I hear every time I am in a bar. Someone orders a beer, but says, “nothing too hoppy”. Really, what does that mean and what are hops?
Hops – what are they?
I think they look like little green pinecones, but that doesn’t answer the question of what are they. They are
a plant … an ingredient… used in beer, is the quick answer. These plants are full of alpha acids which are the primary bittering agent used in brewing beer. Coincidentally, they served as a preservative for the beer too.
Hops are used in varying degrees, depending upon the style of beer. Obviously in an IPA, hops are centerstage. While in a stout, they take a backseat. So, we know they are a plant used to flavor beer…. so?
Just like grapes used in wine, there are many, many types of hops. But, you can narrow them down to three categories.
- Noble – These are traditionally from Germany and the Czech Republic. They have low alpha acid levels which help to give pilsners and lagers their flavor profile. Remember these are light, crisp with very little bitterness.
- American – From America and the number one in this category is the cascade. The cascade hop is bold, bright with highly aromatic citrus and pine notes.
- English – Yep… from England. These hops are more delicate and mild with notes of earth, molasses, herbs, spice and wood. This is what gives British Ales its flavor.
How are hops used in brewing?
Brewing beer involves a few steps. I am not going to spend a lot of time on the beer making process, but here is a brief overview. Hops are introduced after mashing. Mashing is when the grains are steeped in hot water to activate the malt enzymes and convert the starches to sugars. This process creates what’s called; wort.
Wort is boiled and then fermented, which makes … well, beer. Hops are added at this stage either at the beginning, middle or end. Depending on when the hops are added, will determine the flavor profile of the beer. If added at the beginning, then the hops will be boiled much longer which develops the bittering. If added towards the middle, then the hops will provide less bitterness and more of the flavor of the hop. Added at the end, the hops will give the mixture a great aroma. If hops are added to the fermenter that is what is known as dry hopped.
There are basically four ingredients to go into brewing beer. The three main ones are:
- malted barley
These three ingredients alone would create a very sweet product, so hops are added to round out the flavor and reduce the sweetness. During the 15th century is when hops were added to the brewing processes.
When Americans began to brew craft beer, they made hops have the starring role in their brews. This led to very hop heavy beers such as the Double or “Imperial” IPAs.
Aren’t all craft beers hoppy?
See, there seems to be a notion that all craft beers are hoppy. I guess it goes back to one of the first craft beers on the American market, Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale. It was a very hoppy beer and in 1980 it was a revelation. The brewer used cascade hops, and a lot of them at that. This gave the beer a big bitter bite offset by a sweet grapefruit scent and spicy aftertaste.
So, back to the order of “just something not too hoppy”, may make some sense, but how do you ensure you are getting what you want?
It’s all about the IBU
First off, know some basics about beer styles you like. I, myself, love lagers. They are light, crisp and usually with very little bitterness. They rank very low on what’s call the IBU scale (International Bitterness Units). This scale measures the amount of “stuff” in the beer that would make it bitter. In theory, the lower the IBU the less bitter the beer. I say in theory, because, I have had some beers high up on the IBU scale that are far less bitter than ones lower on the scale.
Anyway, back to styles. Know the basic styles of beer you like. Like I said, I like lagers, pilsners, porters and stouts; usually. Ones I don’t like? Pale Ales and its hoppier cousin, the India Pale Ale. These rank higher on the IBU scale.
Hops can make beers bitter or they can make beers aromatic. It really depends on when the hops were added and the kind of hops used. At the beginning then the beer will be much more bitter than when the hops are added at the end. Keep in mind, all beers have a hop or two added. It boils down to the type and when it is added in the brewing process.
When you go out to a brewery or tap room, choose a beer based on a style you know you like. But, don’t be afraid to try something new. Most places will let you try a sample before you commit to a full glass. Check out the IBU scale and remember most people can’t taste anything above 60. I try to stick to beers under 30, but on occasion and flirted with some in the upper 30 range.
(credit: slate.com, vinepair.com, allaboutbeer.com, kegworks.com)