Conversations about beer always seem to center around hops these days. While we admit hops are a foundational ingredient, the information surrounding them is hazy at best (those familiar with hops will see what we did there).
Beer is simple enough to make, yet painstaking to perfect, and a lot of the perfecting process rests on the inclusion of hops.
From which hops are used to the timing of their addition during the brewing process, we’ll cover what hops are, what they do, and what you need to know to impress your friends.
When we use the word “hops,” we’re really referring to a specific part of a particular plant. The Humulus lupulus plant is native to North America, Europe, and parts of Asia and is grown in numerous different varieties.
The Humulus lupulus is a flowering vine that requires structural support to grow vertically. It can reach heights of up to 25 feet with vines (also called “bines”) that can weigh 20 pounds. This perennial plant is a distant relative of the cannabis sativa plant, but don’t worry. You won’t fail a drug test by ingesting your favorite IPA.
Male vs. Female
Most varieties of the Humulus lupulus are dioecious. Being dioecious means that the plants are either male or female, but rarely both.
The male plants produce pollinating flowers that are needed for making new plants, but the female plants are the ones in high demand by beer brewers.
Female Humulus lupulus plants produce cone-shaped structures that are green and firm to the touch. These are the structures commonly referred to as “hops.” As they begin to ripen, the hops will feel dry and papery, which indicates they are ready for harvest. The hops will also begin to give off a distinctly earthy, hoppy aroma.
Inside the hops of the female plants are small, yellow seed-like structures called lupulins. The lupulins contain the plant acids and oils that beer brewers need to create the brews you love. These glands contain a powder that resembles pollen and is quite literally the stuff the cloudiest IPA dreams are made of.
Hops and Beer Flavor
Hops are synonymous with flavoring beer, but these two facts make hops seem a little less important than pop cultures wants them to be:
- Every beer contains hops, not just IPAs and amber ales.
- Hops aren’t always added to beer for flavoring purposes.
The secret is out, and now you know. Hops play a bigger role in beer than just adding bitterness, which we’ll cover in a moment. However, for the sake of the flavor conversation, here’s how hops flavor your beer.
The Basics of Hops
Beer has four basic ingredients: malt, water, yeast, and hops. If a beer doesn’t contain hops, it’s not actually beer. It’s a gruit made with a blend of herbs and bitters to produce a hop-free ale that some people really enjoy.
For the rest of us, we usually like our beer with a highly pronounced hop flavor or with a milder hint of hop that we can only taste towards the finish. When the brewer adds the hops during the brewing process determines how much flavor, aroma, and bitterness the beer will have.
There are two main methods of adding hops to beer: dry hopping and wet hopping.
Dry hopping involves adding hops late in the brewing process, usually after the beer has been boiled. Normally, dry hopping occurs during fermentation or conditioning.
The dry hopping process is almost always performed to add aromatics to the beer. The essential oils in the hops can dissipate during a long boil, so adding hops later helps restore them and offers a bolder flavor.
Don’t confuse flavor with bitterness. The bitterness of hops is different from the flavor. If you love a hoppy flavor but don’t like a bitter finish, opt for a double or triple hopped beer which will have a more intentional focus on flavor over bitterness.
Wet hopping, also referred to as “fresh hopping,” refers to adding whole, freshly picked hops during any part of the brewing process. The addition of fresh hops is used when a truly hoppy flavor isn’t the end goal of the particular brew.
Hops and Bitterness
It goes without saying hops add bitterness to your beer, but recently it’s become more expected that brewers describe the bitterness of their brews on a measurable scale. This scale, called the IBU, or International Bitterness Units scale, tells how bitter your beer will be by measuring the level of alpha-acids added from the hops.
A slightly bitter beer will measure 2.5 on the scale, while a highly bitter beer will measure closer to 15.
Hops and Preservation
We told you that hops have other roles in your beer aside from flavoring it, and preserving your beer is one of the most important jobs hops have.
Just as the alpha acids add bitterness, the beta acids contained in hops have been found to control spoilage by preventing the growth of certain bacteria which can spoil a beer. The beta acids work by both preventing and delaying growth, giving the beer a longer shelf life, and allowing your favorite microbrews to make it to your store shelves (or your doorstep) while they’re still in peak freshness.
Hops and Foam
Hops also play a role in giving the foamy head of your beer structure and helping delineate it from the rest of your beer. Again, it’s the alpha acids from the hops that are at work here, stabilizing the bubbles and helping create a nearly solid foam after your beer has been poured.
Even though the head of the beer may look sloshy when first poured, within minutes, the alpha acids help establish the head, provided the beer isn’t immediately guzzled down.
Hops help your beer produce the aesthetically pleasing lacing effect that happens when you drink it from a glass. Lacing refers to the marks of foam on the side of the glass left behind as you drink your beer.
Different Forms of Hops
Hops can be added to beer in three distinct forms: whole, pelletized, and concentrated powder.
Whole hops are used in wet hopping. Whole hops give your brew a particularly earthy and vegetal taste but don’t necessarily make the beer taste overtly hoppy. Whole hops are almost always used within 24 hours of harvesting to ensure freshness.
The most popular way that hops are added during the brewing process is by pellets. Pellets extend the life of hops and allow them to be used for up to a year after they’ve been harvested, provided they are properly stored.
To create pelletized hops, the whole hops are ground by machinery to produce pellets that contain 100% hops. In other words, the grounding doesn’t destroy the hoppiness of the hops, but it does allow for slight oxidation of the lupulin glands, which can affect flavor if the pellets aren’t stored in an airtight container.
It’s not a secret that we’re a nation currently obsessed with hops. It’s why brands like Dogfish Head produce some of the most popular beers, like their 60 Minute IPA, which boasts more than 60 hops additions during a 60-minute boil.
Our need for the hop has led some hop growers, like Yakima Chief, to experiment with extracting the lupulin powder from the glands of the hops. Their experimental powder makes it possible to add pure hop flavor, aroma, and bitterness to any beer with 100% retention of the plant oils and resins and complete absence of any plant-material flavor which could distract the palate.
Still, this powder isn’t for all brewers or all beer drinkers, so don’t worry; traditional hops definitely aren’t going out of business.
Tap Into Better Beer
When the conversation turns to hop content during your next flight of beer sampling, you’ll be set to impress with hop facts that don’t just relate to bitterness and flavor. Hops are essential to beer, and beer is essential to, well, beer drinkers.
TapRm makes it easy to keep up with your essentials by giving you access to the best brewers all over the nation. We also keep it easy for you to find new breweries and flavors you’ll love by offering detailed descriptions (including that all-important IBU rating) of the beers we carry and background information on who’s making them.
Here’s to great hops and even better beer.