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Hops: Acids and Acres

With our proximity to the 48th parallel, beer lovers of the Pacific Northwest are extremely fortunate.  Much of world’s hops are produced along this parallel in places like the Yakima Valley, the Willamette valley of Oregon, and the Hallertau region of Germany. In recent years with the booming industry of craft beer and the growing trend of heavily hopped IPAs, these areas, and Washington in particular, have seen a huge increase in the acreage devoted to growing hops.  In 2006, Washington had nearly 22,000 acres growing hops, and at the time of this blog post in mid 2018, that number had grown to nearly 40,000.  There has never been a better time to be a hop farmer, craft beer enthusiast, or a brewer.    


When most people think of hops, the bitter and high alcohol nature of IPAs naturally comes to mind.  While IPAs heavily rely hops for the flavor profile, hops are found in nearly every beer at varying degrees.  They were first used in beer recipes in the 10th Century in Germany, despite having been cultivated there since at least the 7th Century AD.  Before hops took over the beer world, an herb mixture called gruit was most commonly used.  This mixture was normally concocted of several different herbs such as mugwort, yarrow, ground ivy, and several others.  While some beers are still made in this style, hops and their seemingly endless variety have made undoubtedly better tasting beer.  

Hop fields at work

Hops have several different functions in beer production.  Understanding these functions will help understand when hops should be added to the beer and why.  Traditionally, the wort is boiled for 60 minutes, which helps the proteins inside the wort to bind together, resulting in clearer beer.  Adding hops at different points throughout the boil will allow them to change the beer in different ways. The most notable function of hops, bitterness, which is desired to balance out the sweetness of the malt, is measured through its alpha acids, or humulones.  Hops with high alpha acids are often used early in the boil so that all of the alpha acids have time to isomerize into isohumulones, which give off the bitter flavor so often found in IPAs.  On the reverse side, many hops are purely used as favor and aroma additives.  Flavor and aroma hops are added late into the boil, at the end of the boil, or even after fermentation (dry-hopped).  Used in this way, essential oils like myrcene and terpenes are extracted from the hops, which will result in fruit, citrusy, and even flowery aromas.

Harvested Hops

The scientific nature of hops have been endlessly studied, and new varietals of hops have been made through plant breeding to try and eliminate unwanted qualities, while highlighting others.  Breeding hops for certain uses often takes several years before they are marketable, but some hops can become so distinguished by their flavor and bittering profiles, that they become hot commodities nearly over night.  For example, this brewer’s favorite hop, mosaic, was first developed in 2001, but was not commercially available until 2012.  Now, it is the 6th highest production hop in the US, and is nearly universally loved for its dual purpose in imparting both bitterness and aroma.  

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