Posted on June 17th, 2009
If you’re like most people in America you probably know that hops are a major ingredient in beer, but that’s probably all you know. So what the hell are hops? You’re about to find out.
Hops are a vine-like plant known as Humulus lupulus (technically a ‘bine’ which I’ve never heard of either.) Hops happen to be a close cousin to cannabis, but I wouldn’t recommend trying to smoke them. The female variety of the plant produces small, green pine cone kinda things.
These hop cones produce a powder called lupulin, which contain certain acids which provide much needed flavor and balance to beer. In beer’s 4000 year history hops are a relatively recent invention, having only been used significantly for maybe the last 500 years. Prior to hops people used all sorts of spices and fruits to balance beer’s flavor but nothing has the flavor versatility and variety as hops.They also act as a natural preservative, something important in the days before sanitation as we know it.
In fact the IPA (or India Pale Ale) was born out of this unique quality of hops. During the British occupation of India brewers in England would overload their beers with hops to preserve them for the long ship ride to India. The folks in England took a shinning to the style too and the IPA was born.
Much like wine grapes, the flavor and aroma of hops vary considerably based on where they are grown and frequently a country’s beer style is strongly related to the hops that are native to it. The strong, citrusy hops which grow on America’s West Coast gave rise to the area’s intensely hoppy IPAs and Double IPAs. Regardless of where a hop is from though it can be counted on to give beer some spice and balance out the sweetness of the malt.
Of course some places are too cold to grow hops, like Scotland, and this is reflected in their beer style as well. Scottish ales are famous for their sweet and malty qualities, a result of the lack of hops available for brewing in the area. Try a Belhaven next time you’re out to get a taste of Scottish flavor.
The hoppiness of a beer is measured in IBUs or International Bitterness Units.
This is of course just a brief overview of how IBU varies by style; there are plenty of exceptions to these guidelines, but it should give you a good idea of how relatively hoppy your favorite beer may or may not be.