The beer hops is a fascinating plant that deserves more than a general article. La history of beer is intimately linked to the history of hops, which - over the centuries - has been able to play a leading role in making its taste unique and recognisable to both sommeliers and less experienced palates.

Beer hops: etymology and history

The name hop was coined by Pliny the Elder (29 - 79 A.D.) who compared this climbing plant to a wolf that is harmful to the tree. Although beer has been brewed for thousands of years, the use of hops as an ingredient is less ancient. The first documented evidence of the use of hops in brewing in Europe, specifically in Bavaria, dates back to 736 A.D. with certainty, although it is likely that the sporadic use of hops may have been earlier. What is certain is that before this it was more common to flavour beer with rosemary, myrtle and other plants. In particular, before the introduction of hops, beers were flavoured and stored with a mixture of herbs and spices called gruit.

In the Middle Ages, the use of hops for beer also became more widespread in Europe as this offered several advantages over gruit, including better preservation of the beer and a more pleasant and standardised flavour.

In 1516, the famous Reinheitsgebot (Beer Purity Law) was enacted in German Bavaria and limited the ingredients of beer to just water, barley malt and hops, thus excluding other additives used until then. This emphasised the importance of hops and influenced beer production in other regions as well. Century after century, also due to increasing demand, the cultivation of hops became more and more sophisticated. Specific hop varieties were thus selected and cultivated for their unique characteristics, leading to a diversity of flavours and aromas in beer. During the Industrial Revolution, there were significant advances in the cultivation and use of hops, but above all it was the storage of hops that improved with the introduction of techniques such as hot drying and baling. Around 1970, so-called craft beers were born and became widespread and this led to a renewed interest (which continues to this day) in its use to the extent that new varieties with intense and characteristic aroma profiles were developed.

The hop plant for beer

Hops (Humulus lupulus L.,  Cannabaceae family) is a herbaceous perennial, broad-leaved, deciduous plant with a branched rhizome from which slender, climbing stems of up to 10 m in length sprout. The hop plant can live from 10 to 20 years, depending on the geographical area in which it grows, and develops both male and female flowers depending on the amount of light it receives. So in hop gardens, depending on the exposure, you will have plants with female flowers or plants with male flowers. Male flowers are more beautiful and increase the yield. The unfertilised female flowers, rich in lupulin, a yellowish resinous and bitter substance secreted by their numerous glands, give a purer aroma.

Beer hops

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Hops for beer: organoleptic characteristics

There are many varieties of hops and each one gives the beer a different taste. The most prized ones are: Fuggle, Cascade, Tettnang, Spalt and Saaz. The cheapest are: Northern Brewer, Brewers Gold and Hallertau Magnum. After the flowers are harvested, they are immediately dried in order to have a moisture content below 14%. Hops can be added a cooked (to the boiling wort) or uncooked (to the maturing beer) to obtain different aromas. If whole flowers are used, they are enriched with resins, tannins and essential oils. In particular:

  • resinshops contain approximately 15-20% of resins. They impart bitterness, improve foam stability and act as antimicrobials due to their antiseptic properties.
  • tanninsThey coagulate proteins and facilitate clarification.
  • essential oilshops are classified into bittering and flavouring hops, although in reality all hops perform both functions. Some varieties, e.g. Saaz, have a very high essential oil composition and are therefore considered aromatic hops. The essential oils, responsible for the aroma, make up 0.5-3% of the hops and are represented by more than 200 compounds, some of which have very low concentrations. Essential oils can be divided into hydrocarbons (75%) and oxygenated compounds (25%). They enrich the aroma with complex notes.

How are hops used for beer?

Hops are mainly used in the form of pallets and extracts, while some microbreweries and brew-pubs use the pressed and dried flower. The use of derivatives stems from their greater ease of use, better shelf life, smaller volume and the resulting lower transport costs. Hop pallets are small cylinders measuring 1.0 x 0.5 cm made from the dried flowers, first pulverised then pressed and extruded. Commercially available pallets are Type 100, Type 90 and Type 45. From 100 kg of pressed and dried hop flowers, 100, 90 or 45 kg of powders containing all the active ingredients (resins, tannins and essential oils) are obtained. For the same volume, Type 45 pallets have twice as much active ingredient content as Type 90.

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Hop types

  • AmarilloOriginating in the USA, this hop is famous for its intense citrus aroma with notes of orange and grapefruit. It is often used in the IPA beer and in Pale Ale.
  • CascadeOriginating in the United States, this hop is famous for its floral and citrus aroma in which notes of grapefruit are discernible. It is often used in American Pale Ale and IPA beer.
  • CitraOriginating in the United States, this hop is famous for its strong aroma profile of tropical fruits and citrus fruits with citrine notes. It is widely used in IPA beer.
  • East Kent GoldingOriginating in England, this hop is famous for its refined and slightly spicy aroma in which notes of earth, tea and cinnamon are discernible. It is used in English Ale.
  • FuggleOriginating in England, this hop is famous for its earthy, slightly floral and herbaceous aroma. It is widely used in Bitter beer and Porter beer.
  • HallertauOriginating in Germany, this hop is highly valued for its delicate, floral aroma. It is often used in traditional German styles such as beer Helles and the Weizenbier.
  • MagnumOriginating in Germany, this hop is famous for its particularly intense bitter profile with a neutral, clean flavour. It is used in many styles.
  • Nelson SauvinOriginating in New Zealand, this hop is famous for its aroma reminiscent of wine sauvignon blanc in which notes of white fruit, citrus and grapes stand out.
  • SaazOriginating in the Czech Republic, this hop is famous for its delicate and slightly spicy aroma. It is used in Pilsner beer and lager beer.