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What Are Hops? How Are They Used? by YYCTOURS Calgary Brewery Tours. 

An image of hops on a bine - Calgary beer tour

What are Hops?  Exploring the World of this Magical Ingredient


1. Introduction to Hops

Hops are the flowers of the hop plant, scientifically known as Humulus lupulus. The first cousins to cannabis are the magical ingredient in beer, and are often a deterrent for many beer drinkers who do not enjoy “Hoppy Beers”. With more than 200 varieties of hops available,  this humble plant plays a crucial role in the brewing process and contributes a wide range of flavors and aromas to our favorite beverages, and like it or not, every beer has hops on some level. From bittering and balancing the sweetness of malt to adding floral, citrus, and herbal notes, hops have a fascinating and complex profile that truly defines the style of beer they are found in. Often used in combination with other hops, creating a perfect blend and profile can be tricky, unless you know exactly what you are working with.


In this article, we will delve into the hidden wonders of hops and explore the world of this magical ingredient, uncovering its history, cultivation, and various uses in the brewing industry. So grab a pint and join us on this hop-filled journey!

Frequently referred to as a hops "vine", hops technically grow on a “bine”. Unlike vines, which use tendrils, suckers, and other appendages for climbing, bines have stout stems with stiff hairs to aid in attaching themselves.Hops can grow very rapidly, and at the peak of growth can reach skyward 20 to 50 centimetres per week. Interestingly, hop bines climb by wrapping clockwise except for Humulus Japonicus.

Male and female flowers of the hop plant are dioecious (male and female reproductive organs in separate individuals). Female plants, which produce the hop flowers used in brewing beer, are often propagated and grown in the absence of male plants. This prevents pollination and the development of seeds which are sometimes considered undesirable for brewing beer owing to the potential for off-flavors arising from the introduction of fatty acids from those seeds.

2. The History of Hops

The history of hops dates back thousands of years and is intertwined with the development and evolution of beer itself. 

The use of hops in brewing can be traced back to ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians. However, it was not until the Middle Ages that hops became a widely recognized and accepted ingredient in beer production. This shift was largely influenced by the Benedictine monks, who recognized the preservative and flavor-enhancing properties of hops.

Before the introduction of hops, brewers relied on a combination of herbs, spices, and other plants to add flavor, which often made people sick. This lead to Germany's introduction of Reinheitsgebot. The use of hops proved to be a game-changer, as they not only added a distinct bitterness but also acted as a natural preservative, extending the shelf life of beer. 

The cultivation of hops also played a significant role in the economic development of certain regions. In Europe, hop-growing regions such as the Hallertau in Germany and the Yakima Valley in the United States became known for their high-quality hops, attracting breweries and beer enthusiasts from all over the world.

Over time, the breeding and hybridization of hop varieties led to the development of countless hop cultivars, each with its own unique characteristics and flavor profiles. Today, brewers have access to an extensive range of hop varieties, allowing them to experiment with different combinations and create a wide variety of beer styles.

3. The Science of Hops:

One of the key roles of hops in brewing is to provide bitterness to counterbalance the sweetness of the malt. The hops contain alpha acids, which are responsible for this bitterness. During the brewing process, these alpha acids are released when the hops are boiled. The longer the hops are boiled, the more bitterness they impart to the beer. Brewers carefully select hop varieties based on their alpha acid content to achieve the desired level of bitterness in their brews.

Hops contain essential oils that give beer its unique bouquet and character. These oils are volatile and can be easily lost during the brewing process and certainly have different effects on the beer when added at different times during the boil. When added at the start of a boil, hops provide the beer's bitterness.The hop flavour arrives when hops are added during the middle of the boil and to preserve the aromatic compounds, hops are typically added near the end of the boiling process or during the fermentation stage. This allows the beer to retain the distinct aromas and flavors that the hops provide.

Hops also act as a natural preservative in beer. The alpha acids in hops have antimicrobial properties that help to inhibit the growth of bacteria and other microorganisms. This was especially important in the past when refrigeration was not available i.e. India Pale Ale. By adding hops to the brewing process, brewers were able to extend the shelf life of their beers and ensure their quality.

The selection of hop varieties is a crucial decision for brewers. Each hop variety brings its own unique characteristics and flavor profiles to the beer. Some hops may have citrus or floral notes, while others may have a more earthy or spicy character. Brewers carefully select and combine different hop varieties to create a desired flavor profile in their beers. This allows for endless possibilities and innovation in the world of brewing.

