Beer Hops: All You Need to Know

by Karl Updated on August 29, 2019

Records indicate that the first man to have had beer lived around 9,000 years ago. Curiously though, it’s not been long since people started using hops as a preservative for beers, or for adding aroma and flavor.

Today, not using hops for the beer is unthinkable. It not only conserves the freshness of the product but also improves the beer taste. Your favorite drink is sure to smell different.

This article will run over everything that you may not know about hops and their relationship with beer.

It’s time to learn new things about one of the essential ingredients for homebrewing!

A Guide to Understanding Beer Hops

What are beer hops? 

Hops come from the female hop plant, also called Humulus Lupulus. They have the shape of a green pine cone hanging upside down. They are the flowers of this particular plant. Curious fact: the hop plant is not a vine. It is a bine, which means that the plant doesn’t climb using tendrils but its shoots.

The brewers utilise the oils and resins contained inside of these flowers for the mix. You must peel back the leaves of the flower to get to the yellow lupulin glands. In those glands is where you can find the compound to add to the beer.

There are many presentations in which hops can be found in the market. The most common is to see it in pellets, or dried flowers. Some use hop oils, and recently there has been developed as lupulin powder, known as “hop hash” or “hop crack”. 

Why do we need them?

The first time, brewers started to use hops on their brewing process was to preserve the beer for a longer time; in that time, there were few ways to preserve food. Refrigerators were not invented yet, so people had to find natural ways to keep food and beverages from getting spoiled. Most of them used different blends of herbs and oils, but none of them was efficient enough.

In France, some records place hops in the brewing process of beer in the 9th century. Germans also have records of starting to use it as preservatives on the 12th century, and it started expanding across Europe and the UK. The beer made before those times, without using hops, is called Gruit or Grut today.

Hops are also useful for giving unique aroma and flavor to the beer. It is bitter, and there are ways to measure the bitterness of a beer based on the hops. Depending on the places where it is cultivated, hops acquire a different taste and perfume; that is then transferred to the beer.

The bitter flavor of the hops works as a contrast to the sweetness of the malt. It gives various mixtures depending on the kind and qualities of the hops.

Where do we get them?

Hops need particular environments to grow. They grow best between 35 and 55 degrees of latitude parallel in both hemispheres. 

They seem to prefer specific conditions, like a flat terrain to grow. Also, they can be positively affected by cold winters and long summer days. It is better to find them shelter from the wind.

These conditions are not so common, so it’s more likely to find them in certain countries. The most significant fields are located in Germany, the Czech Republic, The United States and England. USA and Germany are three primary producers of the hops, and brewers tend to differentiate them as “new world” and “old world” respectively.

Although these are the most common places to grow and farm hop plants, they don’t need to be attended to spread and flourish. They are sturdy and durable, and they find a way to live through nature. There are wild hops plants in different places as Australia, where there is no production of hop farms.

How are hops used in beer?

When dealing with hops, you must divide them into two different categories. The bittering hops have high levels of alpha acid content. That quality is what gives more bitterness to the taste. But, it less refined when it comes to aroma and flavor.

To obtain the bitter compounds of hops to use it on the beers, you must boil the flowers. The level of bitterness depends on how much time do you cook the hops. The longer they simmer, the more you can extract.

The other category is the aroma hops. They have lower alpha acid content and are more like essential oils. This characteristic gives them a more unique and delicious taste. 

To take out the flavors and aromas of the hops, you must use the same process for obtaining essential oils. You must distillate the parts of the flower and cook it very carefully. If you take a long time, it will lose its distinctive properties.

There are some varieties of hops that have similar characteristics of both alpha acid and essential oils within them, giving a balanced blend of these properties.

You must not forget the primal use of the hops, which is as a preserver for the beer. Their antimicrobial capacities prevent the product spoiling too fast without having any means of refrigeration for its preservation. 

It doesn’t matter if we now have methods to conserve the beer in a better way, hops have become fundamental in the brewing process. It is hard to believe that it was not used since the beginning of beer brewing history.

The Chemistry of Hops and Beer

What is the hop harvest?

