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Hops, Hops Plant, and Beer Hops

July 26, 2014 by Rick Morris

Understanding How Hops are used in Home Brewing: Beer Hops

So what's all this talk about beer hops?  I realize hops are used in beer, but where?  What functions do hops play in the flavors or smells of a typical beer?  Can the hops plant really grow to 25 feet?  Can I grow my own hops for use in my home brewed beer?  What is a hops rhizome?

A photo of a hops plant field.

These are some of the first questions I asked when I started learning more about hops.  I wanted to know everything there is to know about the mysterious hops plant.  The best way I know how to do that?  Start growing hops.  I brewed beer at home years ago.  But, these past two years have been the most serious parts of my home brewing "career".  So yes, some do question why I jumped right into growing my own hops so early in my quest for the best beer I can brew.

In just a few short months, my knowledge has grown from systematically tossing the provided hop pellets into my brew at the allocated times, to a small garden of 24 plants consisting of 10 varieties of hops.  I have truly discovered the basics of hops in that short time.  Though I am by no means a hops expert, I can offer you a look at the commonly used hops, and the aromas and flavors they apply to beer.

Hops are seed cones (strobiles) of the humulus lupulus, or hops plant.  As you know, hops are used primarily in the beer brewing process.  They impart certain flavors and aromas in the beer, mostly bitter in flavor.  Only the female hops plant produces the seed cone (flower).  Hops also provide a certain level of anti-bacterial characteristics and preservation elements in beer - something the English discovered in keeping their beer fresh en-route to colonists in India 300 years ago.  This is where the term "India Pale Ale" or "IPA" originates.

A Tettnang hops plant as it appears early in the year, in a container.Hops needs a certain environment in which to grow, preferably in rich flood plains.

Though the first time hops were used in bittering beer goes back 1,500 years, it wasn't until the eleventh century that the hops were tossed in the brew for the purpose of adding additional flavors to the beer.  Prior to that time, generally any herb or flower was utilized.

In addition to providing a certain level of bitterness and aromas, one of the chief goals of hops is to balance the sweet, malty beer. 

There are two types of acids in the hop resins: alpha and beta.  Alpha acids provide the bittering and antibiotic properties of the beer.  They are boiled for an hour to an hour and half so as to completely isomerize the bittering agents.  Beta acids provide the aromas and are added near the end of the boil, so as to prevent their aromatic compounds from evaporating during the boil.  These aroma hops are sometimes added after the wort has cooled and even during fermentation.  This is a practice known as "dry-hopping", and really gives off pleasant aromas in the finished beer.

What flavors or aromas can be found in hops?  Piney, citrus, lemon, grapefruit, floral, grassy, spicy, and earthy are all desirable in beer, and come from the incredible hops plant.  There are several dozen types of beer hops.

It's the European varieties that are called "noble" hops.  They are typically low in bitterness and high in aromas.  Included are hops from European regions such as Saaz, Tettnanger, Hallertau, and Spalt.  Noble hops are used primarily in Oktoberfest, Pilsener, and Dunkel lagers.  Look for Goldings, East Kent Goldings, and Fuggle noble varieties in England. 

An image of a hops plant as it appears on a string system in the hop yard.The hops plant is typically trained to grow up a string to heights of 20 to 25 feet - and they do just that!  This plant grows faster than most bean plants.  The hops plant is from China, originally.  It spread around the world in both directions, with the first proven hop field growing in the Hallertau area of today's Germany, back in the year 736.  It wasn't for another 350 years before the hops were being used in beer, however.

The hops plant were being imported from Holland's old country into Britain by the 13th century.  And, it was the superstitious Englanders who pronounced the wickedness of the hops plant.  Accordingly, in 1519 hops were condemned in the country. 

Five years later, hops were being grown in the Southern part of England, near Kent, thanks to the Dutch.  This is where we get all the Dutch words concerning hops (eest huis, schop, scuppet, etc.)  Appropriately, it was the Dutch who brought the hops plant to America, in the 1630s, where farmers grew the plant for brewing, probably on Statan Island and Manhattan.

Today, Germany leads the world in the production of hops, followed closely by the United States.  China and Czech Republic produce about half as much hops as the U.S.  Other countries who grow the hops plant include Poland, Slovenia, North Korea, UK, Albania, Australia, and New Zealand.

After harvesting, hops are dried in an "oast house".  This is basically a kiln, consisting of several levels in which the hops are spread upon.  A wood-fired kiln is situated on the lower level.  The heat rises through the perforated floors where the hops are spread, drying them.  They are then moved outside for cooling, and then bagged for a trip to the brewery...


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