Monday, May 9, 2011

The Wonderful World of Hops

If you enjoy beer, you know the word “hops.” And as you’ll discover a little further down in this column, right now your better liquor stores are offering a rare chance to get a tasty education in hops.

Along with water, malted barley, and yeast, hops are one of the four primary ingredients in beer. They are a vine-like plant closely related to the hemp plant. Hops, however, have no properties that will induce “altered states.” They’re in beer solely for taste.

Hops provide bitterness to counteract the heavy sweetness of the malted barley used to make beer. Without them, beer would be a sickly sweet and syrupy. They also have some preservative properties. The best known story showcasing this is the origin of the popular India Pale Ale, or IPA, style of beer. As the story goes, this beer was developed with a more robust dose of hops in order to ensure the beer kept during the long voyage to India. (There is some dispute among beer historians about this tale.)

Not all hops are created alike. Some impart a mild bitterness. Others such as those used in big American IPAs give citrus aromas or pine-like scents. Others are “grassy.” Brewers routinely blend hops to get the desired effect, so in any given beer you may be tasting a blend of two, three, four or more different hop strains.

Want to taste the difference? Right now, Samuel Adams is offering a limited edition 12-pack that serves as a hops lesson in a box. Their Latitude 48 IPA Deconstructed pack takes their Latitude 48 IPA, which is made with a blend of five hops that grow along the 48th latitude line, and breaks it down into a series of single-hop versions of the same beer. In each 12-pack you get two bottles of the IPA, then two bottles each of versions that use the same water, yeast and malted barley, but just one of the five hops used in the beer – Hallertau Mittelfrueh (a German hop), the famous English hop East Kent Goldings, and three great American hops grown in Washington state, Ahtanum, Simcoe, and Zeus. That means you get six different IPAs in the box, five of the six showcasing the unique taste of an individual hop.

The idea isn’t entirely new. For example, Mikkeller, a Danish brewer, has a single-hop line, but it’s far out of the price range of the average beer lover.

So for about $14 you can get a great education in hops, all while enjoying some Samuel Adams. Better grab it fast, though. This is a limited release and isn’t likely to last.

Oh yeah, and maybe in a future post I’ll discuss why “triple-hopped” is meaningless bullshit.

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