Beer is generally made up of four basic ingredients: water, malt, yeast and hops that are boiled, cooled
and stored to ferment.
The last, hops, are the
flowering cone of a viney plant related to cannabis. But without any of
the drug that makes marijuana nearly as popular as beer. Hops can be grown in almost any
climate with adequate water and sunlight and the vine sometimes reaches
as high as 40 feet.
Beer can be, and
historically was, made without what is one of its primary modern ingredients -
hops. First used in Europe around 1100 AD, hops help to produce more
beer from the same amount of malt.
In brewing beer, this relatively useless crop acts as a preservative, flavoring agent. It adds a bitter taste to offset the sweetness of malt sugar (maltose), and it adds an aroma that can vary from piney to citrus-like.
As a preservative, it
allows for lower alcohol content to be present, while helping keep the
beer fresh enough to be drunk after more than a few weeks. Since the
alcohol is the product of fermentation of barley grain, adding hops
allowed for the use of less grain to make the same amount of brew. That
helps lower the grain portion of the cost of producing it.
As a flavoring agent hops
contribute in multiple ways. The fruit of the hop plant contains
compounds called alpha acids. When they're heated they become bitter (a
common characteristic of some acids).
At the same time, like many plants, hops contain oils that add distinctive aromas. Aroma and
taste are closely intertwined and the addition of a herbal or pine-cone like smell can influence the perceived taste of the final product.
Since those oils vaporize readily during heating, additional hops are frequently added during the
brewing process, sometimes at the end solely to add additional aroma and flavor. The technique is common in ales, contributing to their more
heady nose and flavor over many lagers.
Hops even possess a mild antibiotic that helps suppress some of the organisms in the wort (the
liquid fermented to make beer), allowing the yeast to carry out the
fermentation process more efficiently.
Their use in brewmaking began around the beginning of the 12th century in Germany. From there
the practice spread to Britain in the early 16th century. Scottish ales began using hops only much later. They won't grow in the cold climate.
The technique was adopted in the United States in 1629.
Given that geographic variety and long history, it's not surprising that today there are
several dozen basic varieties of hops and many hundreds of sub-types.
Noble hops alone, for example, come in four types. Low in bitterness and high in aroma, they
hail from Central Europe and have exotic names like Saaz and Spalter, Tettnanger and Hallertau. The names derive largely from their region of
Names more familiar to English readers, but derived from their European ancestors, are such
types as Goldings - an English hop used in some ales - and Fuggles, a woody hop developed in England in the late 19th century.
But several countries are represented: Hersbrucker, a German hop used in pale lagers and Lublin from
Poland. There's even the Pacific Gem, a berry-aroma type from New Zealand.
Since hops have practically no commercial use beyond their application to beer making,
the world is fortunate that clever brew meisters exist that can turn a limitation into such delightful advantage. Raise a glass in salute.
Review of Beer Brewing Made Easy
Learn Bartending at Home
The Country and London Brewer - 1736: The Nature and Use of the Hop