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Hops: The Basics
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Hops: The Basics

By Jasmine · February 24th, 2010 · 1 Comment

Everyone knows the smell of hops–that telltale whiff of weed as you raise a pint to your lips. I also know that hops act as a preservative, mostly from the story of the creation of IPAs. India Pale Ales supposedly became popular with British shipmen because they not only weathered the journey to India well, but some became even tastier over the course of time. Hops, it turns out, have antibiotic properties that allow yeast to flourish and keeps less desirable bacteria at bay, reducing spoilage.

My recent interest in hops was sparked by two things: Moonlight Brewery’s hopless beers and Elysian Brewery’s super-detailed list of exactly which hops were using for bittering and finishing in each beer. I had assumed that you had to have hops to make beer. Moonlight showed me otherwise. In fact, until the 11th century, it was far more common to use things like heather, dandelion, and mugwort as the bittering agent, all of which are still used today by homebrewers and some breweries. A bittering agent is necessary keep the beer from being a malty sugar overload. I’d still like to know what beer tastes like without any–I can’t seem to find any examples.

So why are some hops used for bittering and some for finishing or aroma, and what’s the difference?

Hops at Guinness

Hops that are used for bittering are added during the boil, while the beer is still being made. Brewers favor hops that have high levels of alpha acids, because those are the acids that actually create the bitter flavor. Hops that are used for aroma are added either during the last ten minutes (or so) of the boil which prevents the essential oils from evaporating entirely, thus releasing their hop smell only when poured, or, alternatively, are added after a beer has already been fermented, a technique called “dry-hopping”.

When I started looking at the different varieties of hops, Joe pointed me first to Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale, which, he says, “has that distinctive Cascade taste.” Cascade hops are easily the most popular variety in the United States. It’s a “dual-purpose” hop, which means it adds both bitterness and a strong, spicy, distinctively floral aroma. It was developed by the USDA breeding program in Oregon in 1956 and release to the public in 1972 (check out the official designation). I wonder how the American beer scene would be different if Cascade had never been created? Would all of us west coast beer drinkers still be known throughout the world as hopheads?

Other than Sierra Nevada, it’s difficult to point to a beer that showcases Cascade as well. Although it’s used in many, many America pale ales, it’s often used as a part of a blend, usually with Centennial or Chinook hops, making it difficult to pick out which flavors each one specifically imparts. Try Deschutes’ Inversion IPA, Bear Republic’s Racer 5, or Elysian’s The Wise ESB.

Hops at The Bistro

Centennial, the other big U.S. hop variety, is often called “super-Cascade.” Although it doesn’t have the distinctive citrus & spice smell, I get the impression that it is used as a less-distinctive but even stronger dual purpose hop. Gives a good floral aroma and possibly a better balance of flavor. Check out Elysian’s The Immortal IPA and Stone’s Ruination IPA.

What’s next? Ah, the Nobles. The Noble hops are Hallertau, Tettnanger, Spalt, and Saaz, and they all have, well, basically an AOC (or DOP, or whatever, depending on which country you are in). What I mean is that you can only call them a Noble hop if it is grown in one of those four regions for which each of the hops are named–the first three are in Germany and Saaz is in the Czech Republic. Think of it like Bordeaux or Parmesan-Reggiano. They too are all considered mainly aroma hops and have low bitterness levels. You can taste them in traditional European pilsners and marzens.

For an American example, give Sam Adams Noble Pils a try (as a side note, Sam Adams must rank as one of the worst brewery websites ever–it has all these horrible bottle scrolling things that make me dizzy….anyways) which is “brewed with all five Noble hop varieties.” We tried it at the Fancy Food Show and enjoyed it quite a lot. Although many sources note that Fuggle and East Kent Goldings, two British hop varieties, are considered closely related to the Nobles, this is the only place I see a fifth hop (Hersbrucker) listed as being Noble. Perhaps Sam Adams had a nobility complex.

It’s the aroma hops that get all the attention, as you can see, because those are the ones you notice right away, before your beer even hits your tongue. Even then, taste is really most smell, right? However, popular bittering hops included Simcoe and Columbus in the U.S., noted for their “clean” bittering. They seem to be prized for how well they work WITH the more flashy aroma hops–kind of like sidekicks that do all the real work. Brewer’s Gold and Nuggest are two other popular ones. They, like many bittering hops, are often noted for their “resiny” and “floral” tastes–this is where those pine tree flavors you often get in lighter beer comes from.

Are there any beers you have noted not just for their general hoppiness, but for a very specific hop variety flavor? Let us know so I can add them to the list of beers to taste and analyze.

For a more extensive list of hop varieties, check out Beer Advocate’s list which gives you tasting notes and acid levels for each variety.

Tags: The Basics

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Joe Ruvel // Feb 24, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    What a great article co-writer! I did not know that a noble hop had restrictions like an AOC.

    A cool trend that we should try some beers from is single hop beers. Really get a feel for what a hop has as far as characteristics.

    Mikkeller has a good series – here is one from it:


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