What We Talk About When We Talk About Hops

hop flavours
hop flavours

When you adopt a craft whole-heartedly as your career and calling, it's sometimes easy to forget that not everyone has done the same. And while it's common to update friends as to how "work is going", it's another matter altogether when you're at a summer BBQ, and you have to excuse yourself to text your significant other "I need to stop talking about only beer. I SOUND LIKE AN ASSHOLE." Such are the struggles of a brewer...

Something we do a lot in the brewpub and Bottle Shop, both in our written material and our conversations, is talk about hops in very serious ways. We alert patrons to the beers with 'notes of passion fruit', 'strong elements of pine', 'mango aromatics', 'floral bouquets', and 'juicy grapefruit flavours'. And though we really do mean all of those things, we also realize that this might sound a bit confusing. Mango? Grapefruit? Passionfruit? The level of detail in these tasting notes is similar to that of wine, and truthfully, just as much labour, intention, and time goes into making our beers as fermented grape juice, so we treat each bottle accordingly. I'm here today to break things down a bit, talk about the basics, and answer some common questions we get.

What the heck are hops anyways? What do they do? And honestly, what does 'hoppy' even mean? Let us discuss. In the most general sense, hops are the female flower of the humulus lupulus plant, that we use in (almost) all modern beer. They're one of the key ingredients (along with malted barley, water, and yeast), and they serve two main functions: 1) To provide bitterness (and therefore balance sweet malty flavours), and 2) To lend preservative qualities. The latter function makes sense and doesn't cause too much of an uproar, but the former, the issue of bitterness, can be quite contentious depending on the crowd.

hops in hand
hops in hand

For a lot of people, the concept of intentional bitterness is just odd and off-putting. It seems like a flavour more commonly associated with something negative, and so without tasting hoppy beers they decide it's not the style for them. But bitterness is a really interesting category in the culinary world. Espresso and coffee are bitter. Arugula and radicchio are bitter. Grapefruits and marmelade are, well, you get the point. I even recently ate a traditional Chinese meal cooked by friends, and the star of the night was a deep fried 'bitter gourd'. Bitterness is not something we shy away from in our gastronomic adventures, but the idea of a whole pint of bitterness can sometimes still be intimidating.

The truth is, and those who know and love our IPAs will agree, that hop bitterness is not one-dimensional. It's layered and diverse, characterized by a wealth of secondary flavours. Noble hops, grown in Europe (mostly Germany and the Czech Republic), tend to be floral and earthy. West coast American hop varieties (from Washington and Oregon) often present strong notes of pine and grapefruit. New and exciting hop varieties from New Zealand showcase ripe aromas of tropical fruit, like mango, passionfruit, and lemon. The Sorachi Ace variety hailing from Japan is known to impart distinctive dill-like and lemongrass aromas. These relatable qualities stem from varying levels of the essential oils myrcene (also present in cannabis and wild thyme), humulene (also found in pine trees and orange orchards), caryophyllene (one of the compounds that makes black pepper spicy), and farnesene (less common, can contribute soft aromatics of flower blossoms, wood, citrus, and even lavender) present in different hop varieties. Suffice to say that hops are not merely bitter.

Hops Chart
Hops Chart

This is a great 'hops chart' we have hanging in the brewery which helps you to visualize the varying levels of essential oils present in different hops. Designed by Zeke Shore. Order it HERE. Another very important reality within the world of hops is the division of bitterness and aroma. I'll spare you the chemistry tangent that deals with isomerized alpha and beta acids, but what's important to take away is the understanding that beers can be aromatically hoppy, bitter hoppy, or a combination of both. Deciding when hops, with their volatile oils that can escape during the boil, are added to the wort and beer, greatly affects the degree to which a beer will be bitter and/or aromatic. Witchshark Imperial IPA is an example of a beer with intense hop aroma and bitterness, where as Stay Classy Light Session Ale is hugely fruity and aromatic, with almost no bitterness. They both require a large quantity of hops, but we utilize them in very different ways.

Though there are foods that will be love at first bite for some, I think it's helpful to remember that much of food preference stems from recognition. When you try something, like hop bitterness for example, that you've never had before, your brain isn't quite sure what to think. I always encourage those dropping by the bar to try a hoppy beer, and then revisit the experience a few weeks later. There's a bit of conditioning involved with these 'acquired flavours', simply because they're so intense -- but the payoff is delicious.

So go forth now, armed with your newly acquired wisdom, and approach the fascinating world of hops. Be unafraid young warriors, for bitterness is not your enemy!