Understanding Beer: On Hops and Other Flavorants

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

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.  

Yes, please!
Yes, please!
Photo © 2009 J. Ronald Lee

While Oceania (Australian and New Zealand) hops make up the third branch of hop varietals, they're not as common as New World hops in the US. As far as Oceania hops go, you'll taste and smell hints of pineapple, passion fruit in addition to other tropical fruits in the exotic Nelson Sauvin, Motueka, or Mosaic hops.

Brewers incorporate different hops understanding that certain varietals will add to flavor while others only enhance the aroma. For example, the East Kent Golding hop lacks the floral and fruity notes from say, a Centennial or Cascade hop.

Another factor on whether or not an ingredient will affect taste or just aroma is when it's added to the brew. Generally, hops added at the start of a boil will impart bitterness, while hops added with, say 15 to 30 minutes left will lend to flavor, and those added after that will tend to impart aroma without much flavor or bitterness. Then there's dry-hopping, where hops are added after the beer has fermented; this adds aroma only, and is also where those hefty hop bills pile up (hops are expensive).

But this is all not to say hops is the only flavor you're going to be getting. Coffee, citrus fruits, various nuts and honeys, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, elderberries, toasted coconut, cocoa nibs, peanut butter, coriander and cardamom, chamomile and sage, all spice and pumpkin, jalapeño peppers, Serrano peppers, ghost chili peppers, and even goat brains have all taken center stage in beers around the country.

That's the beauty of craft. Apart from toying with hops for big flavor and aroma, brewers turn to outside ingredients in order to stand out, and ultimately, create something new. And hey, more beers to drink? Sign me up.

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