Hops have to be harvested in a specific time. A series of factors determine the correct harvesting season—for example, the cone maturity and the moisture content—also, the weather conditions and pest pressure during the growing process of the hops. The best time of the year to harvest the hops is during autumn, which would be late August and most of September. 

There have been scientific studies about the importance of harvesting dates on the qualities of the hops. A late harvest may be considered the best one, but it is proven that, in those harvest, the hops may lose part of their characteristic aroma. It also reduces their storage life. In late crops, the oxidation may accelerate; the volatile perfume of the hops is lost.

On the other hand, early harvesting reduces the flavor and can reduce the strength and yield of the future harvesting seasons. In regions with significant hop farms, they calculate the harvesting time when the cones reach 23 percent of dry matter. Depending on the variety of the hops and its environmental conditions, hop farmers figure a 1 percent of increment in the dry matter every four to seven days.

Some distinct changes on the hops will give a clue about whether is ready or not to be harvested. The flower goes from green to slightly yellow parchment texture. The lupulin glands also change from light yellow to a darker one, almost like orange. Make sure that the cones are not completely brown when harvesting.

Why do hops do taste so different?

As mentioned before, the different flavors and aromas from hops depend mainly from the places where they grow. Different weather conditions, soils, and grow treatment would affect in diverse ways the characteristics on the hops. 

Also, the timing of the harvesting may affect the flavor and aroma of the hops.

Another factor that is important about taste is the amount of alpha acids and essential oils inside each type of hops. Most of them have a difference in their compounds characteristics, but there are very few types of hops which have a balanced amount of these compounds. This makes them bitter and with a unique taste, without one opaquing the other.

The alpha acid is measured by weight, usually in the range of 2 to 19 percent. Europeans hop are more into flavor and aroma. Their hops are in a variety of 5 to 9 percent in alpha acid. Dual-compound hops are more common in Europe. Meanwhile, American hops varieties are higher in alpha acid levels, between 8 to 19 percent, which makes them more bitter.

Types of Hops

There are many varieties of hops, but they can be all concentrated in three types: Noble Hops, American Hops and English Hops.

The Noble Hops come from Germany and the Czech Republic, and they are considered the most classic types of hops. They include strains like Saaz and Tettnanger. These type of hops have low levels of alpha acid and comes with high levels of the aromatic essential oil humulene.

American Hops tend to be bolder and very aromatic. They have high levels of essential oil myrcene, which gives them a scent of pine and citrus. You can include the Cascade and Centennial strains in this particular type.

Lastly, English hops are more delicate and subtle. They have low levels of myrcene, which gives them touches of earth, woods, herbs, among others. In comparison with the Nobles Hops and American Hops, the English Hops represent a small amount of the species grown around the world, but they are essential for brewing their British ale.

Times of Hop Adition

Usually, the moment for the brewers to add the hops on the brew is after mashing. This is when the grain transforms from malt to wort, and you must start the process of boiling the product. 

When you boil the hops, you will initiate a process called isomerisation; it transforms the alpha acid into iso-alpha acids. This result is what gives bitterness to the mixture. The more you boil the hops, the bitter will be your beer. It is recommended to simmer not more than 45 minutes.

If you want to concentrate more on the flavor, you will have to reduce the time of boiling. Add the hops later into the process, and let them boil for at least 15 minutes and no more than 30.

Now, the essential oils for aroma are very delicate, so it is better to add them at the very end, and they should not boil for more than 5 minutes.

Some brewers even add them after the fermentation process. This practice is called dry hopping, and it involves soaking the hops inside the fermented mixture once it has cooled down. This method can take a few days or even weeks, and not everybody thinks it makes a difference.

For bitterness measurements, there is the International Bitterness Unit or IBU. Brewers should be familiarized with these measurements when working with alpha acids.

Usually, beer companies already have machinery that recognises the levels of bitterness inside the product, measured with exactitude. Use this IBU calculator for the homebrewers that wish to have a unique product that’s consistent.

Hops Actually Help Protect Your Liver

Here’s some exciting new science that helps us hoppy-beer lovers justify our passions with healthy rationale.

