Beers’ seasoning. Hops are a crucial aspect of brewing. Depending when they’re added to the beer in the process, they act as a powerful preservative, add bitterness, aroma and contributes to the head of the finished product.
It may come as a surprise (considering how many beers are dominated by hops) that they weren’t always part of the original recipe for beer; originally, brewers used something called gruit, a mix of bitter herbs and wild flowers.
However, the use of hops added more than just a plethora of different flavours and aromas, they also were discovered to be a powerful natural preservative which prevented beer spoilage when being transported overseas, and they also contribute to the foaminess of the head on your beer. The bitterness and flavours profiles the hops add to your beers allow for an almost unlimited number of food pairings, and the all important "cut" that refreshes the mouth after each bite.
The characteristics of hops differ uniquely around the world based on the local terroir – just like wine grapes.
Classic British beers such as bitter, pale ale, stouts and porters have been traditionally hopped with hops grown in Europe. Hops that are grown in the UK (which make up 1.5% of world hop production) are at their best in Southern soils like Kent and Sussex. These hops are light and floral, with subtle citrus and zesty characteristics and impart a delicate herbal bitterness into British beers. Breweries in Europe started using hops roughly 300 years before it caught on in the UK – with Henry V referring to them at the “evil and pernicious weed”.
‘New World Hops’ is the name for hops grown in the Americas and New Zealand – and due to the large amount of sunshine they are exposed to are far more potent, with strong tropical fruit flavours that embody mangoes, pineapple, lemons, grapefruit and lime. American IPA’s are very much in fashion in the UK at the moment and are characterised by strong bitterness and a sharp, citrus aroma.
Hop bines owned by Hogsback Brewery, Farnham
Hops are grown on big bines that need to be re-strung every year, and a newly planted garden can take up to 5 years to become established and consistent. During the harvest in late summer, it is only the female plants that are stripped down and dried out ready for packing, the flowerless males are allowed to remain attached to the bines over the winter months.
The hop is actually the name of the flower that grows on these bines, but the magic of these plants lie in the resinous yellow powder at the heart of every cone (otherwise known as the Lupulin glands).
Close up of a hop cone showing the yellow pollen at Hogsback Brewery
To make the most out of this ingredient, hop merchants distribute hops that can be used in brewing in three forms:
The full and dried flowers – are usually added during the boil of the beer to contribute bitterness, however, as the pollen is exposed to air over time, the freshness is greatly reduced and they have a habit of making quite a mess as each tank will have to be scrubbed clean of the used petals
Pellets – the cones can be crushed down to form tightly packed pellets which make transportation and storage much easier, and the density of the packaging ensures the hops last longer
Essential oils – from hops is rather pricey, and usually only added in the final steps of the brewing process for aroma. It’s very potent, and can be stored for longer than the flowers and pellets
For such a crucial ingredient, only a tiny amount is needed to make a big difference. It takes as little as 1.8g to flavour a single pint of beer, though a beer like an IPA will have up to twice this much, and a mild has much, much less.
As the prices of hops steadily increases year on year, brewers are looking to guarantee their supply. Some brewers such as Hogsback in Farnham, Kent have purchased 3.5 acres of land, and use it to grow three varieties of hops: Fuggles, White Bine and a US variety called Cascade – this small patch of land can produce up to 1,500 kg of useable hops. Despite the UK exporting over 50% of it’s produce to the US, we still harvest 87,415 metric tonnes of hops year on year.