Beautiful hop fields near Watou, Belgium.
- Photo by Owen Ogletree -
|Brewtopia Events LLC
The Spice of Beer
By Owen Ogletree
Athens Magazine Beer Columnist
This article originally published in Owen Ogletree's ON TAP beer column in Athens Magazine.
Middle Ages were a difficult time for brewers. Grains had to be
dried over open fires and were often burned and girdled with
smoke. Brewing water was dirty and contaminated with
bacteria. Yeast had not been discovered, and beer fermentation
was often accomplished by the wild yeasts and bacteria in the air or on
the brewery’s old wooden stirring paddle. Worst of all, to
balance the sweet (or oftentimes sour) nature of beer, brewers would
add a staggering array of peculiar vegetables, spices, herbs and even
hay. Beer drinkers of the time never knew what they were going to
About 400 years ago a huge leap in beer brewing occurred – some lucky, desperate brewer decided to add hops to his boiling kettle. Hops (scientifically known as Humulus lupulus) are vines that grow wild all across Europe and produce fragrant flower cones full of spicy, bitter, sticky resins. When the cones are boiled in wort (unfermented beer) for an hour or more, the resins produce a delightful bitterness that is a perfect counterpoint to barley malt sweetness. If the brewer tossed in hops a few minutes before the end of the boil, then an agreeable, floral flavor and aroma emerged in the beer. Dried hops added directly to the beer’s serving barrel (in a process known as dry-hopping) adds an even greater depth of floral aromatics.
The blessed brewers then quickly noticed that hopped beers resisted souring and stayed fresh for a much longer time. This is due to the antibacterial and antioxidant qualities of the miraculous hop resins. Despite all this, some old-school brewers of the time denounced the hop as an invasive weed filled with vile toxins that should never be added to the brew. But the multitudinous merits of hops in beer soon won over the non-believers, and a new brewing tradition was born. In 1516 Germany went so far as to enact Europe’s first written law protecting consumers – the famous Reinheitsgebot dictated that German beer should contain only three ingredients – water, malt and hops (again, brewers were still in the dark about yeast).
Hops grace almost every beer made today, and 98% of all hops are grown in five countries – England, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic and the United States. These nations produce hops with characteristic sets of notable flavors and aromas. Hops from the U.K. impart a woody, tea-like note to English ales. Belgian, German and Czech varieties bless their brews with delicate flavors and aromas of flowers. Most American hops are raised in the states of Oregon and Washington and confer distinctive overtones of pine and citrus to American ales.
Hop varieties do have personalities – much like the various beer styles that they accompany. Beers with light hop usage are often called “malty,” as their main flavor profiles are produced by sugars in the barley malt. In contrast, “hoppy” beers pack a big hop bitterness, flavor and/or aroma that often dominate the malt background. Hoppy beers are very much an acquired taste for most new beer drinkers, and it often takes years of tasting to begin to appreciate a fully hopped, bitter ale. Beer lovers who have been smitten with hop love are called “hop heads,” but for those still in hop appreciation training, here are a few beers to sample…