There are only three ingredients you need to make a beer. Water, malt, and yeast. But one additional ingredient has gone from supporting actor to leading lady in the last 30 years of craft brewing. Today it’s all about hops.
If wanting to know more about hops and their role in the beer brewing process feel free to check our Hop Additions in Beer Brewing Details & Advice.
The Hop Family
Hops are a magical plant as they turn beer from a dull sickly sweet beer into a delicious and well-balanced beverage. As far as beer is concerned what we call hops are actually the cone-shaped flowers of the female hop plants.
Humulus Lupulus a cousin of cannabis with none of the THC. Hops are a part of the cannabis family which is a small family of plants that includes trees, erect herbs, and vines. The plant used in brewing beer is the hop flower. A delicate pale green papery cone is full of perishable oils. They give beer bitterness when used early in the brewing process. And aroma when added at the end. As bonus hops are a preservative. Many undesirable microbes find the compounds in hops very unpleasant and thus hops extend the life of beer.
The History of Hops
Generally, hops are added at the boiling stage of brewing and it takes a pretty long time to unleash the alpha acids that bitter and balance the sweetness of the malt. This is shy hops weren’t incorporated into beer production until around the turn of the 10th century A.D. Ancient men probably wouldn’t have had the time or inclination to chill out around a fire as his hops oiled.
The first documented use of hops in beer is from the 9th century. Before this period brewers used draught composed of a wide variety of bitter herbs and flowers including dandelion, marigold, ground ivy, and heather.
The commercial production of hops
Today hops are grown around the world. Global hop production is at an all-time high due to America’s new obsession with a hoppy beer. Commercial hops are grown in high quantities in the Northwest of the US, the UK, Central Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Cultivation of hops for commercial production requires a particular environment.
Hops are a climbing plant. They are trained to grow up trestles made of string or wires that support the plants and allow them significantly greater growth. Harvest comes near the end of summer. When the vines are pulled down and the flowers are taken to the hop house for drying. Where dry hops are moved to a press and compressed into hop bales.
The varieties of hops
Hop cones can contain different oils. Today thanks to extensive breeding programs there are hundreds and hundreds of varieties of hops. New hop varieties are bred to accentuate a positive traits like increasing alpha acids. Or decreasing negative traits such as hops susceptibility to a particular disease.
In nature hops reproduce either by pollination of the female which develops a seed. Or by roots forming runners that spread out and emerge from the ground creating new plants. A typical commerical hop field has only female hops and they are grown in only one variety.
Brewers today are facing rising hot prices in recent years because there is so much demand for both bittering and aromatic hops. Cheers.