Bare-Bones Basics #2: Hops

Now, most beer drinkers know that beer has 4 things in it: Water, Grain, Hops, and Yeast. In our first Bare-Bones Basics dealing with one of these, we’re going to talk about the hops.

Hop flowers

Hop flowers

Hops are small green flowers (biologist-types will call them ‘strobiles’) that grow on the humulus, which is a vine-like plant. These flowers are harvested once a year in late summer. Since hops lose their bitterness easily, most often, they are ground up, dried, and frozen, until they are sent off to be put in beer. Often, especially for the homebrewer, the ground up hops are made into small ‘plugs’ or ‘pellets’ as seen below.

Paul holding a small bag of hop pellets.

Paul holding a small bag of hop pellets.

As many people know, hops are what give beer a bitter flavor or aroma. It is, however, not as Boston Beer Company says, where “Hops are to beer like grapes are to wine.” Hops provide no sugars to the wort. In fact, you can make beer without hops at all, though it may be a little sweet and/or bland. Flavor-wise, hops do two things, depending on when you add them to your wort.

When added before you are done boiling your wort, hops will make beer more bitter. Boiling hops releases the alpha acids in the flower. The alpha-acid content of hops is generally what you’ll see listed as the defining characteristic of different kinds of hops. Higher alpha-acid percentage means more bitterness per hop.

Adding the hops later, near the end of the boiling phase of the wort, will add aroma to the beer. Beta-acids are responsible for this effect. Beta-acids are more fragile and will boil away if you add them too soon. These can even be added after the wort is cooling. This is called ‘dry-hopping’.

Now, there are many hops that can be used with either technique, but some hops have stronger alpha-acids, and others have stronger beta-acids. Which hops are used all depends on what the brewer is trying to do.

Now last year, there was a bad crop of hops, which led to the prices increasing significantly. If you noticed your favorite craft brew going up a buck or two per six pack this last year, that’s why.

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