Friday, January 14, 2022

A Quick Intro to Hops

Photo by Logan Jackson (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Did you know that the hops plant is in the hemp family (Cannabaceae)? I had no idea until I started
learning more about how beer is made. Maybe you don't know anything at all about hops, so hopefully this post can serve as a quick intro.

The hops plant has a scientific name that sounds quirky: Humulus lupulus. The actual 'hops' are the cone-like strobiles that form on female hop vines. That's right, H. lupulus has male and female. In reality, they aren't even really vines, as that term refers to plants that send out tendrils to latch on to objects, while bines encircle vertical objects. In common parlance they're often called vines anyway, so I'll stick with that for the remainder of this post.

These plants are typically grown commercially from rhizomes, which are pieces of roots taken from a fully mature hop plant. They are pretty energetic, as under the right conditions they can grow a foot a day. The preferred conditions include at least 15 hours of daylight, and while they do best in dry conditions, that requires a lot of water. Unfortunately they are susceptible to a number of fungal infections, diseases, and pests. In the United States there is a concentration of hop farming in the northwestern part of the country, but they can grow virtually anywhere between 33 and 35 degrees latitude. 

Prior to the advent of hops in brewing a mix of spices were used to add flavor and attempt to cover up defects from brewing or spoilage. Hops were used at times as a bittering agent, and at some point hundreds of years ago someone noticed that beer brewed with hops kept longer. What they didn't understand but were able to make use of anyway was that hops inhibits the growth of bacteria in beer, which helps stabilize it for shipping and storage. 

Hops are added during the brewing stage of beer, and different varieties are known to offer distinct flavor profiles. This aroma and bitterness comes from resins and essential oils contained in lupulin glands inside the strobiles (cones). The length of brewing and timing of the addition of hops can change the flavor profile. 

If you visit a hop farm you'll find fields with tall posts and lengths of line, as the vines are trained to go up the lines. I've wondered how well these hold up in a climate like that of my native northeast Missouri, where severe thunderstorms can send violent winds through the region. The climate reportedly does introduce obstacles to many varieties prospering there, with long, hot days of high humidity.

If ever I have a patch of land, as I would like, I'll certainly give growing a hop yard a try. It would be interesting to brew beer with hops I grow myself, and would be glad to offer to others a locally-sourced beer.