In the first article in a three-part series on brewing ingredients, the Humulus Lupulus is where the journey begins. As it turns out, the Michigan-exclusive Huma Lupa Licious from Short’s Brewing Company is in fact, not a name created from a certain Gene Wilder movie, but a name based off the species’ botanical designation. At this point, I may dive further into the scientific classification and mention that the hop is in the Cannabaceae family (sound familiar?), but what we’re really out to gain here is what the hop does in your beer.
Assuming we’re all familiar with standard hop packaging techniques, you’ve seen two numbers written on just about every package of hops out there. The first being alpha acid — think of this percentage as bittering potential. A low alpha acid hop such as Crystal might contain somewhere around 4.0% alpha acid, and something like Columbus might contain upwards of 15% alpha acid.
The main thing to think about here is exactly how much of a specific hop variety you’ll need to achieve a certain number of IBUs. Although some hops have different bittering characteristics than others, the actual flavor contribution of these acids isn’t necessarily going to be a huge factor.
Next stop — beta acids. This group of compounds is responsible for the effects of hop character in the long-term. Its role during the boil and presence in a fresh beer is rarely noticeable. However, over time beta acids may contribute a perceived bitterness as oxidation comes into play. For example, beer aging for 6-12 months in an oak barrel is not completely protected from oxygen due to the porosity of wood, so beta acids may influence the flavor of the beer as it is slowly exposed to minute amounts of oxygen over time.
The last few compounds contained in that sweet, sweet hop cone that determine the overall hop character are the essential oils. The essential oils are like the icing on the cake. They give us the fruity, resiny, piney, floral, noble or spicy character we all notice in the nose and finish of our favorite hoppy beers.
The oils we’re particularly concerned with are primarily humulene, myrcene and caryophyllene. Humulene is responsible for the “noble” character in hops like Hallertau or East Kent Golding. It becomes spicy and herbal when applied as a middle- or late-boil addition.
Myrcene lends the classic American hop chacarter found in Citra, Chinook and Amarillo.
Caryophllene, though typically low in concentration may add a spicy or herbal character.
A fourth oil, farnesene, is sometimes mentioned, but its contribution to flavor and aroma is often insignificant, and largely unknown.
The final parameter to consider when building your hop profile is the origin of the hop. Unfortunately, we’d love to be able to purchase all of our hops from the various hop farmers in our Michigan backyards, but the geographical influence on a variety of hops is far too great, and our choices would be quite limited.
As far as American hops go, rumor has it that streets of the Pacific Northwest are paved with myrcene (okay, perhaps it’s an exaggeration, but you get the idea!). Massive citrus and pine character can be found in the hops that are grown there.
European varieties provide the opposite end of the spectrum, and should definitely be considered for your next saison recipe. Of course, things start to get interesting when you plant a European variety in U.S. soil. Look into a comparison between U.S. Saaz and Czech Saaz if you’d really like to watch your brain explode.
Lastly, I would be treating all of you unfairly if I were to fail to mention Austrialian and New Zealand hops. These beasts are like American hops on steroids! Prepare your tongue for the boldest, brightest fruit flavors you’ve ever experienced. Galaxy and Nelson Sauvin are positively worth investigating.
Now that you have a wealth of information regarding various compounds in hops, you’ll surely have no trouble finding a date to help keep you warm during this unrelenting, midwest winter. Just kidding — this information won’t help you at all there! However, you will be able to select your hops with a bit more intention in your upcoming recipes, which may indeed keep you warm this winter, depending on the starting gravity of said recipe. Refer to this incredibly handy chart when you’re designing your next beer. Good luck out there, folks — you’ve got a lot of pale ales to brew.