AN image of beer and hops on a table brewery tour calgary

4. Exploring Hops 

Although there are hundreds of hop varieties available, each with its own unique characteristics and flavor profiles, in this section, we will explore some of the most often used hop varieties used by Calgary Breweries and the flavors they impart in beer.


1. Citra:

Developed by Hop Breeding Company and in 2007, Citra hops are known for their intense citrusy and tropical fruit flavors. They bring out notes of grapefruit, lime, orange, mango, and passionfruit in beer. These hops are highly sought after by brewers looking to create hop-forward and aromatic brews.

2. Cascade:

Cascade hops are a cultivar of hops developed in the USDA breeding program at Oregon State University. They are one of the most popular hop varieties, especially in Alberta craft brewing. They have a floral and citrusy flavor profile, with hints of grapefruit, lemon, and floral notes. Cascade hops are versatile and can be used in a wide range of beer styles, from pale ales to IPAs.


3. Centennial:

Centennial hops, which are similar to Cascade are  a diploid cross between Brewer's Gold and a USDA male. This hop exhibits a balanced profile of floral, citrus, and pine flavors. They can contribute to both the aroma and bitterness of beer. Centennial hops are often used in American-style IPAs and pale ales to bring out a well-rounded hop character.


4. Simcoe:

Simcoe hops have a high alpha percentage and low cohumulone and were developed by Yakima Chief Ranches in 2000. These hops are known for their unique blend of piney, citrus, and earthy flavors. They can impart both bitterness and aroma to beer, making them a popular choice for hoppy styles like IPAs. Simcoe hops have a strong and distinct aroma that adds complexity to the brew.


5. Mosaic:

Developed by Hop Breeding Company and in 2012, Mosaic hops are renowned for their complex and rich flavor profile. They offer a mix of tropical fruit, citrus, herbal, and earthy notes in beer. Mosaic hops can add depth and dimension to a wide range of beer styles, from hoppy IPAs to fruit-infused beers.


6. Amarillo:

Amarillo was discovered in 1990 at the Virgil Gamache Farms in Washington state and are in the top 10 of mostly used hops in America. Amarillo hops bring a bright and vibrant citrus flavor to beer, with hints of orange, tangerine, and grapefruit. They are prized for their intense aroma and contribute to a pleasant bitterness in hop-forward brews. Amarillo hops are often used in American pale ales and IPAs.


7. Hallertau:

Hallertau hops are a naturally growing German hop variety known for their mild and delicate flavors. They are one of four noble hops (grow naturally). They offer floral, herbal, and spicy notes with a subtle bitterness. Hallertau hops are commonly used in German-style lagers, wheat beers, and traditional European ales.


As craft brewers continue to innovate and experiment with hop utilization, new hop varieties are being developed and introduced. This constant evolution and exploration of different hop flavors contribute to the ever-growing diversity in the world of beer.


Choosing the right hops is an essential part of the brewing process. Each hop variety brings its own unique flavor and aroma characteristics, which can greatly impact the final taste of the beer. Let's explore the factors that brewers should consider when selecting hops for their specific beer style.


1. Flavor Profile: The first step in choosing hops is identifying the flavor profile brewers want to achieve in their beer. Different hop varieties can contribute flavors ranging from citrusy and floral to piney and earthy. They must consider the style of beer they are brewing and what flavors will complement it best. For example, if they are brewing an American-style IPA, they may want to select hops with bold citrus and tropical fruit flavors.


2. Alpha Acid Content: The alpha acid content of hops determines their bitterness potential. Hops with higher alpha acid levels will contribute more bitterness to the beer. This is important to consider, especially when brewing a hop-forward style like an IPA or a pale ale. However, it's also crucial to balance the bitterness with other flavors in the beer. Hops with lower alpha acid levels can still contribute aroma and flavor without overwhelming the beer with bitterness.


3. Aroma Profile: Hops also play a significant role in the aroma of the beer. Some hop varieties are known for their intense aroma, while others have more subtle characteristics. For example, if they are brewing a lager or a pilsner, they may want to choose hops with delicate floral or herbal aromas.


4. Compatibility with Other Ingredients: When selecting hops, it is important to consider how they will interact with other ingredients in a beer recipe. Some hops may complement certain malts or yeast strains better than others. It's crucial to ensure that all the ingredients work harmoniously together to create a balanced and flavorful beer. Experimentation and research helps brewers determine which hop varieties work best with specific beer styles and ingredients.


