If you’ve spent any time experimenting with craft beer, trying out different styles, figuring out what you do and don’t like, you’ve undoubtedly come across that lingering bitter taste that can be a bit polarizing at first, and for some, offputting. That lingering bitterness, commonly found in styles such as IPAs, comes from hops. But, what are hops in beer? What do hops do? Why are they in your beer?
Let us help you understand on a not-so-nerdy level.
What are Hops in Beer?
Let’s start at the beginning. There are four main ingredients in beer; water, malt, yeast, and, you guessed it, hops.
Each of these ingredients plays an important role in the finished product patiently awaiting your indulgence, and while we will soon also explain their roles in other articles, let’s focus now on hops.
Hops are actually the flower or cone of the Humulus Lupulus hop plant which is a perennial climbing plant that develops new shoots in the spring and dies back in the colder weather. These plants are grown in large lots patterned with tall poles that allow the hops to vine upwards until harvest. Once the hop farmer determines the hop cones have reached their peak yield, they are removed from the hop plant for processing.
Hops are sold to brewers as freshly harvested cones called wet hops, or as dried pellets or plugs.
Learn more about hops in our interview with Lion Bines Hop Farm - Episode 26
What do Hops do in Beer?
We’ll get into the history of hops soon, but let’s talk about how hops are used in modern brewing.
Modern-day brewers use hops primarily for flavor. Hop farmers breed different varieties of hops to develop different flavor profiles. The hop varieties, once released to brewers are given names and are trademarked. For instance, Cascade hops are bred to have floral, citrus, and grapefruit characteristics, while Simcoe hops are known for their earthy and piney profile.
Bittering vs. Aroma
Hops in beer are used at two stages of the brewing process - in the boil and during fermentation. When hops are added earlier in the brewing process, they are referred to as bittering hops. These hops contribute to the overall profile of the beer, while aroma hops are added in the last few mins of the boil and have most of their impact on the aroma of the final product.
With this in mind, brewers can use multiple hops in a single beer to create unique flavor and aroma combinations. To add another level of bitterness and aroma to the finished beer, brewers can use a technique called dry-hopping, in which dry hop pellets are added to the wort after it is transferred to the fermentation container.
What is the Origin of Hops?
The use of hops in beer dates back to the 18th century when India was part of the British Empire and there was a need for beer to be shipped from Britain to India. Without refrigeration, brewmasters had to figure out a way to preserve the barrels of beer in transit overseas to the British Empire in the East.
As it turns out, hops, the flower cone of the Humulus Lupulus plant contain alpha acids that actually give the plant an antiseptic property which helps to prevent beer from spoiling. In fact, in order for these beers to survive the 6-month long journey from Britain to India, copious amounts of hops had to be added which eventually lead to the advent of the well-known style, IPA.
Overall, as we mentioned at the start of this article, hops play a critical role in the flavor of your favorite beer. They contribute to the underlying flavor characteristic, as well as the aroma you pull off the beer after the pour, and the combinations are endless.
Look out for more informational posts like these in the future, and let us know what you’re interested in learning more about!