A Guide to Hops
Whatever a beer is made from, be it wheat or any one of a number of different grains, the brewing process will always include hops. Hops are what give the finished product it’s flavour and bitterness and it also acts as a stabilising agent.
Bavaria, in Germany, provides us with the first documented evidence of the use of hops for the above purpose in the brewing process and we can therefore date it to about the 11th century AD. We do know that hops were cultivated in Germany around three hundred years before this but not for any purposes related to beer. Before the 11th century beers were flavoured with a variety of herbs and flowers including dandelions and marigolds. A mixture of herbs known as Gruit was the most popular addition prior to the use of hops but even this varied from producer to producer.
“Wicked and Pernicious Weed”
The Dutch followed the German lead in the use of hops and by 1400 AD the British had begun to import and use Dutch hops in their own brewing industry. Hops were seen as an unwelcome addition in some quarters and the city of Norwich actually banned hops in 1471. Hops were famously described as a “wicked and pernicious weed” in 1519. Five years later however, the British began to grow their own hops. One hundred years later the United States began to produce their own.
Now it is a massively mechanised industry in those countries which are the major producers, but in the past huge numbers of seasonal workers have been required to harvest the crop. Kent, in England, has historically been a large hop producer and before the mechanization of the 1960s thousands of workers (including whole families) would descend on the county from the East End of London to pick the crop. Seasonal workers from Birmingham and the Midlands would head to Worcestershire.
Growing and Brewing
Hops are grown in hopfields and the plant itself is a climber which is usually trained to
grow up strings or frames. An oast house is used to dry the hop which then produces resins. The resins are made up of alpha and beta acids which have different properties. Alpha acids are what provide the finished product with it’s bitter taste but importantly they provide an antibiotic antidote to the bacteria in the brewing yeast.
Beta acids are not quite so useful but they do provide beer with it’s aroma, occasionally giving rise to the smell of rotten vegetables noticeable in some ales. Both acids are added to the mix in the process of boiling the wort and differences in tastes and aroma arise from the different times at which they are added.
Germany and the United States are the biggest producers of hops, check out the chart below for the twelve biggest producers:
Hops have very few other uses but users of herbal medicine may recognise it as a cure for insomnia or anxiety.