Understanding Beer: On Hops and Other Flavorants

Categories: Hops to It!

Photo by David Blaikie
It's a hop, hop world

California has a hop obsession. At any brewery, in any bar, you're likely to encounter the devout disciples of the bitter plant, known as hopheads, guzzling the latest hopped-up brew. Without doubt, beers like IPAs and Double IPAs (DIPA) are the quintessential California beers.

But believe it or not, hops, now one of the four main ingredients of beer, has not always been the shining star of the brew. It wasn't until the 13th Century, back when Belguim and the Netherlands were still called the "Low Countries" [Editor's note: They still kind of are, nether-land], that hops were finally introduced to beer, supplanting now less popular flavorants such as saffron, honey, grapes, and wormwood.

The practice of adding flavor ingredients to a batch of beer has more or less created the craft beer industry. Brewers play with different fruits, tap into spices from different cultures and experiment with a variety of hops species because, why not? And thanks to this, drinkers are now more inclined to ask for a beer list than settle for the subdued and flavorless mass-produced options.

An important note about hop varietals is that there are three different branches of hops: Old World, New World and Oceania hops.

Lending more mild bittering qualities, the Old World hops can typically be detected in more traditional styles out of the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Czech Republic. For instance, ESB (Extra Strong Bitter), an English-style ale, might seem quite tame in comparison to an American IPA. This is due in large part to the presence of English hops, which impart a pleasant earthiness in lieu of the sharp pine and citrus notes that one might expect from its name.

The most common Old World hops consist of East Kent Golding, Fuggles, Magnum, Tettnang, Haleratau mf, and Saaz (primarily used for Czech Pilsners).

New World hops, on the other hand, tend to smack you in the face with their potency. Unlike the earthy, spicy and grassy characteristics of their Old World brothers, New World hops offer more powerful flavors like pine, citrus, resin and pronounced bitterness.

Hop varietals like Simcoe, Columbus, Cascade, Centennial, and Citra make up just a small handful of New World hops that jazz up the American-style IPAs, pale ales, ambers, reds, and stouts.

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