Over the last couple weeks, we’ve taken a brief look at two essential ingredients in beer, water and malt. This week, we take a look at an ingredient that plays a defining role in the flavor of beer: hops.
The first documented use of hops in brewing was in the 11th century. Before then, brewers used a wide variety of other flavoring agents in their beers, including herbs and flowers such as dandelion, burdock root, marigold, horehound, ground ivy, heather and more. Originally, the hops were used in brewing as a preservative. Early brewers came to realize that beers brewed with hops were less prone to spoilage than the herbal/floral combinations that they used. It was later determined that beer made with hops was less prone to spoilage because of the mild antibacterial effects that favors brewing yeasts over less desirable bacteria and microorganisms.
Throughout the world Hops are grown in areas with exceptionally moist climates. The plant enjoys the same soils as what would be used to grow potatoes, in the U.S. hops farms can be found in the same regions as potato farms. Interestingly, they are not grown Canada or Ireland due to a lack of boron in the soil, which is essential for hops to flourish. The three largest growing regions in the world are Germany, United States, and China.
Hops are a vine-like plant. When they are planted, they are trained to grow up strings which allow them to get more growth with the same sunlight profile. When they are ready to be harvested, they are usually dried in an oast house before being used in the brewing process. However, a new trend among brewers is to create a wet-hop beer, which is when the beer is brewed utilizing freshly picked hops without drying.
The flavors that hops create in beer come from its resins, which is made up of two main acids; alpha and beta acids. Alpha acids have mild antibacterial effects that favor brewing yeasts and also impart the bitter flavors commonly associated with hops. Beta acids don’t isomerize during the boil of wort and have a negligible effect on beers flavor profile. They do however contribute to the beers aroma.
Flavor & Aroma
Hops can add bitter, tangy, and sometimes floral flavors to a beer depending on the variety, region of growth, and how it’s used in the brewing process. These characteristics can also be found in the “nose” or aroma of the beer as well. For this reason, hops are divided into two major categories, bittering & aroma hops.
Bittering hops have a higher concentration of alpha acids and therefore are largely responsible for the bitter flavor of a beer. They tend to be boiled for a longer period of time, around 60-90 minutes, to maximize the infusion of alpha acids. And this leads to aromas being boiled off.
Aroma hops tend to be added to the wort in the final 30 minutes of brewing to not lose the aroma. Sometimes they are even added during fermentation, after the wort has been cooled. This is known as dry-hopping.
Finally, there are “dual-use” hops which have a high concentration of alpha acids as well aromatic properties. These can be used during the boil or for dry-hopping, both have good results.
There are about 80 different varieties of hops available throughout the world, each of which has unique flavor and aroma profiles. Although the following are just a selection, they are some of the most distinguished and commonly found varieties.
- Saaz – One of the “Noble” varieties of hops, this variety was named after the Czech city of Zatec and therefore is most commonly used in Czech style pilsners. This hop accounts for the majority of hop production in the Czech Republic. The Saaz flavor profile is very mild with earthy characteristics and has low alpha acid levels which means it is not a bitter hop. Some great examples of beers that highlight the use of Saaz hops are Dominion’s Beach House Golden Pilsner and Stella Artois.
- Citra – Released in 2007 by the Hop Breeding Company, this dual-purpose hop has a citrus like aroma and flavor with notes of tropical fruits. It is most typically used as an aroma hop but makes an excellent bittering hop as well. Victory’s Headwaters Pale Ale almost exclusively is flavored with Citra.
- Centennial – Centennial is an aroma type of hop. Sometimes referred to as the “Super Cascade” hop, this hop tends to have a clean bitterness characteristic and can have nice floral notes depending on boil time. Long Trail’s Centennial Red, as the name suggests, utilizes this hop variety amply throughout the brewing process.
- Fuggle – Fuggles are aroma-type hops very common to English-style ales. Fuggles were originally cultivated in England in the late 1800s, nowadays they are also grown in parts of Oregon and Washington. Fuggles impart woody and earthy characteristics, making them excellent in Porters, Milds, and Bitters. Frankenmuth’s American Blonde uses a good amount of Fuggles, which are noticeable in the beer.
- Cascade – Cascade hops were originally developed by the USDA for a breeding program in Oregon. Cascades have a nigh amount of alpha acids compared to most other hops, this makes it an excellent bittering hop. It has floral, spicy, and citrus like characteristics and is used greatly in the production of American Pale Ales. One such example is Anchor’s Liberty Ale which exemplifies the citrusy and floral characteristics found in Cascade hops.
- Hallertau – The original German lager hops, has a mild aroma is slightly spicy and has light characteristics. It’s additionally used in many Belgian ales and American lagers. Goldencold Lager by Susquehanna is a German-inspired lager which solely uses Bavarian Hallertau Tradition and Hallertau Perle hops to create a crisp and classic flavor and aroma.
- Nelson Sauvin – A New Zealand dual-use hop, has an aroma that gives impressions of Sauvignon Blanc grapes or “crushed gooseberry.” These hops have underlining notes of black pepper, all spice, and mace. They can be used in a variety of styles ranging from lagers to pale ales. MOA Methode, a German style pilsener from New Zealand uses Nelson Sauvin to round out the flavor giving it a dry yet bitter finish.
- Strisselspalt – One of very few varieties from France, Strisselspalt is most commonly sought out for it aromatic qualities. This unique hop has been used in a variety of styles to give definition to French breweries. It is greatly used in wheat styles, Belgian-styles, saisons, and biere de gardes. Kronenbourg 1664 a pale lager from Brasseries Kronenbourg in France uses these hops to give their beer its clean profile.
Be sure to check out some of these beers and see how the aroma and flavor of the beers demonstrate how the hops are being used. If you’re struggling, it’s always a great exercise to google the beer. You’ll often find that brewer websites list the hops being used to give you a better idea of what you’re tasting and enjoying in the brew.