Most beer drinkers already know about hops, the small nuggets of joy that bring bitterness and life to beer, but there’s also a lot more to hops than meets the eye. In this article we’ll explore what a hop really is and some varieties that many brewers are using to up their game.
Originally, hops were never used in beer brewing. The first bittering ingredients in archaic ales included things like sweet gale, mugwort, yarrow, ground ivy, and horehound, with adjunct ingredients like wormwood, anise, cinnamon, and juniper. These ingredients in combination were soon recognized as “gruit”, a mixture used before the extensive use of hops. Some breweries still use these ingredients to honor the old traditions, but these types of beer are getting harder and harder to find.
It wasn’t until the 13th century that hop cultivation and its usage in beer started to threaten gruit. Lots of people shunned hops early on calling them a “wicked and pernicious weed.” Their use was banned in many European regions for reasons from farmer’s rights and taxation to odd political agendas and propaganda. Hop cultivation only grew into a trend in the early 1600’s when many protestants and religious based groups started to prefer the taste of hopped ales to gruited beers. Heavily hopped beers also aided in the beers longevity, leading to the popular IPAs that we have grown to love.
Moist temperate climates around the 48th parallel are where hops grow best, with Germany, the US, and Ethiopia being the top three producers in the world. There are also many types of hops that grow only in specific areas like Galaxy hops out of New Zealand, and Zenith hops in England. While many countries grow hops specifically for beer, there are plenty of farms that develop them for their medicinal properties and their positive effects on recent bee populations.
The flavors and aromas in hops can be attributed to four main chemical groups, alpha-acids, beta-acids, essential oils, and flavonoids.
Hop farmers and growers have long studied the flavors, aromas, and properties of hops, and play heavily with their genetics, growth, and germination to induce different combinations of hop profiles. Different combinations of hops are used in collections of beer to hit on certain aspects that brewers see as beneficial and positive. This has lead to a large variety of hops being grown all over the world with their personal tone.
Let’s explore some varieties shall we?
Hops are complex, interesting, and wonderful, and while there is much more history, knowledge, and variety behind them we’ll leave the rest of the discovering up to you. As always, drink well and be merry. Cheers!