Fun With Hops

MONDAY 12/12/2016

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.

  • Alpha-Acids: these are considered the most important chemical group in hops, contributing to the hop’s bitterness and medicinal properties
  • Beta-Acids: these are considered the most detrimental chemical group in hops, sensitive to oxidative decomposition and the negative flavors in beer
  • Essential Oils: myrcene, humulene, and caryophyllene, represent the three main essential oils in hops, and contribute the hop’s aroma and pugency
  • Flavonoids: the chemical xanthohumol is the lead contributor to the flavor of hops

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?

  • Amarillo: used mostly for IPAs and Pale Ales, Amarillo has a very unique and district floral property, and sweet citrus notes reminiscent of oranges rather than the bitter citrus flavor of grapefruit
  • Cascade: a fairly popular hop these days, Cascade is flowery, citrusy, and spicy, with a  heavily distinguishable grapefruit flavor and aroma
  • Centennial: the most prominent hop used by breweries today, Centennial hops have a floral and citrusy flavor and aroma with high bittering properties
  • Citra: a super high alpha-acid hop used strictly for bitter pales and IPAs, Citra has lots of fruit flavors and aromas including peach, apricot, passionfruit, grapefruit, lime, melon, gooseberry, lychee, pineapple, mango, and papaya
  • Columbus: used strictly as a bittering hop rather than a flavor or aroma hop, Columbus has an intense and pungent aroma that is sharp and herbal. Columbus hops are also extremely resistant to disease based on their high acid levels
  • El Dorado: a newer variety of hop with a high bitterness and flavors falling into the description of watermelon, candy, and sweet stone fruit
  • Galaxy: a newer hop gaining a lot of attention, this New Zealand variety is heavily versatile, boasting tons of tropical flavor like pineapple, passionfruit, and key lime
  • Mosaic: used in a lot of dry-hopped recipes, Mosaic can have a floral and earthy flavor with a unique citrus and fruity aroma, and is very hard to substitute for due to its distinctive properties
  • Sorachi Ace: this hop has a very unique flavor reminiscent of lemon rind and dill, and was developed from a long pedigree of specifically picked Saaz and Brewer’s Gold hops
  • Willamette: considered the king of aroma hops, Willamette is a soft hop with a very low alpha-acid level with scents of flowers and earth, and is used primarily in darker ales to not overpower the flavor but lend its positive chemical properties
  • Zenith: these hops are actually not publicly available, but have been shown to be 100% resistant to the mildew disease, and can only be currently found in British ales and lagers

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!