According to a new study that found that hops protect against the build up of hepatic fat, a good ol’ pale ale may improve our chances of keeping a healthy liver.

This may help to explain why folks who drink spirits tend to be more likely to develop liver disease than those who normally stick to the ambers.  It suggests that beers with more hops are probably the healthiest.  (Hop hop hooray!  Sorry bout that.  could.not.resist.)

The buildup of fat in the liver is one of the primary dangers of drinking alcohol, and often leads to fatty liver disease.

So researchers designed an experiment in which they fed mice either regular beer, beer without hops, or pure ethanol as an attempt to figure out which ingredients in beer affect the likelihood of developing such a condition.

Then twelve hours after feeding the mice their beers (lucky fellas), the team examined their livers.

They discovered that those that drank either ethanol or hop-less beer had similar amounts of fat in their livers, while those that had regular beer had much less fat.

Now, publishing their work in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, the team concludes that hops protect against the accumulation of liver fat, which they say partly explains why beer tends to bring about fewer negative health conditions than other alcoholic drinks.

Additionally, they discovered the livers of mice that drank regular beer suffered less damage as a result of a process called oxidative stress, which indicates that hops may also have an antioxidant effect.

Researchers aren’t exactly sure how hops functions as the liver-protector it is. They did discover that levels of an enzyme called inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS) were lower in the beer-fed mice than those fed on either ethanol or beer without hops. They thus suspect that this enzyme may somehow mediate the positive effects of hops on the liver.

Hop-heads rejoice!

Seems imperial IPAs are not only a delicious, but a healthy choice.  So says the internet!  And #Science!

Five things you didn’t know about beer hops.

1.- Male hop plants don’t produce the essential oils needed for giving  the unique flavor and aroma to the beer. This is why hops farms work only with the female plants.

2.- The hops are family of the same plant commonly known as Marijuana: the Cannabaceae. Because of this, it is understandable that the beers have a drooly effect if you drink too many of them. Not only it gives an unusual flavor and aroma to the beer, but it is also related to aid with sleep issues. In the countryside, it is common to put some hops under the pillow to have a pleasant rest.

3.- Romans used to eat the hops in salads, in a very similar way as you would eat asparagus these days. 

4.- You can give hops to chicken. They are suitable for their digestive system because they keep bacteria from entering into their intestines. However, hops are not ideal for cats and dogs. It can be poisonous for them, causing these pets high fevers and even death. So if you have pets on your house, make sure to keep the hops and your homebrew materials far away from their reach.

5.- There has always been a war between the difference between beer and ale. When hops started to become an essential ingredient in brewing, brewers began to call the hopped beers as “beer”, and the “ale” was the product that didn’t have hops on them. There were bans between some countrysides, where they forbade the use of hops for the brewing process. With the intervention of Henry VI, who enjoyed the hopped beer, the hops were added as essential to all homebrewing operation. It became the beginning of what we now know as the standard process for homebrewing.

Conclusion

Hops are an essential part of the homebrewing process. It began as a natural way to prevent bacteria from getting into the beer and spoiling it, acting as a preservative. But as knowledge and science advanced, there is more proof of the beneficial elements that they bring to the table.

Thanks to the hops, we have the perfect balance between the sweet malt extract and the bitterness they provide. It helps to improve the taste and add flavor and aroma depending on their place of origin. It makes every gallon unique. 

Their process and intervention in the homebrewing work are exceptionally delicate, and it has to be done carefully to appreciate its benefits fully.

There are many types of hops, even when the conditions for it to grow appropriately are particular; it makes it so that only a few countries can grow them. Still, there are a lot of variety in the market, that will add that special something you were missing on your homebrew.

The best you can do if you want to improve and get familiar with the different kinds of hops is obtaining a few samples of these products as pellets or dried flowers. Smell them to perceive their unique aroma, and when you feel you have the right one, add it to your brewing mix. There is no better way to know if something will be great, but trying!

Karl S: Lead marketer, brewer, dad, and husband. Pretty much an all-round awesome guy.