by Alain Schepers Biersommelier and blogger at Bierista.nl
Hops: the brewer’s bouquet garni
Is it the most important flavour?
Isn’t it fascinating? With just four ingredients you can create an unimaginable number of different tastes and nuances: water, barley malt, hops and yeast. The most important flavouring might very well be hops, also known as the brewer’s bouquet garni.
If you were to study the hop plant, you’d see that it’s quite a special plant. In early spring, its shoots peek above the sand. Once those shoots have enjoyed enough of spring’s sun rays, a long growth spurt follows until mid-September. That’s when it is harvested.
Hop plants grow up to six metres high. Hop growers build a framework made of long poles and wires with which to guide the plant’s shoots.
Growing hops is labour intensive and comes with the added problem that they are very sensitive plants. Back in the day, growers used pesticides so intensively that there was hardly a hop farmer to be found over the age of fifty. Thankfully those days are over.
Hops are from the same family as hemp. This is visible in the shape of the plant, as well as by the scent, which is easily recognizable. It is therefore no surprise that some beers smell a little like skunk or weed.
Hops have a calming effect, similar to marijuana. This is evidenced by the fact that you can now buy hop tea or hop cushions to promote a good night’s sleep. The quantities used in beer are too low to experience these effects.
When harvesting hops, it’s all about the hop cones. These small cone shaped fruits contain a yellow substance called lupulin. This is what the brewer is looking to put in their beer.
To get a good harvest, it is critical that the female plant remains unfertilized. If fertilized, seeds develop, which makes the hops unsuitable for brewing. That’s why, in areas where hops are grown, close attention is paid to making sure that there are no male plants. These are destroyed as soon as possible.
Once the hops have been harvested, you can make beer with them straight away. Beer with fresh hop cones is a speciality. Drink this beer as fresh as possible to enjoy the best taste.
The majority of hop production is dried and compressed into large bales. These are traded and processed into what’s known as hop pellets. These pellets usually look like green fodder with a very strong aroma. The pellets can go straight into the brewing kettle.
The variety of hops in enormous. Dozens of different hop types are graced each year with new family members. Hops are hip - there is plenty of experimentation going on in order to create new flavours and better products.
All the different types can roughly be divided into two categories: Aromatic hops and bitter hops. The name says it all. The bitter hops are added to the brewing process at an early stage and create the bitter taste. Aromatic hops give the beer a delicate aroma. To ensure that this doesn’t fade, it is added at a later stage in the process.
A beer style known for its exuberant hop aromas is India Pale Ale. Compared to a regular Pilsner, there are more hops added. This gives an IPA more hop aromas, which can vary from citrus fruit, like grapefruit, lime and lemon to exuberant exotic fruits like passion fruit and mango. Aromas reminiscent of pine trees and a pronounced herbiness can also occur.
A beautiful example of a beer where tropical fruit exudes out of the glass is the Punk IPA by Brewdog. The Hop Art by vandeStreek from the Netherlands is also a great, hoppy glass of beer. This also applies to the iconic Lagunitas IPA.
In hoppy, bottom-fermented beer you can certainly taste the influence the hops have. Gulpener Ur-Hop is a great example. As is Borgo My Antonia, an imperial pilsner which very much resembles an IPA.
A real treat to taste: the Torpah series by Belgian brewer Brasserie C. The beers are the same, except for the hops. This enables you to truly discover what hops do to beer.
Torpah 60 is brewed with a French hop called Amaris. It gives floral and herbal aromas. Torpah 60 is brewed with Chinook, an exuberant hop from the USA which gives off a strong citrus aroma.
There are many different aromas to discover, all thanks to the fascinating little plant, also known as the brewer’s bouquet garni.