Written by on December 5, 2011 in Beer, Homebrewing - 2 Comments

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Fimb

In the last installment in the basic beer ingredients series, I’ll be talking about hops and what they bring to beer. Historically, ancient beers utilized a wide variety of herbs for flavor or purported health benefits, but over the years hops became  the dominant ingredient. Some of these herb based beers are still available (particularly through some UK breweries, where hops took longer to catch on), using heather tips and other herbs.

Hops play an integral role in the balance of the flavors we have come to expect in beer. The bitterness they add to the beer offsets the sweetness that would otherwise show through from the unfermented sugars of the malt. The balance of hops and malt in the beer can result in a wide range of flavors we have come to know and appreciate.

Hops are the female flower (in the plant world, some species contain both male and female reproductive structures and some contain only one sex) of a plant that produces glands which contain bitter compounds as well as aromatic  oils. Botanically speaking, hop plants produce a bine, which is differentiated from a vine in that bines grow up and around other structures using just the stem portion. Vines produce tendrils to anchor and allow them to pull themselves along the substrates.

Generally speaking, hops contribute three things to a beer. First is bitterness, which is extracted at high (boiling) temperature, and up to a point, increases over time. Second is flavor compounds, which are volatilized (boiled off) relatively quickly. Third are aroma compounds, which are volatilized very quickly.

Varying when hops are added during the brewing process changes the amount of each of these components.  Adding hops early in the process will contribute more to the bitterness of the beer as the flavor and aroma compounds will have been boiled off. Adding hopes late in the process will contribute more to the flavor and aroma.

Hop lineages fall into  three basic categories (in my mind at least): German, British and American. Hops from Germany and the surrounding countries tend to contribute a lower level of bitterness, and give a milder spicy, floral character. British varieties tend to still have a moderate bitterness and provide an earthy spiciness. American hops run the gamut, as there are many US grown strains that are variants of German or UK strains and produce a similar character. What is often viewed as the American hop character through is a high level of bittering paired with a citrus and floral character common to what many of us would expect from an American IPA or pale ale.

Hops typically come packaged in one of two forms, whole ‘leaf’ or pellet. Whole hops are the actual cones of the hop flower, and technically not a leaf at all. Whole cone hops are dried after picking and packaged in an oxygen free package. Oxidation will reduced the shelf life of hops and produce undesirable characters, so the are often purged with non reactive gas. Pellets have been ground up and pressed through a die, and resemble rabbit food, small cylindrical pellets of varying length.

Hops play an important role in the overall balance of the beer and an integral part of the flavor character of the beer. Without hops we’d be left throwing in an assortment of bitter herbs in hopes of creating a drinkable beer. Hops have been used in brewing long enough for brewers to develop a good sense of what can be gained from the numerous varieties available.

Previously in this series:

Specialty Grains
Barley Basics
Yeast Inspection
An Introduction to Brewing Ingredients

About the Author

Ryan has been homebrewing since 2006, and it was homebrewing that really got him into craft beer. He's a certified beer and food geek, and spends a good part of his daily allotment of daydreams on ideas for future batches of beer.

2 Comments on "Hop-tastic!"

  1. Steve March 17, 2012 at 9:07 AM · Reply

    It’s worth mentioning hop plugs, which are best described as a cross between pellets and whole hops. The hop is compressed but not ground up. This preserves the freshness of the hop and retains many of the qualities people tend to perceive in whole cone hops.

    I think pellets are fine for bittering and you can still extract good flavor from them, but I think the flavor of whole hops is better in most cases and definitely when it comes to aroma. Plugs pass muster with those applications while saving some money over whole hops. It might be psychological, but I think that pelletization process bruises the hop and robs it of its distinctive aroma profiles, particularly in the more floral varieties.

    Aspiring brewers will want to dig much deeper into this subject. This is a solid overview of hops but before you brew you need to be familiar with the alpha acid content of the hops on the market. There are some varieties that are excellent for aroma, but terrible for bittering.Then there are bittering hops that have too much acid to be used in a dry hop application.

  2. Ryan March 18, 2012 at 9:57 PM · Reply

    Yes, plug hops are another way that hops can be package, I chose not to cover them here because they are not as readily available to homebrewers as pellet or cone. There are many factors that can go into deciding what type of hops to use, some of which you have mentioned, but it also often comes down to personal preference for cone vs. pellet, which can be due in large part to what works better on your system. As far as variety selection, it is certainly true that some varieties produce better qualities when used for one use than another. This will hopefully be something that we’ll get into more with future posts!

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