Hoppy days are here again

After several excursions to faraway lands I thought the time was ripe to return to matters closer to home, and the topic of this blog post is therefore a lovely plant that to a greater or lesser extent is present in every serious beer in production today. You can’t smoke it, you can’t eat it, you can’t make love to it, but you definitely can drink it. I’m talking about one of the key ingredients in beer, in fact one of the four allowed under the German purity law from 1516. Known as Humulus Lupulus in Latin and as Humle in the other world language (Norwegian), in English it ain’t skips, it ain’t jumps, but it sure is hops.

To most people, the humble hop is something that’s known to be present in beer, but isn’t really a great concern when beer is being purchased. Whereas the sugar or fat content of most foodstuffs is almost always listed in considerable detail on the label, most drinkers don’t know, or don’t care, what particular hops go into their favourite brew, or in what amounts. The fact that the vast majority of breweries can’t be bothered to print this basic information on the label clearly does not help. In fact, quite a few of the world’s biggest brewers would rather keep this information secret, partly to protect their ancient recipes, but mostly to avoid having to reveal how little they actually bother to add. This is just plain wrong, and has to change right now. I suggest that you all write to your local Member of Parliament, Senator, Governor or Dictator and ask him or her to change the consumer laws immediately. Whilst we wait for this long-overdue change, I will supply you with some mildly interesting facts.

Hops are the spices of beer. Whereas malt provides the body, hops add that little extra that makes all the difference. First and foremost, the refreshing bitterness in the beer comes from the hops, and the general rule is that the more the brewer adds, the bitterer the beer will be. Additionally, this wonderful plant increases the beer’s microbiological stability – in other words, acts as a preservative – and stabilizes the foam to boot. However, the story does not end there. There are a huge number of different varieties that impart subtly different spicy flavours in the beer, and many skilful brewers use a combination of hops to arrive at the desired taste profile of the finished product, much in the same way a master chef blends herbs and spices to perfect a recipe.

No prizes for guessing what this plant's called in Norwegian
Hops are grown in many temperate climates around the world, and some of the most famous hop varieties are named after the region from which they originate: Zatec (also known by its German name Saaz), Hallertau and Tettnang are some of the best known. The fact that the biggest hop growing regions are found in the south of Germany is evident whenever you watch a big sporting event, such as downhill skiing, from this region. Whenever the athlete passes by, the audience will start to scream "hop hop hop", which is a direct encouragement for the athlete to go faster since the top prize is typically a half litre of the hoppiest local beer. Well, that's what I like to think, anyway.

In the last few years, decades of research and development has gone into creating new hop varieties, resulting in lots of new ones – many from the New World – where unusual flavour components dominate, resulting in exciting tastes such as pineapple, citrus, black pepper and aniseed, to name but a few. Together, all of these varieties can be used by adventurous brewers to create crazy concoctions that taste very unlike the standard stuff you knew you had to learn to like when you were a spotty teenager.

With such an array of incredible tastes available to the brewers of the world, it may come as a surprise to you that the vast majority of the beer on the shelves in shops and bars contains very little. There is actually a measurement scale for the bitterness of beer, known as the International Bitterness Units (IBUs). A bland, international mass market lager typically has only 5-10 IBUs, whereas a good pilsner from a worthwhile brewery typically has around 30. Pale ales are higher still, and then we have the IPAs and double-IPAs where the IBU scale is being pushed towards the 100 mark. Some of the most extreme variants should be treated with care, as you’re unlikely to taste anything else for the next couple of weeks after finishing the bottle.

Now why am I suddenly writing about this topic? Well, the reason is that my local supermarket has started stocking a new beer, and it may not surprise you to hear that it’s a tasty, bitter one. What may surprise you is that this beer comes from one of the biggest breweries in Germany, and what may actually shock you is that, for once, I am going to write something positive about a big brand. The brewery is Warsteiner, and the beer is simply called “Herb” – which is actually German for bitter, dry or tart. It seems that what’s happened is that someone high up in the brewery’s hierarchy decided that the general public is getting a little bit tired with the same anonymous pilsners all the time. The standard Warsteiner is drinkable enough – if it wasn’t, they’d have to export it all – but tastes more or less the same as the other 6 or 7 major brands in Germany. The solution was astonishingly simple: double the amount of hops, change the colour of the label to green and attach the “Herb” brand, and hey presto – we have hop-off. Having tried not one, but eleven whole bottles of this stuff I can attest to the fact that it’s a vast improvement, and I hope that other brewers will take notice and follow suit.

This turned out to be quite a lecture! You now know more about hops than you ever knew was worth knowing, presumably because you mistakenly believed that beer was a simple drink. Well, we can all be wrong from time to time (though I’m not sure I’m right about that), so you can do a couple of things to make amends. For example, the next time you’re in a bar or a pub, ask the barman where the different beers are on the IBU scale. Then ask him what particular hops go into the different brews. There’s little point asking a third question since you will have been thrown out by now, but you have made a start: slowly but surely the hop-ignorant masses will learn, absorb and start to care, at which point the world will truly be a much hoppier place. Now go and have a beer. Cheers!