hops – /häps/ – noun
It occurred to me the other day that while Vocabrewlary is written with the idea that you may know a lot or just a little about beer, some of you may the epitome of beginners. It’s for that reason that for the next few weeks, I’m going to talk about the main ingredients in beer. This week, we’re starting with the one that’s all the rage, hops. While you could write an entire book on this plant (and Stan Hieronymous has) I’m going to stick to the basics so you can hold a conversation with your local bar’s hophead after reading less than a thousand words.
Hops are one of the four main ingredients found in beer along with water, malted barley and yeast*. However, it hasn’t always been that way. Hops have many uses in beer but the simplest and most necessary use of hops is that they bitter beer and balance it out from the sweetness of the malt. Hundreds of years ago, a blend of herbs and spices called a “gruit” was able to accomplish this same thing and was much more widely used than hops. These blends were proprietary to each town that brewed beer with them (the beers they brewed were also called gruits) and most used three main ingredients in their blend: yarrow, mugwort, and sweet gale. STL’s own Earthbound Beer makes gruits from time to time.
Aside from balancing out the sweetness of the beer, these ingredients, and other herbs/spices that brewers used were said to also have some narcotic properties. Yowza. It’s important that that tidbit is noted because this is where history gets muddy and there’s a lot of hearsay regarding the switch to hops.
Hops overtook gruits for one of the following reasons:
- Taxation on gruits was something brewers wanted to avoid. What better way to avoid it than by not using them at all and using those “hops” things instead?
- Protestants (a big ol’ powerhouse with big ol’ influence in those beer brewing European countries) didn’t like those “feel good” narcotics making their followers all rev’d up. Those hops make you drowsy and don’t cause the hanky panky feelings those gruits did.
- People discovered the “antiseptic” properties of hops. Back in the day, without fridges, beer would last longer if it could keep those infective bacteria away. Hops’ preservative qualities made it a lot more attractive once this was discovered.
You choose whichever theory makes you sleep better at night, I’m gonna move on to the present times now.
As I said earlier, hops are the main bittering agent in beer. You can actually measure the bitterness of a beer in something called IBUs (International Bitterness Units) which I actually already did a Vocabrewlary Lesson on. The gist of it is that the higher the IBUs, the more bitter the beer will be. However, hops contribute a great deal to the aroma and flavor of beer as well. While this has always been known, modern brewers are pushing these flavors to new heights by using newer, bigger, and bolder varieties of the plant.
Here are some of the more popular varieties and groups of hops along with characteristics they bring to beer:
This group of hops goes back centuries and are primarily grown in Germany and the Czech Republic. These hops are the ones traditionally used in pilsners and lagers from those areas and include: Saaz, Hallertauer, Tettnanger and Spalt. They’re low in bitterness and big on aroma/flavor with descriptors such as earthy, herbal, spicy, floral and grassy leading the way.
The “C” Hops
This group refers to North American hops with big fruit and resin (*cough* marijuana *cough*) character. They all start with the letter “c” which is where that creative name comes from. Varieties include Crystal, Cascade, Chinook, Centennial, Columbus, Cluster, and the current bell of the ball, Citra®. There are a hell of a lot of Citra® beers out there for a reason.
This isn’t a group but a single variety of hops and it’s the other one that’s having its moment right now. Mosaic hops are intensely fruity and has been described as having tropical, blueberry, and tangerine flavors and aromas. If that sounds impossible, try “Mosaic Promise” from Founders Brewing Company.
Listing all of the other hops would take a lot more than the 1,000 words I promised to keep this under so I’ll stop there but Google can give you much more info about hop varieties.
The last thing I’ll leave you with are just some bullet points with factoids that you can spew out to Hoppy McHopperson when he decides to get all hoptastic on you at the bar:
- Hops grow on a “bine” not a vine
- Hop are the “flowers” that grow on bines and are referred to as “cones”
- In brewing, hops can be used as whole cones, pellets or oils
- The yellow powder inside the hop cone is “lupulin” which contains the hops’ oils as well as the plants’ alpha and beta acids. This is also where 4 Hands Brewing Company’s annual festival gets its name
- Hops in the US are mainly grown in Oregon, Washington and Idaho
That’s about all the info I can cram in and still stay under 1,000 words for you folks. I was unable to talk about a lot of things I had planned on but these are meant to be easily digestible and I want to ensure you’re able to retain some of the info I’ve provided.
P.S. Including all of the text below, the total word count for this article is 999.
* Before you light up the comments because of this sentence, please, let this one go. I’m aware that you don’t need malted barley or even hops to make beer but that’s level 2 stuff. Thx.
Do you have a beer term that you’d like to know more about? Email me at email@example.com or comment below with something you’d like to see explained in a future Vocabrewlary Lesson.