Being a fan of craft beer, I am pretty sure you’ve heard of hops before. Many people, however, aren’t sure what exactly a hop really is. You probably know that hops are what make beer bitter, but they are so much more than that. Without hops, beer as we know it would not exist. This is why it’s one of the key pieces of the Reinheitsgebot. Let’s take a look now at what hops really are and what they mean for your beer.
What Are Hops?
Hops are the flowering seed cone of the female plant Humulus Lupulus. Hops grow in vines very similar to grapes. Like grapes, they are very sensitive to temperature and humidity. You wouldn’t think so by their strong taste, but hops are a very delicate plant. They survive for only a short period of time after being cut during harvesting, which is why the majority of hops are dried immediately after their harvest and turned into a pellet. This preserves the oils and resins that are present in the hops, and allow them to be shipped.
Hops generally give a bitter, tangy, and sometimes even citrusy, earthy taste to beer. Up until the 11th century, other bitter herbs were primarily used in beer instead of hops. Hops have generally been used in beer for two key purposes. The first is as a bittering agent, which they are great at. This helps to balance the sweetness of the malt and give a well rounded beverage. The second purpose, which was not known when hops were first used, is as an antibacterial agent, which was mentioned in this earlier post. This helps to kill off undesirable bacteria in the beer without affecting the yeast during fermentation.
The first documented cultivation of hops was in the Hallertau region of what is now Germany in 736 AD. Hops were first mentioned in the brewing of beer in 1079, and hops were first grown in The United States in 1629. As you can see, hops have stood the test of time throughout history.
Above, we mentioned that hops are generally dried and made into pellet form for easy storage and transport. Some beers, however, are brewed using fresh, un-dried hops that are used directly after harvest. This is called wet-hopping. The fresh hops are added instead of the dried pellets. These beers are only made during the harvest season, as they can only be brewed directly following a harvest. This is also known as fresh-hopping beer. Even though using fresh hops is called wet-hopping, using dried hops is NOT called dry-hopping.
Dry-Hopping is the process of adding uncooked hops the the beer at different stages of fermentation. When you get into home brewing, you may think that adding something that is not sanitized to a fermenting beer may cause issues, but dry hopping, when done correctly, is perfectly safe. This can be done with dry or wet hops. Another not commonly used method of hopping is continuous hopping. This is done most notably by Dogfish Head Brewing in their 60 Minute, 90 Minute, and 120 Minute IPA beers. As the names suggest, hops are added continuously over the timeframe in the name of each beer. Check out a video on 90 Minute and how it is continuously hopped below.
Hops add taste and bitterness to beer. Bitterness is measured in IBUs, or International Bitterness Units. This is done using scientific tools, as to not be subjective. This is useful when sampling beer, but the term tends to be overused in the tasting of beer. For the average craft beer person, IBUs can be used to set up a tasting, so all beers have near the same, or go from least to most bitter. It does not help a person to understand a beer better if they know the IBU by itself.
Types Of Hops
There are many types and styles of hops. They all lend a different flavor, smell, and overall experience to the beer they are added to. Some beers, Like Flying Dog’s Single Hop El Dorado, use a single type of hop to bring out the flavor and smell. Most beers, however, use a variety of hops to get the exact taste and smell the brewer is looking for. Here are a few of the more notable varieties. Click here for a more detailed list.
- Amarillo – Amarillo is an aroma-type cultivar of recent origin, discovered and introduced by Virgil Gamache Farms Inc.
- Cascade – Cascade is an aroma-type cultivar which originated as the first commercial hop from the USDA-ARS breeding program. It was bred in 1956 but not released for cultivation until 1972. It reached its peak in 1975 when it produced 13.3% of the total American crop. It was obtained by crossing an English Fuggle with a male plant, which originated from the Russian variety Serebrianka with a Fuggle male plant. A very popular U.S. variety, with a moderate bitterness level and fragrant, flowery aroma. Cascade is often used in highly hopped West Coast ales that have a citrus-floral hop character.
- Centennial – Centennial is an aroma-type cultivar, bred in 1974 and released in 1990. A relatively new hop on the market, this hop used to be called CFJ90. Described by some as a “Super Cascade” and we tend to agree, but it’s not nearly as “citrusy”. Some even use it for aroma as well as bittering. Bitterness is quite clean and can have floral notes depending on the boil time.
- Golding – Golding is a group of aroma-type cultivars originating in England. Over the decades, the group has been changed and widened. Mostly they have been named after villages in East Kent, (Petham, Rothersham, Canterbury, Eastwell) or hop farmers, who grew them (Amos’s Early Bird, Cobbs). English Goldings grown in East Kent, are a premium hop, called East Kent Golding and should not be confused with U.K. Goldings, which are grown in other parts such as Kent, Worcestershire, Hampshire and Herefordshire. The cultivar grown in the USA (Oregon and Washington State) is a Canterbury Golding. The premier English aroma hop. Superb in English-style ales, and lend a unique character to fine lagers as well. This hop has a unique spicy aroma and refined flavor.
- Nugget – Nugget is a bittering-type cultivar, bred in 1970 from the USDA 65009 female plant and USDA 63015M. Nugget is a great bittering hop with a heavy herbal aroma.
- Tettnang – Tettnang is an aroma-type cultivar which originated in the Tettnang hop growing area of Germany as a land-race hop. It is grown in the U.S.A. in Oregon and Washington State. The original noble hop from the Tettnang region of Germany, ideal for your finest lagers and wheat beers. This limited availability hop has a fine, pure aroma, that is not present in United States grown Tettnanger.
- Willamette – Willamette is a triploid aroma-type hop, which originated in the mid 1970s and is a seedling of Fuggle. It is a very popular aroma hop, contributing in 1998 to 18% of the total USA hop crop. A variation on English Fuggle hops grown in Oregon and Washington. Willamette has a fragrant spicy woody aroma. An excellent American aromatic hops for ales and lagers.
As you can see, there are basically two types of hops, bittering and aroma. They basically do what their names suggest. Bittering hops are added to give a bitter flavor, and aroma hops give the beer it’s unique hoppy smell. They are generally used together with one another, which is why single hop beers are not common.
Finishing It Up
Hopefully this post, while long, served as a good introduction to hops. This is by no means an exhaustive essay on hops, but for someone starting out in craft beer, hopefully you can take this information and move forward with it. This is a great place to start if you want to brew, which I hope you do! Hopefully you weren’t too bored by all the terminology, but this is one of the most important parts to beer, so it pays to understand the hop.
Until next time, Cheers!