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.
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.