I know I’m a day late but, Happy Easter y’all!! This holiday holds a special place in my heart and there are a few traditions that I’m trying to continue even though I don’t live as close to my family now. One of them is making Hopping Easter Bunnies – a delicious from-scratch made bread treat, with orange zest and a sweet glaze that is perfect for breakfast or an after dinner dessert. But y’all are here for beer am I correct? Well today, in bunny themed fashion, I’m going to be talking a little bit about hops. So grab yourself a citrus IPA and a freshly made hopping bunny (which go very well together I might add) and let’s get to learning!
Hops are the flowers, or seed cones, of the hop plant, Humulus lupulus. They are used for flavoring, aroma and stability in beer and depending on the type of hop, can produce bitter, citric, or zesty flavors. There are many different varieties that grow world-wide with certain hops being used for specific beer styles. The first documented use of hops was in the 9th century in a region of present-day Germany; before this, brewers used gruit, a combination of bitter herbs and wild flowers. Hop bitterness helps to balance out the sweetness of the malt which leads to endless combinations of flavors. Hops also have antibacterial properties that aid in ridding beer of unwanted microorganisms. This leads to longer lasting beer and eventually became a more practical recipe, rendering the use of bitter herbs and flowers less desirable.
Hops grow best in damp temperate climates. Commercially, they are grown in places called hop yards or fields in rows where the vines climb vertically on wire or string. They are harvested at the end of summer and taken to hop houses where the flowers are dried and compressed into bales for shipment. Some brewers use wet hops which in that case are simply un-dried hops. There are 2 different types of oils within the flower, lupulin, and oleoresin. Lupulin contains the antibiotic properties, and oleoresin contains the flavoring and aroma properties. Once they have been extracted in the brewing process, the light, papery cones are discarded. Continuing with the chemical composition, there are Alpha and Beta acids within the cone. The Alpha acids contribute to the bitterness of the beer and is probably the most important compound. The Beta acids are sensitive to oxidation and can negatively affect the taste of the beer, therefore, brewers generally choose to use hops with a low beta acid content. Essential oils contribute to the smell and flavor of hops, and flavonoids aid in the plants’ pigmentation, antibacterial properties and at high doses may have potential therapeutic utilities.
As I mentioned before, there are many varieties grown world-wide. They can be divided into two main categories, bittering hops and aroma hops. Bittering hops have higher alpha acid content and aroma hops have lower alpha acid content, with higher levels of essential oils. Beyond this, hops can be characterized by the general region in which they are grown. Continental or Noble hops originate in central Europe, are extremely sought after for their aroma and are usually used in lagers since they give a smooth bitterness to the beer with a spicy/floral aroma. Only 4 hops can bear the name Noble, they are Hallertau, Tettnang, Spalt and Czech Saaz. English hops are the most traditional and fall under the aroma category. These hops carry herbal, grassy, floral and fruity characteristics. American hops are sometimes considered duel purpose because they have been grown to contain both high alpha acid content and aromatic qualities in the same hop. They are piney, citric and resinous and are the signature of American pale ales and IPAs.
Hops can be added to the brewing process at different times and in different ways to produce the desired flavor or aroma. Bittering hops are added first, the longer they boil the more bitter the beer. Flavoring hops (the essential oils dissolve into the wort to release flavor) are added around mid boil, as the oils are highly volatile and can be lost in evaporation. Essential oils in hops used for aroma are even more volatile than in flavoring hops and therefore are added at the end of the boil, spending merely minutes in the boiling wort. All of this being said, you can use the same hop for both flavor and aroma, it all depends on the property of the essential oils you want to extract. A hop can be added with 20 minutes left to the boil for flavor and then again with 5 minutes remaining to add aroma. Different aspects of the oils will be left depending on the time boiled which directly relates to the percentage of the oil dissolved. Other than the traditional adding of hops in the boil, you can add them in different ways. Dry Hopping is when you add hops after the fermentation process, while the beer is conditioning. This creates enhanced aromatic and flavor qualities in the beer. Hop Back is when the hot wort, after boiling, is run through a tank with more hops on the way to the chiller. This takes place just before the fermentation process. First Wort Hopping is when you add hops to the wort pre-boil, when it’s on its way from the mash tun to the boil kettle. This process yields a smoother hop flavor and aroma without increasing bitterness. Mash Hopping is when you add hops directly in the mash tun, (where the sweet soupy liquid becomes wort) before the boil. It is said to have an effect similar to First Wort Hopping. Lastly, Randall is a newer method developed by brewers at Dogfish Head where a filter containing hops is inserted into the draft line coming from the keg to the tap, giving freshly poured beer a burst of hop goodness!
Now that I’ve talked your ear off about all things hops (which honestly, was very comprehensive) it’s time for you to grab your favorite beer and analyze the hop characteristics in it! Know that the bitterness comes from adding hops in the beginning, flavor in the middle and aroma at the end. If your beer isn’t very bitter, know that the hops had a low alpha acid content. Maybe the next time you’re at a brewery, ask the bartender if they know how the hops were added to a specific beer. Regardless if you choose to keep this information to yourself or talk about it the next time you’re out with friends, know that your brain is now a little bit bigger. And maybe your stomach too!