Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Growing Bitter

The world is suffering through a hop shortage of staggering magnitude. The causes are varied - market forces caused a reduction in acreage devoted to hop vines, hail damage and drought destroyed much of the European crop, and a warehouse fire burnt a large portion of the North American crop. As a result, those of us who homebrew are scrounging to find hops to put into our beer.

Coincidentally, I started growing hops last year, just to see how they would grow. The pictures in this post are from my backyard, where four hop plants are helping me do my little part to bring bitterness to this world.

The portion of the hop plant used in the brewing process is the cone. After the plant reaches maturity, the cones are stripped from the plant and dehydrated. Soemtimes, they are processed further into pellets or even extracts. I generally prefer to use the cones, or flowers as they are sometimes called. I normally buy them by the ounce in vacuum packed bags from the local homebrew shop, Bacchus and Barleycorn. They used to be about $1.25 an ounce - they now run $3.50 an ounce. Depending on the type of hop and type of beer, a batch might require anywhere from 5 to 10 ounces.

Hops serve three purposes in beer - they add bitterness, flavor or aroma, depending on when they are added during the boiling process used in brewing. If they are added at the beginning of the boil (typically 60 or 90 minutes), they will add very little flavor or aroma, but they will add bitterness to the beer, to balance the sweetness of the malt. Try Roadtrip Brewing Sinister Rabbit Ale brewed by the local Flying Monkey Brewery if you want to experience hop bitterness without much hop flavor or aroma.

If hops are added between 30 to 10 minutes before the end of the boil, they will add a hop flavor to the beer - pop open a Boulevard Pale Ale for a nice hop flavor, nuanced with grapefruity notes. Finally, hops added right near the end of the boil, or even after the beer has fermented (a process called dry-hopping) add that great hop aroma that makes hopheads swoon. Pop open an Anchor Steam Ale to catch a whiff of that wonderful hop perfume.

There are dozens of varieties of hops. Some are very, very bitter, while others carry very little bitterness at all. Some have a citrus odor, some smell peppery, and some are even noted as smelling like "cat-piss". Some styles almost demand certain varieties - a Pilsner ought to have Saaz hops, and Northern Brewer hops are expected in California Common beer. But, as a homebrewer more focused on making beers that I like, I feel free to mix and match, unless I'm trying to match a particular style.

The hops in the picture are Sterling hops, an American hybrid resembling Saaz hops, but easier to grow. It is a versatile hop, and I look forward to producing some wonderful Oktoberfest and Belgians with it. Stay tuned.

(PS: If you want to see hop vines, and are too bashful to email and come over for a brew day, there are some vines just outside the backdoor at the 75th Street Brewery.)



Anonymous Anonymous said...

sierra nevada did a southern hemisphere harvest ale this year for the first time ever.

not nearly as good as the normal harvest ale.

meanwhile, dfh 120 minute ipa steadily creeps to $15 a bottle.

6/19/2008 7:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, where do you get your hops seeds?

6/19/2008 9:25 AM  
Blogger Keith Sader said...

In what type of lighting to hops grow best? Full sun, partial, shade?

6/19/2008 10:44 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Anonymous - The hop plants are started from hop rhizomes - little segments of root stock that you bury. I bought those from Bacchus and Barleycorn, too, though you can also purchase them on the web.

Keith - they prefer full sun.

6/20/2008 6:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hop prices are brutal. If they stay this way I might have to think about starting a crop as well. Your hops are looking great!

6/21/2008 12:01 AM  

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