Hops — Early Spring

Hops sprouting up in early May, Left to right they are Golding, Nugget, and Cascade.

Hops are a herb used in brewing to help bitter the beer.  When boiled, the resins found on the flowers of the female plants turn into intensely bitter compounds that act as the foil to the sweetness of the malt.  They also have natural antibacterial properties to aids in preserving the beer.  The addition of hops to beer was first documented in the 11th century, but hops started to be used in pretty much every beer only a few hundred years ago.   Prior to hops, all sorts of things were added to help balance and preserve the beer.  In the Middle ages, a combination of various herbs, including heather, mugwort, horehound, and yarrow were added.  The blend was called gruit, and varied some from location to location.  Also, gruit was tightly controlled and taxed by the Church, and many brewers looked to alternatives so they did not have to pay the tax.  Hops fit the bill nicely.  However,  they quickly became a key ingredient as their flavor and natural antibacterial properties helped to keep the beers from going sour so quickly.  Hops became the dominant bittering agent, so much so that the Bavarian beer purity law, the from 1516, stipulated only 3 things can go into beer, water, grain, and hops.  Yes, this was before microscopes and the understanding of yeast.  The law has been repealed, but many German breweries still claim they adhere to its principles…but adding the yeast of course and completely disregarding the whole pricing thing outlined in the law, which capped the price of beer at about 2 pfennigs per “Mass”.  2 pfennig for “Ein Mass Bier, bitte” would have been beyond awesome when I was in Munich, and I doubt I would have ever left if the letter of law was still in effect.

Anyway, for many beer styles, hops are the essence of the beer.  Pilsners and pale ales are the ones most defined by the hops, but even malty brews like bocks and scottish ales have hops added to the boil to help preserve the beer and give some counterpoint to the malty sweetness.

Hops are , and they grow very quickly.  30 feet in one year is normal, and at the end of each year, they are cut, and the flowers from the female vines are harvested, dried, and packaged for brewing.  Hops like cooler, damper weather, and had been grown extensively in the Northeastern parts of the US.  Due to problems with certain molds, commercial production moved to the Northwestern US, but hops still grow very well in New England.  I decided to try growing some last year, and planted 3 types.  I found for sale at a local nursery, and the and I purchased from as rhizomes, or root cuttings.  I got a small harvest last year, the first year of planting, but am hoping to do better this year.  I trimmed back all but the 2 strongest bines, and we will see what we get.  I hope to make a fresh hop ale this fall with my backyard crop.

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