Using Hops in Your Home Brew
Hops (humulus lupus) those papery, puffy cones of green, go into almost every conceivable beer in some way, shape, or form and if you are a homebrewer or simply a lover of good ales and lagers, you know how sensational the appetite for hop-forward beers has been in recent years.
Cultivated over two millennia for medicinal use prior to ever finding their way into a brewery, hops are now commanding greater demand than ever in brewing. Hop cones, pellets, cryogenically derived powders, and extracts can be sourced both locally and from away.
Hops were not the first herbal supplement to beer. In fact, gruit brewing (or beer brewing without hops) was the first true brew in Medieval times. The Catholic Church even saw a profitable advantage to enacting a gruit tax as a major force of revenue during these times. Use of hops as an agent of flavor in the beer excluded the brewers from such a tax and thus the resourcefulness (and hatred of undue taxation) slowly turned the tide to favor hop additions. It was soon found that hops possessed a preservative nature to beverages. And, while generally more bitter than the gruit, techniques to limit bitterness began to arise with experimentation. In 1516, Germany even put forth a law known as reinheitsgebot, or a purity law, that is still in force today. That is – beer must only be made using hops, water, yeast, and malt. No other ingredients were allowed in a German beer. Inherent in this limitation came the vast array of permutations regarding just how to put hops into your brew.
Hops in Maine have started seeing a sizeable uptick in production because of the demand. I caught up with Mike Barker owner and farmer of the Alna Hopyard in Alna, Maine recently during his delivery day of almost 200 pounds of wet (meaning fresh and undried) Cascade hops to Oxbow Brewery nearby. Alna Hopyard is a modest two acres of cultivated farmland, but it’s clear that the hopyard has made an impact on the locavore movement in both product and demand.
“Hops were produced here over a century ago, fell off, and then came back,” said Barker. “Brewing is a complicated process and getting the right characterization of hops is important.” One of the important aspects of brewing with hops is that the geographic area in which they’re grown. Location can impact the aromas, bittering capacity, and other elements of their use in beer. For instance, the hop named Fuggles (commonly found in British brewing that seeks earthy, spicier notes) when grown in Alna, evokes a kiwi fruit nose uncommon to the strain. Maine’s soil and environment didn’t get the memo that this wasn’t right, so the hops they use locally sometimes take some recalibration of brewing recipes.
According to Barker, the biggest strain on brewing with hops is capacity and supply-chain logistics. Some major IPAs brewed locally and year-round take serious hop doses to complete. For instance, the late-stage hop additions in some of Freeport’s Maine Beer Company’s hop-forward offerings can be hundreds of pounds per brew. The demand for consistent supply outstrips the available local market, and hops can take a few years or better to truly mature. “There are, by my last count, only 27 acres of land in Maine dedicated to hop production and some varieties of hops yield only 700-800 pounds of hops per acre,” noted Barker. It doesn’t take long for the math to show that these hops, harvested in the fall, are quickly scooped up by the market and organizing a regular supply-chain isn’t yet feasible. However, new hop yards are coming into the foreground across the state as people’s insatiable desire for floral, citrusy, or bitter beers persists. I would surmise that over time, Mainers will take back to the fields as we once did, but instead of potatoes or lumber, flowering plants become the hot commodity in the state.
Now, let’s talk about how to best coax hops’ better natures into your homebrew or at least better understand what is in your glass.
First, I recognize that not every homebrewer is a “hop head.” You may not all seek out the tart, citrusy notes in the nose, or the piney sharp element on the tongue, or even that bitter backbone in the throat. Some of my closest friends prefer rich, malt-forward ales and lagers without the bitter or citrusy qualities. Yet, even here, hops play an important role in preserving the beers you love best. The trick lies in two parts: understanding the strength and nature of the ingredient and timing.
Each varietal of hop has its own unique properties. The cones that we trim from their bines (not vines) contain acids and oils of differing amounts. Most commonly, brewers refer to the Alpha Acid (AA) of a hop, which is the general bittering agent. When we put hops into a beer during the boil phase of brewing, the heat extracts these acids and infuses the liquid with it. However, the longer the hops stay in a rolling boil, the more the boil drives away some of the oils and essential elements that give hops their aroma. We generally consider early additions of hops to be those that give the beer bitterness. Mid-stage additions can be said to grant more flavor to the beer, and late stage (near the end of the boil) almost universally gives the beer the nose and aromatics many of us love in something like an IPA.
If you’re interested in learning more about the use of these amazing flowers in your beers, or to simply add to your own education, I’d recommend “For the Love of Hops: The Practical Guide to Aroma, Bitterness, and the Culture of Hops” by Stan Hieronymus, or simply “How to Brew” by John Palmer. And, of course, I would always recommend dropping by your local homebrewing supply store for more personal advice.
— Text: Matthew Brown. Matthew is a Certified Beer Server, a member of the American Homebrewers Association, and recently studied brewing in Belgium. He lives and works in Portland.
— Photos: Courtesy of Alna Hopyard.