Hops: The Backbone of the Brewing Process

Guest Post by Sara Bean - littlebeergirlbigworld.com

You call yourself a beer drinker…well then have you heard of hops?  Hops are the female flower clusters of the plant humulus lupus.  A not so distant cousin of cannabis, this perennial vining plant thrives in climates and growing conditions similar to that of grapes. Hops are the age old seasoning for beer. Originally cultivated in the eighth or ninth century in the bohemian gardens of Bavaria, they were first used as a flavoring agent in beer to add a bitterness and tanginess to counter the sweetness of the malts.  Hops are also credited with adding stability to the fermenting brew.  The addition of hops aides in preventing spoilage, acts as a natural filter and provides some head retention – which is essential in experiencing the enjoyable aroma of a beer.  Particular hop varieties are associated with beer regions and styles. North American beers often use hops that are uniquely grown exclusively in the United States.  Cascade, Columbus, Chinook, Centennial, Willamette, Amarillo and Simcoe hops are just a few of these American flavors.  Hops in the U.S. are typically grown in the summer months. They are most commonly cultivated in California and the Pacific Northwest.  The growing of hops is a very labor intensive process.  The hops plant is a vigorous climbing plant that is usually trained to grow up strings in a field, much like the vines of grapes for wine. Once harvested, hops are usually dried before they are used in the brewing process.  Hops are also locally viable, especially in wine country on the East End.  Some local farmers have integrated hop gardens into their farms within the past few years.  One local farmer associated with Greenport Harbor Brewery used some of his family’s East End farmland to cultivate his own local hops.  A labor of love and attention, it is possible for the local home brewer to trellis a few vines and erect a hop garden in their own backyard. Nothing would be better than your own home brew infused with a harvest of hops right from your own yard. 

In brewing, hops have been part of the standard recipe for beer for around 1.200 years.  Hops have been added to balance the sweetness of the malts used with varying degrees of bitterness and tang.  The level of bitterness of these brews is measured in units called IBU’s, or International Bitterness Units.  Each of the many different varieties add a unique variation of flavor and aroma.  These flavors are often described as using words like grassy, floral, citrus, spicy, piney, lemony and earthy.

Hops are usually added during the boil stage of the brewing process.  Bittering hops are boiled for a longer period of time, usually 60-90 minutes; while aromatic hops are typically added later to prevent the evaporation of the essential oils that carry the hop aroma – usually within the last 10 minutes of the boil.  While typically the hops would be dried before hand, “wet hopping” is a process of adding more resiny wetter hops to a brew right after harvest.  These hops can be added all at once or periodically depending upon the brew.  Each variation in this process is a decision that affects the style, flavor and aroma of the beer that is brewing. 

Hops are the backbone of the brewing process.