Food: July 2010 Archives


July 22, 2010

As the Sam Adams commercials used to tell us, the only ingredients permitted under the old German reinheitsgebot (beer purity law) are water, barley, and hops. (Note that this doesn't include yeast, which is a pretty key element, but the mechanics of beer production weren't clear in the 15th century.) Hops serves a number of purposes.

First (and as I remember from the books I read when I used to brew beer, the original purpose), it serves as an antiseptic. To see why, you need to understand how beer works. You start with a mixture of water and malted barley, which has a huge amount of sugars and is thus a really fertile growth medium. You boil the mixture, then introduce yeast into the mixture and it ferments, converting the sugars into alcohols. Like any fermentation process brewing, is a race between growth of the microorganims you want (yeast) and microorganisms you don't want (bacteria). You can't completely eliminate bacteria from your culture, but excessive bacterial growth causes a sour taste and you need to discard the beer (brewers say the beer is infected) . Hops (allegedly) acts to suppress bacterial growth, thus favoring growth by yeast and reducing the chance of infection.

Hops also serves two other purposes: bittering and aroma. Even when the fermentation process is finished, there are still residual sugars in the beer which give it an unpleasant sweet flavor. The bitter taste of hops balances out that flavor. Bittering hops are added during the boiling phase, which removes most of the aromatics. Finally, if you add hops at the very end of the process, either during the end of the boiling phase or even once the mixture has cooled and is fermenting (this is called dry hopping), the floral aroma of the hops transfers to the beer. (see here for a long description of the hopping process.)

American craft beers tend to be relatively heavy on both kinds of hops. British beers, by contrast, tend to be very lightly hopped, and many Americans, myself amongst them, find them to be distastefully sweet. Until fairly recently, "India Pale Ales" such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (which is reportedly dry hopped) or Full Sail Pale Ale1 were about the most heavily hopped American beers you would typically see in terms of aroma, though some of the American bitters were more bitter. [Note that there is an absolute chemical scale for bitterness, but in my experience it doesn't track that well with perceived bitterness.] About a year ago, though, someone bought me a Racer 5 India Pale Ale, which blew me away by how hoppy it was; Racer 5 is fairly bitter but has a huge hops aroma.

I've bought Racer 5 a few times since, but it's not really that mainstream a brand. Lately, though, two of the major craft breweries (Sierra Nevada and New Belgium, the people behind Fat Tire), have started rolling out their own super hoppy beers: Sierra Nevada Torpedo Ale and New Belgium Ranger India Pale Ale. Both are excellent: to my taste Torpedo Ale tastes more bitter whereas Ranger IPA has a much stronger hop aroma. My preference is for the heavier hop aromas, so I prefer Ranger IPA and Racer 5, but I'm just glad to see that the majors are starting to cater to hopheads like myself.

Afterword: I'm a huge fan of St. Stans Amber, but I thought St. Stans had gone under. I just recently noticed that they're still in business, but you can't seem to buy it in stores. Any reader who knows where you can pick it up in the Palo Alto area, please let me know.

1.Full Sail also makes an IPA, but for some reason I've always really noticed the hops aroma from the Pale Ale more than the IPA.