5. Availability and Cost: Some hop varieties may be more readily available than others, depending on location and seasonal availability. Additionally, certain hop varieties may be more expensive due to their popularity or limited availability. 

By carefully considering these factors, brewers can choose the right hops that will enhance the flavor and aroma of their beer. Remember, experimentation and creativity are key when selecting hops, as they provide endless opportunities to create unique and delicious brews.

Hop pellets being added to a boil YYC beer tour

5. Hop Brewing techniques and methods for maximizing flavor and aroma


Once brewers have selected the right hops for their beer style, it's time to dive into the brewing process and explore techniques that can maximize hop flavor and aroma. These techniques play a crucial role in crafting a well-balanced and flavorful beer. Here are some brewing techniques and methods that must be considered:


1. Hop Selection and Preparation: They start by selecting fresh and/or high-quality hops for their brew. Making sure to store them properly to preserve their aroma and flavor. Before adding hops to their beer, it's essential to prepare them appropriately. This can include processes such as crushing or pelletizing the hops to increase their surface area, allowing for better extraction of their aromatic compounds.


2. Hop Additions: The timing and method of hop additions during the brewing process significantly impact the flavor and aroma of beer. There are various techniques to consider, such as:

- Bittering Hops: These hops are added early in the boil to extract bittering compounds. The longer they are boiled, the more bitterness will be achieved. This step is crucial for balancing the malt sweetness in beer.

- Flavor Hops: Flavor hops are typically added towards the middle of the boil. They contribute to the overall flavor profile of the beer and provide a balanced hop character without overwhelming bitterness.

- Aroma Hops: Aroma hops are added during the last few minutes of the boil or even after fermentation. This technique helps preserve volatile hop compounds responsible for the beer's aroma. Dry hopping, a method of adding hops to the fermenter, is also popular for enhancing aroma.

- Whirlpool Hops: Whirlpool hops are added after the boil and before cooling the wort. This technique allows for the extraction of hop flavor and aroma compounds while reducing the risk of excessive bitterness.

- Hop Back: Some brewers use a hop back, which is a vessel filled with hops that the wort passes through before entering the fermenter. This method maximizes the extraction of hop flavors and aromas.


3. Temperature Control: Maintaining control over fermentation temperatures is crucial for preserving hop flavor and aroma. Hop compounds can be volatile and sensitive to high temperatures, which can lead to their degradation and loss of desired flavors and aromas. Brewers must follow specific temperature guidelines for each stage of the fermentation process to ensure optimal hop expression.


4. Dry Hopping Techniques: Dry hopping is a popular technique for intensifying hop aroma in beer. It involves adding hops directly to the fermenter during or after fermentation. There are a few methods to consider when dry hopping:

- Traditional Dry Hopping: Add hops directly to the fermenter, allowing them to infuse their flavors and aromas into the beer over time.

- Hop Tea: Making a hop tea by steeping hops in hot water and adding the resulting liquid to the fermenter can increase hop extraction and prevent hop matter from clogging equipment or affecting clarity.

- Hop Cannons or Hop Guns: Using specialized equipment like hop cannons or hop guns can enhance the efficiency and consistency of dry hopping, ensuring maximum hop flavor and aroma extraction.


5. Proper Packaging and Storage: After fermentation and carbonation, it's essential to package and store beer correctly to maintain hop flavor and aroma. Oxygen exposure can lead to the oxidation of hop compounds and undesirable off-flavors. Brewers use appropriate packaging methods, such as cans or oxygen-impermeable bottles, and store the beer in a cool place to preserve hop freshness.

6. Conclusion. 

Hops are more than just that stink when you open a bottle or can. Hops are used in tandem and harmony with other ingredients to arrive at a final beer style. One great way to really see how Calgary brewers use hops differently than each other is to pick a style of beer , say Pale Ale, and to only drink those whenever you visit a new brewery. This will show you how each brewer does it their own way and that perhaps instead of saying ‘Brewery X’ is my favourite brewery, we should be saying ‘MR. or MS. X’ is my favourite brewer! 


To learn more about hops, other beer ingredients and everything else Calgary beer, be sure to sign up for a Calgary Brewery Tour with YYCTOURS. 


Cheers and Hoppy Drinking!

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