 12th century in Germany. The main reason that the use of hops took off in beer was the preservation quality that it added.

Many of us have heard the old story that English brewers added a large number of hops to their pale ale to preserve them for the long shipping times that the beer was undertaking when having to be sent to troops stationed in India, which is supposedly what led to the beer style India Pale Ale. However, Stone Brewing Co. head brewer and hophead extraordinaire Mitch Stelle disproved this theory when researching his IPA book. He found that many brewers used hops in abundance for flavor and also that hops adds both body and head retention to beer.

Hops are a green leafy plant that somewhat resemble small artichokes. They grow on bines, not vines, and they can grow up to 50 feet in length. They also come from the same botanical family as cannabis. They are added to beers as either a whole leaf or in pellet form. They are typically broken up into two categories, although these categories are disappearing with many of the recent hops coming to market.

The main categories are aroma hops and bittering hops. Bittering hops are those that are high in alpha acids and produce the hop bitterness we are accustomed to, and aroma hops are lower in alpha acids and are used to produce the desired aroma in beer.

Hops have an ever-widening array of flavors and aromas, but the ones we are most familiar with are citrus, pine, grapefruit, and floral. However, these flavors and aromas are changing as new crossbred hops are made and things such as white wine, grape, blueberry, and strawberry are even possible from the hops. Another interesting fact about hops is that hops are an aphrodisiac for men but induce sleep for women, which can lead to some problematic evenings for couples.

Hops are certainly having their moment in the sun with the ever-growing popularity of IPAs that has been occurring in the craft beer market. If you are new to hoppy beers, some can be a bit more overwhelming than others, but if you are interested in them, there are several styles that are worth seeking out to further investigate hops.

Amber/Red Ale: This style is the most approachable for hop newbies. The strong malt backbone soothes out the strong hop bite, but still allows the drinker to enjoy the hop flavors. Some great selections in this style are: Tröegs Brewing Company, Nugget Nectar & Hopback Amber Ale; Stone Brewing Co., Levitation Ale; and AleSmith Brewing Company, YuleSmith (Winter).

India Pale Ale (IPA): This is the style that many think of when hops are mentioned. Some within this style are more approachable than others for newbies, but the hops are certainly the centerpiece for all in this category. Here is just a small selection of must-try IPAs: Dogfish Head Brewery, 60 Minute IPA; Stone Brewing Co., Stone IPA; Bear Republic Brewing Co., Racer 5 IPA; Green Flash Brewing Co., West Coast IPA; Firestone Walker Brewing Co., Union Jack IPA; Odell Brewing Co., Odell IPA; and Lagunitas Brewing Co., Lagunitas IPA.

Double IPA (DIPA): This is a higher alcohol and higher hopped version of the standard IPA. This is a style that many new to the IPA style should avoid as a starting point, as the bitterness may completely overwhelm them and put them off the style. However, those who love this style have an almost addiction-like craving for hoppier beers. Some great choices in this style are: Stone Brewing Co., Ruination; Dogfish Head Brewery, 90 Minute IPA; Victory Brewing Co., Hop Ranch; Avery Brewing Co., Maharaja; and Founders Brewing Co., Double Trouble.

Gone are the days of “bitter beer face” being a bad thing, and here are the days where the more bitter the hops are, the more devoted the following. Craft beer brewers have long had a love affair with the hop, and it is great to see the general public has fully caught on to this wonderful affair and are enjoying a love of their own.