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Hops – the spice of beer


hop kiln small

Once picked and separated from the stalks, hops must be air-dried to prevent spoilage.

By: Stephen Beaumont


Hops are the flowers of the vine known botanically as Humulus Lupulus. While used in virtually every variety of beer produced today, hops are a relatively recent arrival to the world of brewing, having only been used for about 1,000 to 1,500 of beer’s eight millennia of documented history.


For centuries, the challenge facing brewers was to find a way to preserve their beer. After all sorts of spices and herbs were essayed, singularly and in combination, hops were finally found to have the best preservative qualities, especially when combined with a process Bavarians had developed, known as lagering (see: How Beer is Brewed: Fermentation). Eventually they became a standard ingredient in not just lagers, but also ales.



hop field small

Hops are voracious growers, reaching heights of over six metres in a single season.




While their function as preservative is still acknowledged, today hops are used more for their aromatic and bittering effects. Aroma characteristics of hops can range from soft florals to dried leaf to strongly nutty or earthy notes, while bitterness can vary from a very light, drying effect to an intense, grapefruit-like flavour. There are many dozens, perhaps hundreds of varieties of hops in use today, each with its own set of flavours and aromas, and which characteristics come through in the finished beer will depend upon the amount and type of hops used.


Some common characteristics include floral aromas from Czech-grown Saaz hops, citrus or grapefruity aromas and flavours from US-grown Cascade, Centennial and Citra hops, the earthy spiciness of England-grown East Kent Golding and the tropical fruit qualities of New Zealand-grown Nelson Sauvin and Riwaka.


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