Brewing with the Aurochs: Hops, An I-B-UUUUtiful Ingredient

Next time you’re enjoying a beer at your neighborhood bar, turn to the person next to you and ask them what ingredients are used to make beer. Some might say malt or water, occasionally someone will say yeast but almost everyone will say hops.

Why is that?  What are hops?  Why are they such an important part of the beer I drink? What does the title of this post mean? Is it supposed to be funny?

Glad you asked.

Hops are the cool kids at lunch and, just like Hansel, they’re so hot right now. They are popular for the strong aromas and desired bitterness featured in very hoppy beers like American IPAs.  However, hops aren’t only found in IPAs and bitter, aromatic beer styles. Hops, a perennial flower that grows on tall vines, are an essential element to balance flavor, provide aroma, and add preservative properties to the beer. And in case you’re wondering, yes–hops are naturally gluten-free.

Like most plants, hops gain a lot of their personality from the region in which they are grown. They are best grown in temperate climates–the most notable hop growing regions are in Germany and Washington state (until recently…check out some local hops right here in Pittsburgh at The Hop Project.) Hops can be fruity, spicy, herbal or minty depending on the variety and the soil. There are over a 100 different varieties of hops including Fuggles, Chinook, Hallertau, Cascade and Saaz.

Hops cones

Hop cones (flickr/david.nikonvscanon)

The cones (the little leaf-looking things pictured above) contain lupulin which has residue and oils that contribute to the taste and smell of the beer when they are added to the boil. To maximize their usefulness and effectiveness, hops must be picked fresh and then dried just the right amount, not too moist but not too dry. When brewing, you can use the whole hop flower or the pelletized form as both are common practice. Boiling hops extract the alpha acids, which provide the bitterness to balance out the residual sugar left unfermented by the yeast.

When added to the boil, the alpha acids in hops that provide the bitterness, coexist with the sugary wort to create a more balanced flavor. Too much residual sugar leaves your beer overly sweet and undrinkable and decreases the extraction of the alpha acids. This can be countered to some extent by adding additional hops to the boil or letting the hops boil for longer. The residual sugar is impacted by many things including the brewing process, malt bill, and attenuation of the yeast.

Hops that are added earlier in the boil provide a much needed bitterness. Hops added later in the boil contribute to the remarkable aroma of the beer. Adding a lot of hops at the end of the boil or after fermentation, a practice known as dry hopping, makes the aroma more pungent.

The hoppiness of a beer is measured in IBUs, or International Bitterness Units. Coincidentally, ex-girlfriends are measured by a similar metric. IBUs measure the parts per million of the alpha acids that give your beer that bitter flavor. The IBUs are proportional to the amount of alpha acids extracted during the boil, which is derived from the hop variety, the weight of the hops and the length of time that the hops are in the boil. IBU measurements range from as low as 5 IBUs to 100 IBUs. For example, Hefeweizens tend to have lower IBUs (around 10) compared to very bitter India Pale Ales (above 60). Brown Ales would typically to fall somewhere in the middle.  Although IBU is the official measurement for a beer’s bitterness, don’t always assume a high IBU means a very bitter beer.  Sometimes a style can have a high IBU but an overly bitter taste is neutralized by more residual sugar.

So, what do you think? Are you a fan of hoppy beers? Was our title as funny as we thought it was? Let us know by posting a comment below…