You’re going to hear me talk about a hops a lot in this blog. Partly because they’re a huge part of what makes beer, well… beer. But also because my tastes run toward IPAs right now and those tend to be hoppy by nature.
This first post in my Beer 101 series will take a look at what hops are, how they are used in the brewing process, and the effects they have on the flavor profile of a finished beer.
Hops are one of the key pieces of beer brewing (the others being water, grains, and yeast) and are the flower of the female hops plant, Humulus lupus, which is related to the hemp family. Hops contain an essential oil that the tongue reads as being very bitter. This dry, bitterness can be used to balance out the sweetness that the malts in a beer create. Hops also act as a natural preservative and have antibacterial properties.
A beer made without hops can exist, but it would be cloyingly sweet and very one-note. Hops aren’t the only plant that can be used to flavor beer. Spruce, herbs, flowers and more can be used. But hops are the go-to if the brewer isn’t making anything too out there.
Let us turn our attention to this helpful graphic! The parts of the hops flower are easily labelled here. The entire flower can be used as-is, though compressed pellets of hops exist and are used by some brewers to flavor their beer. Deep inside of these buds are little packets of resins and oils that lend that bitter flavor profile to beer.
Hops are actually kind of a newcomer in beer brewing, when you consider that beer has been made for around 9,000 years. Beer’s origins are more closely linked to the malt ingredients in the brew and were made with grains and yeast from bread making in its early years. Hops were first used in beer around 822 AD and even then, somewhat sparsely. Before the use of hops, beers were flavored and preserved using a mix of spices and fruits called “gruit” or “grut.”It’s really only in the last 200 years that hops have had their day.
There are several steps in the brewing of beer and hops can be added into the mix at almost any of them, depending on what the flavor profile goal is. Hops can be added before or during the first boil of the beer, in the mash tun, or during tank or barrel conditioning. Each of these choices will affect the final beer product’s taste.
There are also a wide variety of hops available, each bringing its own unique flavor profile to the mix. There are several Continental or Noble Hops, which originated in central Europe and have a mild bitterness and spicy/floral aromas: Hallertau, Tettnang, Spalt, and Czech Saaz. English hops, which are herbal, grassy, and fruity: East Kent Goldings, Fuggle, Challenger, Target, and Progress. Bright, fruity, and resinous American hops: Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Willamette, and Amarillo.
The above list is far from comprehensive. There are a large number of hops that I didn’t name in those little lists, many of which are American hops that are being hybridized, grown, studied, and analyzed even by Universities. There have been exciting new hops making their way into the market over the last decade.
So while hops aren’t truly necessary to brewing beer, what we think of as modern beer just wouldn’t be the same without them. So the next time you hear some know-it-all like me talking about “hoppiness” or “a hop-forward beer,” you can understand that I’m trying to find a way to describe the aromatic and bitter flavor profile that these plants bring to beer.