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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Pretty good primer on hops but lacks that bit of "more than a book report" quality, imho.  Some points I would add.

It's not like Cali naturally has hopheads and other places don't.  A lot has to do with the water.  I brewed in the PNW commercially for a number of years and I can tell you that with all my experience I could never brew an ale like that where I'm living now.

And there's another point.  I said "ale".  There are very few, very hoppy lagers.  Beer, in other words.  While beer has become a generic term, it really means that it was brewed with lager yeast, and it's really only ales that get hopped up.  That's not to say that certain Old World styles of beer don't rely on the hops.  The crisp Hallertau of a Munich pilsner is part of its character.

And there's two more points.  You can talk all you want about Old World styles, but realistically no one can go taste that.  They're all skunked.  Hops also vary in their shelf life and response to UV light.  That's why good beer doesn't come in green bottles.  What kind of hops is in Heineken?  I can only tell you that it's Saaz because nothing else skunks that fast and that thoroughly.  I can't taste the least bit of "Saaz" in it though. 

The other point that raised was that, insipid adverts aside, the yeast really does matter.  Ale yeast and lager yeast are very different.  Many of the flavor adjuncts you mention are natural esters of ale yeast, without ever adding those flavorings.

And like any drug, it's drug, set, and setting.  Texas friends used to always bang on about why I liked "warm beer".  I don't like warm beer, I like room temperature beer, and in the PNW, that's about right...for ale.  In Texas with a Shiner lager...yeah, I'll chill it too.

And that's the last bit of wisdumb I'll impart.  TEMPERATURE.  Why do Americans drink their beer so cold compared to the rest of the world?  Because the mass-produced yellow fizzy stuff sucks great green gangrenous donkey dongs.  When it's cold, you can't taste it.  Point being, don't buy a craft ale to taste the ale yeast vanilla notes and then serve it ice cold.  That's a waste.

That last rule makes a good test, too.  Think you like a beer?  Drink it warm after it has sat out and become flat overnight.  Many of my ales were great that way.  Do that with a Miller and you'll wretch.  In fact my wife and I argue about that all the time.  A good Texan, she likes it cold.  I'm always having to pull a six-pack out of the fridge for myself.  "Why?", she asks.  "Because I want to taste what I did".  And if I want a hoppy ale, I have to go to the local grocery.  Or buy and haul distilled water for a batch.  It's what you've always heard.  Water, yeast, locale- they are all critical for what you get.


Was just down in Vista...

Belching Beaver has a peanut butter stout that is Reeses-tastic.

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