The proper use of hops in beer making is both a science and a fine art. This article isn’t a deconstruction of the science or a critique of the art, but a glorification of both. With a long history and a strong, characterful flavour, hops are at the heart of good ale, so let’s take a look at how it all works.
Good hops are the start of a great beer, not just metaphorically but literally. When the American Economical Housekeeper taught the citizens of the US how to make their own brew in 1850, the magazine made it clear, telling them to: “Take two ounces of hops, and boil them, three or four hours, in three or four pailfuls of water; and then scald two quarts of molasses in the liquor, and then turn it off into a clean half-barrel, boiling hot; then fill it up with cold water; before it is quite full, put in your yeast to work it; the next day you will have agreeable, wholesome small beer, that will not fill with wind, as that which is brewed from malt or bran; and it will keep good till it is all drank out.”
Hops make a good beer that is wholesome yet in possession of punchy, spicy flavour highlights, particularly if a lot of good quality hops are used. Before the American Economical Housekeeper, there was Every Man His Own Brewer, the British brewer’s bible of the early nineteenth century, explaining the importance of hops in preserving and flavouring a good bitter. Before that, there were many tomes and quotes on beer and hops. The earliest traceable example is unsurprisingly from Germany in 1067, when Hildegard of Bingen stated simply: “If one intends to make beer from oats, it is prepared with hops.” Of course, the unrecorded history goes back long before that to the beginning of civilisation, when the wild flower was originally tamed. The remainders of hops heads have been found around breweries in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and the homes of the classical Mediterranean peoples.
The reason for hops being used in beer is that they turn a flavourless, unstable and short-lived liquid into a tasty, smooth and easily preserved ale that will last for months on end. Hops are a wild herb with an antibacterial effect that preserves the mixture from going bad in the usual way, while enabling and promoting the activity of the yeast in maturing the beverage. It is an ideal arrangement because, when added in the right quantities, hops allow the bacteria active in the yeast to multiply and work in the beer, just enough to bring about a balanced flavour and alcohol volume whilst preventing harmful germs.
As mentioned above, a good dose of yeast balances the flavour of a beer between excessive maltiness and bitterness. The hops also bring their own flavour, adding punchy highlights to the flat and wholesome maltiness of a bitter beer or ale. The flavour depends on the hops and modern farming methods have produced a wide range of hop plants around the world. However, in general, hops bring a zingy, citrusy and often spicy flavour to a beer.