Hops are one one of the crucial ingredients in any beer brew. However, many people don’t fully understand what exactly they do, or how to use them best. Better understanding the role these ingredients play can help you really appreciate them, especially if you brew yourself…
Hops: What Role They Play
The plant itself
Hops themselves are a just the cone-shaped flowers of the plant Humulus lupulus. In fact, these plants are cousins of the cannabis plant (without any of the THC, of course). These plants tend to grow the best in moist, temperate climates where they can freely climb up trellises or other similar stakes.
Due to the special climate required to grow them, most of the plant’s production occurs in Europe, near the 48th parallel line. Germany, for instance, produced around 39,000 tons in 2017. However, the U.S. has become the largest single producer, producing over 44,000 tons that same year.
Usage in beer
Beer brewers didn’t always use hops as a beer ingredient. While we consider them essential aspects of any brew nowadays, in the past they weren’t even considered to be essential. Instead, brewers used something called “gruit” for extra flavor, which was a combination of different herbs and spices.
However, in the Middle Ages, hops began to become more commonplace in brews. Brewers found that these plants added an unique bitterness to the beer’s flavor, as well as new aromas. This is due to the “alpha” acids in the plant, which they release when they are boiled during the brewing process.
These days, modern brewers have evolved their usage of hops considerably. For instance, they might use “dry hopping”, which is when they add them in during the beer’s fermenting stage. They may also might make “fresh hopped” beers, which use recently-picked hops rather than dried-out versions. It all depends on what kind of style they have in mind.
A good way to taste how brewers use this ingredient differently is by trying regional beer variants, specifically East Coast vs. West Coast IPAs. East Coast IPAs tend to be more balanced in terms of bitterness and malt. Meanwhile, West Coast IPAs tend to be very hoppy, and as a result, pretty bitter in taste.