Proof Positive July 2005
The Joy of Hops
There is great diversity among the many types of lagers, ales, pale ales and pilsners—and multiplying that variety tenfold is what hops are all about.
In the romance department, wine has it all over beer. Really, the contest isn't even close.
Visit a winery in season and you get a poetic tableau of seemingly endless fields meticulously planted with rows of elegantly gnarled vines, or the frenetic buzz of a harvest in full swing, and all the sun-drenched colors and perfumed aromas that go with it. Visit a brewery and you get steaming tanks, copper-clad if you're lucky, white tiled floors and plenty of pipes and hoses.
There is, however, a more agrarian side to beer, one that can trade atmospheric clichés with the best of them. Because it is usually well removed from where the brewing actually takes place, however, it's one that none but the most dedicated beer aficionados ever gets to see. I speak of the hop farm.
Since hops global acceptance as an ingredient, the brewing world has seen the rise of numerous hoppy and bitter beer styles, such as pale ale, pilsner and India pale ale, the last originally brewed with extra hops to act as a preservative during the long ocean passage from Britain to India. But it took the maturing of the American craft brewing movement to truly push the proverbial hop envelope, and over the past decade or so, experimental brewers from across the United States have created super-hoppy, "extreme" beer styles heretofore unseen, like the double India pale ale, also known as the I2PA, Imperial pilsner and American barley wine.
The problem with these "hop bombs" is that a delicate balance must be struck between the forceful bitterness, typically elevated alcohol content, and malty backbone upon which all this intensity must rest. Miscalculate and your beer can easily turn into what the industry disparagingly refers to as "hop juice." Hit your proportions exactly and you have a wealth of satisfying flavors and aromas, as seen in the beers listed below:
Alpha King Pale Ale (Three Floyds Brewing Company, Munster, IN). One of the earliest craft brews to trumpet its hoppiness on the label, this pale ale has a strongly citrusy, quenching character, the result of generous additions of American hops.
Arrogant Bastard (Stone Brewing Company, San Diego, CA). As unlikely a candidate as it is, this aggressively hoppy, 7.2% alcohol ale has become the flagship of the Stone brewery. Not bad for a beer that taunts drinkers with the tagline, "You Are Not Worthy!"
Morimoto Imperial Pilsner (Rogue Ales, Newport, OR). Conceived as a one-off for the 1999 Oregon Brewers Festival, this well-hopped, 8.8% alcohol lager offers a forceful yet, curiously for a beer of its strength, almost refreshing character.
90 Minute IPA (Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Milton, DE). Dogfish Head owner Sam Calagione invented a machine to feed a continuous stream of hops into his brews during the entire length of the boil, resulting in 60, 90 and 120 Minute IPAs. Of the three, this strikes the best balance between fruity malt and bitter hop.
Pliny the Elder (Russian River Brewing Company, Santa Rosa, CA). Widely considered the father of the I2PA, Vinnie Cilurzo brews his superbly balanced double IPA with exactly twice the amount of hops he uses in his regular India pale ale, plus 40% more malt. Only available on tap.
With single-season growth spurts taking the hop plant from a shoot to up to 25 feet in height, it is the well-fed adolescent of the botanical world, and several hundred such plants canopied together makes for an impressive sight. Expand this scene over acres upon acres of land, since, like vineyards, hop fields tend to be clustered together, and you have one astonishing vista.
Such breathtaking panoramas may be enjoyed the world over, almost anywhere beer is traditionally the beverage of choice: In Germany, a drive north from the biergartens of Munich to the Schneider & Sohn brewery in Kelheim will take you past the hop farms of Hallertau. College kids in Britain once earned their summer pocket money by harvesting hops in Kent, southeast of London, although mechanization leaves few such jobs today. A triennial festival still celebrates the glories of the hop in the northern Belgian town of Poperinge, the party falling this year on the third weekend of September. In the Yakima Valley of Washington State, which is near the northwest brewing capitals of Portland and Seattle, the American Hop Museum anchors the continent's richest hop growing region.
So what is a hop? Simply, it is the flower of the vine humulus lupulus, the "wolf plant." Similar in appearance to a diminutive, green pinecone, only the flower of the female plant is employed in brewing, the hop's principal vocation.
While the overwhelming majority of the world's beers today contain hops in one form or another—modern brewers have the choice of dried cones, pellets or extract—the popularity of the hop was not immediately universal. Indeed, their widespread use did not reach Britain until well into the 15th century, and even then such hoppy elixirs were deplored as mere "beer," while only the more traditional and revered, unhopped British brews could be called "ales." Still, despite the Empire's best efforts, hops were ubiquitous in brewing throughout the world by the time the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
Only the most experimental of brewers would today consider creating a beer devoid of hops. In virtually every brewkettle in virtually every brewery across the globe, hops added near the start of the brewing process will add bitterness to the resulting beer, while those added near the end will contribute aroma and more nuanced flavors. Thanks to advances in modern brewing techniques, filtration and, in some cases, pasteurization, the preservative quality of the hop is irrelevant in all but a handful of the world's beers. The questions brewers must face, however, are which of the dozens upon dozens of different hop varieties to use, and in what amounts. Strains such as the U.S.-grown Cascade or Amarillo, for example, will typically contribute citrusy or, when employed in sufficient quantity, grapefruity qualities to a beer, and are thus better suited to ales. Czech Saaz hops, on the other hand, are notoriously floral in character and perform well in Bohemian pilsners and other varieties of pale lager. Select the wrong kind of hop, or use too much or too little, and a brewer can easily end up with a beer that is unbalanced, conflicted or just plain unpalatable.
In this regard, hops can be viewed as the spice of beer. Incidental to the complex process that converts raw grain into a bubbly, alcoholic brew, irrelevant to the color and strength of an ale or lager, they are nevertheless as vital to the flavors we identify as beer as cinnamon and sugar are to apple pie. Remove them from even the most lightly hopped brand and their absence will be immediately and distinctly apparent.
Include them in judicious amounts, on the other hand, and a light tasting beer develops body, a malty ale is saved from a cloying fate, and a well-hopped brew becomes a quenching, satisfying delight. In other words, beer becomes what it's meant to be.