Beer is generally made up of just four ingredients; yeast, water, malted barley and hops, with all four having a huge part to play in the final flavour profile. The type of water and yeast can radically alter the flavour profile. For example, the yeast strain Brettanomyces is key for producing sour type beers which seem to be booming in popularity at the moment. Burton on Trent is historically famous for its successful breweries and this is thought to be because of the local water. Some breweries ‘Burtonise’ their water by adding sulphates which bring out the other subtle flavours in beer. Malted barley gives beer a real backbone of flavour, and is an essential starting place for more complex flavours to develop from. Lighter beers use barley that’s been malted for a shorter time, so it adds sweet, biscuity, cereal flavours. Barley malted for slightly longer gives the beer a more red/amber colour and toffee notes. Dark beers however use heavily roasted barley to give intense chocolate and coffee flavours.
Although beer wouldn’t be beer without yeast, water and malted barley, for me, hops are the real star of the show when it comes to so many beers. Beer nerds like myself can get quite (very) obsessive over these little flowers which seem to add so much excitement and flavour to an otherwise sweet, malty drink. The hop plant (Humulus Lupus) creates small flowers that look slightly like tiny green pine cones and it’s these flowers that are added to the brewing process. They are usually dried, come in either pellets or in some cases turned into essential oils.
Most hop plants are grown in either the US or New Zealand as they need quite specific growing conditions. The rise in popularity of craft beer has created a huge boom in the hop growing industry, with farmers constantly trying to create new and exciting breeds which give different flavour profiles. The hop farmers are struggling to keep up with beer drinkers. Over the past few years, there have been huge hop shortages which have forced brewers to tinker recipes as the original hops they used are now in such scarce supply. The UK does have a few hop varieties with East Kent Goldings and Fuggles being probably the two most famous.
Hops serve two flavourful purposes when added to beer; the first is to provide bitterness. Hops contain alpha acids which are released during the brewing process to give a bitter flavour. Generally, bittering hops are added earlier on during the boil and little of their other flavours are present in the end product. The second comes from hops added later in the boil which are the source of the beautiful aromas and fruity/floral flavours. It is common for brewers to use a variety of hops in any one beer to give a fuller, rounder hop flavour.
Some beer styles have a heavy hop focus, IPAs being the most obvious. However, most lighter beers tend to need a hop kick as the flavours from light malts alone would be too delicate to produce a well-rounded beer. On the other hand, styles like stouts have so much richness coming through from the roasted malts that the presence of hops is much less needed.
For many people, the most obvious difference between craft and mass produced beer is the hops. Going from a standard lager to an IPA can be a bit of a mind blow flavour-wise and some people are put off by the initial bitterness. There are plenty of other flavours that develop as you drink a hoppy beer so it’s it’s definitely worth trying to block out the bitterness for your first few and try to pick out things like pine, citrus and elderflower tastes. You’ll grow to love the bitterness!
Some of my favourite hops include Citra, Sorachi Ace and Nelson Sauvin. Citra is quite self-explanatory – unsurprisingly it gives off beautiful, juicy citrus flavours. Sorachi Ace is a really interesting one. Lots of people get lemon from it, but for me it’s adds a real coconut flavour to beer. Nelson Sauvin is named after the Sauvignon Blanc grape used for wine making and is often said to give light, fresh gooseberry notes like you’d expect from the wine. It also brings tropical fruits and tangerine type flavours to give a lovely, juicy intense beer.
The best way to learn more about hops is go to your local homebrew shop, or brewery, and ask to smell the different hops they have available. The aromas are so intense and give a good indication of what they’ll bring to any beer they’re added to.
Originally published in Issue 6 of our Flavourly Magazine. Written by Isla Mercer, Diary of a Beer Girl.