If you want to simply make beer it is done with a short list of ingredients: water, yeast, hops, and malted grain (most likely barley). These are the same ingredients used by the big guys. This short list sounds simple enough. Reality is, making beer is equal parts science and art; those latter 2 are the secret ingredients of making beer. Simply giving a person an easel, brushes and paints does not make that person a Rembrandt. If you want to make a fine beer you need to understand the science behind ingredients and how to put them together.
However, that perfect beer is about balancing flavor, aroma, bitterness, and mouthfeel. In trying to achieve any optimally balanced beer, interpreting, and tweaking a recipe is about understanding this science and art.
Today some are taking their artistry in new directions by experimenting with ingredients that are outside the traditional box. For example, some are using pine, fir, and spruce shoots to add bitterness and some different aromas to beer. But this practice dates to colonial times, so it is not entirely new. My daughter-in-law told me there are brewers experimenting with using grape skins for their tannins to add bitterness to beer.
When it comes to discussing beers, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to come around to hops. In the wine business it is about grapes. And yeast is the mystery ingredient; it is more difficult to understand yeast. Most of us have seen pictures of acres of hops growing or the mesmerizing shape of the hops cone, but we never see yeast because it is a single cell organism.
Hops primarily exist for imparting bitterness. There are 2 primary acids in hops-alpha and beta. The alpha acid gives beer the bitter taste profile. The second acid fills out bitterness. Historically the antimicrobial compounds in hops helped preserve beer. This was an important attribute for sanitary and preservative reasons at that time. It is hard to believe beer has been around since 4,000 BC and recorded history of hops indicate they were used in 700 AD and the English were drinking beer with hops in 1400 AD.
As an aside, yeast has been around for an equally long time it is just that it was not discovered until the 1800’s.
In addition to hops there are a plethora of yeasts to choose from. The sheer number of varieties of hops and yeast strains stagger the imagination, together they offer limitless flavors, aromas, bitterness, and mouthfeel options.
“Americans have been growing hops since early colonial times, just not the number of varieties grown today. The first commercial N. American hop production was a 45-acre garden established in 1648 to supply a brewery in the Massachusetts Bay settlement”, notes Hops Growers of America. If you are interested in more hop facts, consider these:
- 889 plants or “hills” make up one acre of hops.
- In the Pacific Northwest, yields average about 2,000 pounds of dried hop cones per acre on mature hop yards, or a little over two pounds per hill (yields vary depending on variety and location).
- Hops are typically sold in 200-pound bales (of course those are serious brewing operations).
- A bale will yield between 135 – 800 barrels of beer (31 gallons in a barrel), depending on the recipe.
Source: Hop Growers of America
When a person discovers that perfect beer, that experience will probably be short-lived; personal tastes preferences do change. Like wine consumers, beer taste preferences do change which motivates consumers to explore new offerings. Further, the sheer magnitude of style variations will foster experiments for new beers. Who would have envisioned a Peanut Butter Stout or using pine shoot or grape skins to make beer?
One change in progress is the non-alcoholic beer category. This trend has not worked out well for wine, but we will see about beer. Alcohol does impact flavor and that is a big issue whether it is wine or beer.
As the old expression goes-Nothing is easy and if it were everyone would be doing it. Brewing is no exception, a slight change/misstep in execution or ingredient selection can result in unintended consequences. If there are any doubts, acquaint yourself with the story of the demise of the largest American brewery in the 1960’s—Schlitz-The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous.
Tragically, after senior management changes, the new management team thought they could save money by using cheaper ingredients and employ short-cuts in production. (Ultimately, they were accused of selling “green” beer due to shortened fermentation times.) The consumer instantly recognized some changes in the product and did not like the changes. It was not long before consumers understood something was wrong with their favorite beer. This incident validates another adage: If it isn’t broken don’t fix it. Unintended consequences.
Deciding what is the best beer is a subjective decision. I did some research a few years ago and found there were 17 different considerations that came into play in deciding what wine was a person’s favorite. Basically, such things as: environment, age, experiences with various wines, influences from other people, visits to wineries, mouthfeel, aromas, etc. formed a person’s preference. Beer is not that much different when it comes to subjective decisions on that ideal beer.
The current trend in beer is the hoppy forward sensory perception of bitterness as well as taste/flavor. For consumer demanding the fresh bitter taste of hops, selecting the right hops varietal is critical. The choice of hops to get that right level of bitterness are many. It is the high acid content in individual species of hop cones that will deliver that precise bitter taste. Then the trick is to choose the hops that will deliver a desired aroma profile.
The numeric value of bitterness is the IBU number. The IBU scale is from 1 to 100. It is the bitterness introduced into beer from the hops that regulates the desired sweetness in the product.
“Just as there are dozens of grape varietals used for winemaking, there are a ton of different kinds of hops available to brewers. And just like with wine grapes, hops of different strains and from different growing regions bring different flavors, aromas, and bittering capabilities,” comments Caitlin at KegWorks 2017.
America and Germany are the mecca of hop development and research. In the US, the center of the hop world is Washington, Idaho, and Oregon.
Hop varieties also have a pedigree and growers thrive on the reputation surrounding the quality of their hops, the better the hop pedigree and a grower’s reputation, the greater the demand. As in most things demand drives the price. It is speculated that some hop varietal cones have sold for a high of $20-25 per pound. The average in 2019 appears to be $5.68/pound. Last year growers in the US produced 113.5 million pounds of hops and that is an increase of nearly 90% over 2012 and a 7.5% increase over 2018.
The impact of hops on the beer making process is really determined by the style. A rough rule of thumb is 200 pounds of hops (1 bale) makes 20 barrels.
Here is a breakdown, by style, of hops (in pounds) used in producing a typical keg of beer (1,984 ounces):
Brown Ale 0.52
Imperial IPA 3.80
Pale Ale 0.56
Source: Hop Growers of America
Lastly, the essential oils in hops dictates the aroma value, along with some support from yeast. These oil esters are unique to each variety of hops. Some oils will produce floral, citrus, or earthiness tones. There is an art form to working with the essential oils to bring out the desired aroma. Too much heat for too long will destroy the aroma esters in hops. Brewer experience seems to be a significant factor in bringing out the character of essential oils.
There are approximately 80 active varieties of hops to choose from and more are being developed constantly. The actual count of hop varieties may be closer to 180. This is like grape varietals in winemaking; there are hundreds of varietals that are planted, and more are being developed by universities and labs all over the world. In 2019, the US was the largest producer of hops followed closely by Germany.
Simply put, hops can be split into three main categories: bittering, aroma, and dual. Bittering hops tend to have a high amount of acid in them and impart that recognizable bitter flavor onto the beer. Aroma hops have less acid but a more pronounced flavor and aroma and are used to make the beer taste and smell a specific way. Most beer recipes call for both kinds of hops. Dual hops tend to have a mid-range to high amount of acid and a good smell and aroma and can be used for both aroma and bittering. If you want to brew a beer with just your homegrown hops, one of these dual hops plant types is a good choice,” says Liz Baessler. Choose your hops wisely.