Beer lovers talk a lot about hops, but do you really know what they are and how they affect your favourite brews? We’ve answered your top questions about these little green cone-shaped powerhouses so you can confidently choose beers with hoppy flavours that suit your palate.
What are we waiting for? Let’s get hopping.
What are hops?
They’re flower buds! The plant they grow on (also called hops) is native to Europe and the Middle East, and centuries ago, it was used for dyeing paper and as a folk remedy for liver ailments. But let’s be honest — it will always be most famous for its beer-flavouring powers.
Hops are climbing plants. The part used in brewing is the seed cone, which is a component of the flower. It’s pretty similar in structure to a pine cone, but softer.
Why and how are hops used to brew beer?
Hops act as natural preservatives; that’s the original reason they were used in beer making. But brewers kept adding them even after the invention of refrigeration because they make beer taste great.
The essential oils in hops are responsible for a huge part of a brew’s flavours and aromas. They add scent and some bitterness — which gives beer its bite — while malted barley and other fermentable sugars contribute body and sweetness.
The cones are picked and then dried in what’s called an oast house or hop kiln. They’re usually added to the beer mixture while it’s boiling, early in the brewing process. However, some labels will state that a brew is dry-hopped, which means the hops have been added after boiling to retain more of their essential oils.
Hops are usually compressed into pellets for use in brewing, but some producers employ whole dried cones or extracts.
Where do they come from?
Hops are grown all over the world, generally in temperate climates between the 35th and 55th parallels (of either hemisphere). New Zealand, Germany, the United Kingdom and the Pacific Northwest of the United States are all major growing areas.
There’s a small but growing hops cultivation industry here in Ontario, and home gardeners are also trying their hands at raising this pretty climbing plant. If you have some space and the patience to cultivate your own vines, maybe it’s worth a try?
How long have hops been used in beer brewing?
A few centuries, give or take — hops have been added to beer since the Middle Ages. Before that, beers were flavoured with all sorts of herbs and spices (and you’ll still see spiced varieties on our shelves from time to time).
The use of hops spread outward from central Europe during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance period; beer made with hops gradually became more popular and eventually dominated the market. (Hopped beer started to take over English taverns during Shakespeare’s lifetime, although the Bard himself seems to have disapproved of the whole trend.)
What flavours and aromas do hops add to beer?
Hops are full of deliciously bitter, herb-like essential oils. These oils contain terpenes, or highly scented, naturally occurring chemicals that give many plants their distinctive flavours and aromas.
Like apples and grapes, hops come in a huge number of varieties, which means brewers can pick and choose the ones that will give a beer their desired flavours, such as citrus, herbs, tea, grass, tropical fruit and more.
Sometimes you’ll see the acronym IBU on a beer label or brewer’s website. It stands for International Bitterness Units — the higher the number, the more bitter the beer and the more hops it contains. Anything below 20 IBU is considered lightly hopped, while a beer with more than 50 IBUs is heavily hopped and noticeably bitter. Most beers fall somewhere in between.
What are some popular varieties of hops?
Hops are generally divided into two pretty self-explanatory categories: aromatic and bittering. Some, like Calypso, can be used to produce both effects.
There are hop strains that have been around for centuries — the wonderfully named Fuggle variety, for example, was bred in Victorian England. Others are brand new; hop breeders are releasing fresh ones every year.
Here are some of the names you’re likely to encounter.
- Saaz is a classic aromatic variety that originated in what is now the Czech Republic; it adds earthy spice to lagers.
- Goldings hops are grown in England and North America. Their fruit, honey, earth and spice flavours add distinctive character to British-style and other ales.
- Citra is a recently developed strain that’s often found in India pale ales and American pale ales. These hops can be used for bittering and adding aromas of tropical fruit and (as the name suggests) citrus fruit.
- Challenger is another variety that can be used to add bitterness or aromas; these hops find their way into a wide range of ale styles and lend hints of cedar, flowers and green tea.
- Warrior hops are an up-and-coming bittering variety gaining popularity among brewers; they add a subtle hint of citrus and pine resin, as well as punchy, puckery bitterness.
How do I know which hop varieties are in my beer?
Most labels don’t list the specific hops used, but brewer websites and beer review communities sometimes offer that information. If you’re curious about which type a particular beer contains, search online or call up the maker. The reverse is true, too: If you want to try a particular kind of hops, search online and you’ll likely find a brew that uses it and is available at The Beer Store. We have more than 800 brands waiting for you, after all!
How can I pair food with certain hops?
If you pay close attention to the flavours in your beer, you can pick up subtle suggestions for matching them with your favourite dishes. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
- The earthy, tea-like British hops (such as Fuggle and Goldings) in an English-style pale ale go well with savoury pies and vegetables.
- If you notice basil-like aromas in an American pale ale, try it with a tomato-based Italian dish.
- The tropical fruit flavours in a lot of IPAs come from the hops and help make these beers slam-dunk matches for Thai and other Southeast Asian cuisines.