This column is titled “Hopped Up,” a play on words involving one of the main ingredients in beer. I consider myself a “hop head”, someone who loves intensely hoppy beers above all others. But it occurs to me that not everyone reading this understands exactly what hops are, or what they do for beer. Or perhaps you have a friend who has asked you about hops and you couldn’t offer a complete answer. Print this column out, fold it up, and keep it in your wallet to whip out when you need a handy hop reference.
What are hops? As with all such epistemological questions, the best place to start is Wikipedia:
“Humulus, Hop, is a small genus of flowering plants native to temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere.”
Hop plants are bines, which are similar to vines.
Vines use appendages to climb while bines use stiff hairs to climb. The flowers of hops are in the shapes of cones, and it is those cones which are used in the production of beer to impart bitterness and a wide array of flavors and aromas. They also act as a preservative.
When someone describes a beer as “hoppy,” it can mean one of two things: the beer has substantial bitterness from hops added early in the boiling of the wort (unfermented beer), or the beer has substantial flavor and aroma derived from hops added late in the boiling of the wort. Or commonly, both.
Double IPAs are very popular among craft beer drinkers these days, and much is made of their advertised International Bittering Units (IBUs). Many have 90, 100 or more IBUs. And a 100 IBU beer is a very hoppy beer. But it’s possible to make a beer with that degree of bitterness just by doing a single, large addition of hops at the beginning of the boil. And I’m here to tell you that would be a nasty beer with none of the trademark citrus and floral hop flavors double IPAs are famous for. But it would be hoppy nonetheless.
The dual nature of the term “hoppy” is due to the fact that hops have both alpha acids and aromatic oils that dissolve into beer. The alpha acids require a long period of boiling to dissolve, and they produce bitterness in beer. That’s why hops added early in the boil contribute primarily bitterness—they are boiled for sixty minutes and the alpha acids dissolve. But the aromatic oils are more delicate, and they boil off from those early additions. That’s why a 100 IBU beer created by a single early addition of hops would have almost no hop flavor; the aromatic oils would all boil off. But when you add hops late in the boil, more of the oils remain in the wort and you get all of the glorious flavor produced by this miracle plant.
There are dozens of varieties of hops, and the spectrum of flavor they contribute to beer is remarkable. And just as the character of wine is heavily influenced by where the grapes are grown, the soil, and the weather, the flavor of hops is influenced by all the same factors. It should come as no surprise to beer lovers that most of the hops used in brewing are grown in the countries most famous for their beer, and each country’s hops are quite distinct from the others. The countries I’m referring to are Germany, England, and the United States of America.
Famous German hops include Hallertau, Tettnang, Hersbrucker, Perle, and Spalt. The descriptions most often associated with German hops are “earthy” and “spicy.” I know that’s a bit vague, but when you taste it, you know it. It can be a challenge to find good examples of beers showcasing the flavors of German hops because German brewers are most famous for malty lagers that go relatively light on hops. I do know of one very easy-to-find beer that features German hops quite prominently: Samuel Adams Boston Lager.
Famous English hops include Fuggles, Golding, Bullion, and Challenger. The descriptions most often associated with English hops are “floral” and “herbal.” English brewers tend to showcase hop flavor more than the Germans, but quite a bit less than Americans. So again, I’d recommend an American-brewed beer to better understand what English hops taste like: Great Divide Denver Pale Ale. That’s an English style pale ale brewed with loads of English hops.
Of course, just as the U.S. now has the most vibrant, diverse, and creative brewing culture in the world, our hops are becoming increasingly sought-after by brewers around the world. The most famous of all is Cascade. Others include Centennial, Chinook, and Columbus (often referred to collectively as “C-hops”). Also popular are Simcoe, Amarillo, Apollo, Willamette and Nugget, with new varieties being cultivated all the time. Americans are pioneers not only of new styles of beer and methods of brewing, but in cultivating new hops and experimenting with new ingredients.
It will take some effort to fully explore the range of flavors from American hops, but someone’s got to do it. American hops are best known for citrus and pine-like flavors, but many of our hops share similarities with European varieties. For example, Good People IPA showcases the flavor of Willamette hops, which are very floral as they are a descendant of English Fuggles. The citrus flavor of the ever-popular Cascade is highlighted in the original American pale ale, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Yazoo Pale Ale is heavy on Amarillo. The list could go on.
Time to get down to your local watering hole and do some studying!
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to email@example.com