The Hophead’s Guide to Hops
The bar at Widmer’s Gasthaus brewery-pub here in Portland, OR, was fairly crowded as I settled in to relax a bit before going home. The fellow next to me asked what I was drinking, I told him, and he said he was just moving to Portland from Seattle. I genially commented that our (Portland) beer was better, even when it was bad, than Seattle beer, even when that was good. I had been joking, of course, but he agreed.
I asked if he had tasted Widmer’s newest “collaborator beer” (a beer designed by a homebrewer and then brewed by Widmer at their nearby 10-barrell Rose Garden brewery). He had, and he waxed on enthusiastically about that beer, which I still had not tasted myself.
The beer, Hopgnosis, designed by Brian Butenschoen, is a very strong IPA (India pale ale): 8.5 percent ABV (alcohol by volume), original gravity 18.5 Plato, and a stunning (but well-balanced) 72 IBUs.
His first question was, “What are I-B-Us?”
The Hop Factor
Most of us have no grasp of how the hop factor is measured. IBUs (International Bittering Units) are a measurement of the alpha-resin content in the beer. The alpha-resins are the major flavoring and bittering element in hops as they are incorporated into the beer. According to Ray Daniels (Designing Great Beers), “The IBU is a measure of the concentration of iso-alpha acids, in parts per million (mg/liter) in the finished beer .”
Ray has a formula for understanding this relationship: GU:BU. I call it the “GooBoo” ratio, which is Gravity Units—original specific gravity of the beer, less 1.000—divided by the IBUs. The above-mentioned Hopgnosis, for example, has an original gravity of 18.5-Plato, which is 1.076 specific gravity, less 1.000 = 76. Now divide that by 72 (IBUs) to get the GooBoo at 1.05. The lower the GooBoo, the higher the hop ratio. A well-balanced beer such as Czechvar (formerly Budvar from the Czech Republic) at just over 11-Plato—1.045—and 35 IBUs (45/35) would finish with a GooBoo of 1.3. Nice. Budweiser at 11-Plato—1.044—and only 10.5 IBUs, would have a GooBoo of 4.2 (44/10.5), very high.
The interesting thing about Budweiser is that Anheuser-Busch takes better care of the tiny hop increment that actually gets into their beer than any other brewer does on the planet. They even have their own hop farm in northern Idaho.
Hop vines are perennial climbers (12 to 15 feet high), but it is only the female plant that spawns the precious hop cones. At the end of the growing season (August-September), the hop vines are cut down and mechanically separated from their flower cones. The cones are dried and packaged in huge, 200-pound bales. They may also be presented as concentrated pellets, which look like rabbit pellets if the truth were known, or alternately, as concentrated hop extract.
Without hops, beer would be fairly boring. It was the use of hops in beer in the 15th century that constituted the first great beer revolution, when their use became common on the continent. It was Good King Wenceslaus who declared a death penalty on anyone smuggling the great Saaz hops out of Bohemia (now Czech Republic) and it was England’s King Henry VIII (he of the six wives fame) who made it unlawful to use hops in English ale, a ban that lasted for nearly 300 years.
The very nature of hops has changed since the advent of our craft beer revolution. Now we have brewers using hops just for the fun of it! We have drinkers searching for hoppy beers just for effect! We have hop growers creating new hop types just because they can!
Hops actually do have a job, and they are added to beer for several good reasons. Basically, they act as protection against souring bacteria in the beer. That was their original purpose, a use that dates back to 736 CE (Common, or Christian, Era).
Today, the bitterness that hops impart to the beer is a refreshing element in the good taste of that beer. These are now called bittering hops, and they are added to the sweet beer wort after that liquor has been separated from the malt and grain mash, and as it is brought to a boil in the brewery’s giant brew kettle. Then, the boiling action activates the resins and incorporates them into the sweet wort by a process called isomerization. The beer wort is boiled with the hops, which also has the effect of concentrating the sugars and eliminating some proteins before they can damage the flavor of the finished beer. When the boiling action is completed (about 90 minutes), the brewer adds a limited amount of more flavorful aromatic hops, and these impart their special character to the process.
Ah, the Lupulin!
As beer drinkers consume their beverage, something other than drunkenness takes place. We relax, smile, giggle, and sometimes take to singing. This is what I call the lupulin effect of the beer.
Lupulin (2,5T lupinol) is the active ingredient in the hop resins.
There is a feeling of relaxed well-being; one feels like talking and exchanging views. The lupulin effect also seems to be educational. You can discourse on any subject and at great length. The lupulin effect seems to enhance the singing voice. No matter you don’t know the words—any words will do. “Through the lips and over the gums, lookout stomach, here it comes!”
The lupulin effect reduces one’s inhibitions. You immediately become erudite, intelligent, friendly, and in dire need of another pint.
Lupulin is increasingly addictive. No longer will one be satisfied with a beer like Coors or Miller, at a mere 15 bitterness. No, this will not do at all; one needs more lupulin to survive. Soon Heineken, Beck’s, and Bass are left far behind, as one wanders ever deeper into lupulin addiction. Nothing less than an IPA will suffice; even 100 IBUs may not satisfy.
Lupulin contributes to our good health by stimulating deep breathing and song, but best of all, it makes the drinker feel richly contented. It’s the lupulin in beer that makes you sleep well and wake up happy. It does this by reducing anxiety and nervous tension—acting as a mild depressant. The lupulin also puts a damper on aggressive tendencies, which, in some people, are released by the alcohol. There’s also an improvement in one’s sex life. Beer drinkers are better lovers. (Ask any beer drinker if you doubt that.)
We sniff—the hop bouquet is an overwhelming fait accompli—the lupulin grabs us by our olfactory nerves, and we are once again lost in the stunning grandeur of the moment. “In heaven there is no beer, so we must drink it here!”
Now is the time to drink. Drink! Drink! Drink!