Mystery Solved: What are hops in beer?

Posted by Wine Gourmet on

Beer is comprised of four main ingredients: barely malt, yeast, hops, and water. While you may know that beer contains hops… do you know what they are and why they’re used? We’re here to lay it out for you.

The brewing process is more complicated than most tend to realize. While winemaking carries it’s own weight in difficulty, brewers take on a different set of challenges: they’re basically magicians. To produce the exact product they have envisioned, a brewer must meticulously choose and combine an array of items in perfect proportion. This includes malts, roasted grains, unmalted grains, sugars, dozens of varieties of hops, and hundreds of strains of yeast. The ability to understand how all of this all works together and ultimately determine flavor is like magic to us. Okay so it really just takes a lot of knowledge, painstaking work, and quite the imagination. Part of the difficulty with brewing comes with understanding the use of hops and their varieties. Let’s begin with the basis of what hops are. 

Basically hops are the backbone of beer and help provide balanced flavor, just like tannins and acidity balance wine. Here’s an excerpt from one of our beloved books, “The Complete Beer Course” by Joshua M. Bernstein on the basics of hops:

Hops are the female flowers-aka cones-of the Humulus lupulus, a creeping bine. (Instead of using tendrils or suckers, a bine climbs by wrapping itself around a support.) Hop’s are a brewer’s Swiss Army knife: they flavor beers, provide bitterness, and enhance a beer’s head retention, and their preservative powers keep unwanted bacteria at bay. Hop resins posses two primary acids, alpha and beta. Beta acids contribute to the beer’s bouquet. Alpha acids serve as a preservative and contribute bitterness early in the boil, flavor later in the boil, and aroma in the last minutes of a boil.


There are two main categories of hops:


Aroma: These hops ad bouquet and flavor, not bitterness. They are higher in beta acids. To prevent their delicate, fragrant essential oils from evaporating they're added on the back end of a boil.


Bittering: These hops add bitterness, not aroma. They are higher in alpha acids. To maximize the bitterness, they’re added earlier in the boil, which causes the hops’ delicate essential oils to evaporate.


Hops that provide flavor, aroma, and bitterness are known as dual purpose hops.

Today, there are over 75 known varieties of hops in use, varying from aromatic to bittering, that allows brewers to create endless combinations for us to enjoy!

Now, lets dive into the history of hops, their usage, and harvesting.

Prior to the 9th century, brewers often used things like herbs, fruit, spices or a mixture known as gruit (an herb mixture) to flavor their concoctions and balance out the natural sweetness of malt. This means the bitterness provided by hops became ideal for subduing that sweetness.Historians believe that the first usage of hops was not actually for the bittering flavor provided, but the antiseptic qualities of the plant. These qualities aided in preventing finished beers from spoiling while allowing the alcohol content to be reduced; consequently, this allowed brewers to produce a higher yield and profit. Despite this finding, it wasn’t until the thirteenth century when hops became more widely used.

Aside from the antiseptic qualities, hops also possess medicinal properties, specifically as a sleep aid. The English used to fill a pillow with hops as a folk remedy for sleeplessness and hops are still in use today as a medicinal sleep aid. 

Before the 1960’s, when mechanization became more accessible, most hops required the laborious task of harvesting by hand. As we mentioned earlier, hops grow by climbing themselves around a support; growers must accommodate this by using poles or trellises with wire supports to hold up the plants (pictured above). Lets put that into perspective… in just six weeks, a hop brine can grow over 20 feet tall. Imagine having to harvest each hop by hand with brines that high, not to mention they must be handled incredibly delicately.

When the vine flowers in late summer, the hops take on a cone shape (pictured below). Within the cone of the female hops are glands that produce an extremely delicate, bright yellow powder called lupulin. This powder contains the resin and essential oils that are responsible for the flavor and aroma: It’s basically like gold for brewers. During the harvest the hops must be handled carefully and quickly to retain as much lupulin as possible and prevent spoilage. 

Now that you've learned a little bit about hops, have you gained a new respect for brewers? September 28th is National Drink Beer Day - one the best unofficial holidays yet. Make plans with some friends, take a trip to a local brewer/magician (...whatever you prefer to call them) and get lost in their magic. 


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