We new brewers love hops. Sticky, resiny, pungent, citrus-drenched hops.

It began as a reaction to the dumbing-down of mainstream beers, whose alpha acid levels are now about level with the human threshold, which is about 6 IBU (International Bittering Units). Like the recently starved, we eat our fill…then keep going. I used to think we’d get over it, but people often have trouble giving up their obsessions. In other words, massively hoppy beers (MHBs) are here to stay.

The lineage for these beers traces back to the pale ale family, deep gold to pale amber beers that originated in England around 1800. Back then, pale ales bound for India were dosed with additional hops as a preservative. Word got back to England and the style became popular there, as well as on our side of the Atlantic.

Resurgent home and craft brewers have latched onto pale ales and India pale ales (IPAs), reinventing them as we Americans tend to do. Balance, once a hallmark of the style, is jauntily tilted to the bitter side. The bad boy pine-and-citrus perfume of the uniquely American Cascade hop suffused the first beers to bear the American pale ale flag. Today, Cascade hops and its relatives are still touchstones for the style.

How Much is Enough?

To brew a beer that is hoppy to its very core requires some strategy. MHBs are bound by the physical limits of solubility of alpha acid (the bitter element in hops) in wort, yet brewers are still seeking ways to create ever-hoppier beer. This article will serve as a bit of a tutorial.

Hops contain three things of interest to brewers: aroma, bitterness and the preservative effects of tannins. As hops are normally added during the boil, there are trade-offs between aroma and bitterness. Alpha acid needs an hour or so of boiling to transform into a bitter, soluble form. But during that time, aromas waft away, so late additions to the kettle are also needed. Additions at 60, 30 and 5 minutes (or some variation on that schedule) are typical. Brewers at Dogfish Head have gone so far as to add hops continuously to their series of 60-, 90- and 120-minute IPAs, first with a hilarious arrangement that actually employed a vibrating tabletop football game (!), which has since been replaced with a more businesslike screw conveyor. Bottom line: adding hops to the boil is a great start, and will be your primary source of bitterness.

Somewhere between aroma and bitterness is something called “flavor,” which is not nearly as simple a term as one might think. Your tongue, of course, is capable of distinguishing tastes such as sweet, sour, salty and bitter, plus a couple of more recently added ones such as fat and umami (glutamate). But this limited capability doesn’t fully describe the sensations we experience. It turns out that aroma receptors in the top of the throat/back of the nose process aromas a little differently than other olfactory signals from the nose, and are involved in detecting familiarity and preference.

Adding a Flash of Flavor

There are specific techniques for adding hop flavor. One recently rediscovered method is called “first-wort hopping.” This involves adding a charge of hops to the kettle as the first sweet wort is run in from the mash tun. This technique definitely produces a marked increase in what is perceived as hop flavor. It appears that exposure to air and certain temperatures oxidize hop aroma compounds in pleasant ways, changes that also make the hop oils more soluble in wort, and less likely to waft away during the boil process.

Adding hops to the mash produces similar effects, and was once used in beers such as Berliner weiss, where the hops also improved filtering action in this wheat-centric style. I have known brewers who add hops to the mash liquor to further amplify the hops experience, and this is also something you run across in the old brewing books, especially those dealing with German and French brewing. It’s unclear how effective this method is, but usually those old European masters knew what they were doing.

Getting Hip to Hops

The choice of hops is important. High-alpha varieties are essential. With low-alpha hops, the load of biomass you need to add to the kettle can turn the brew into a spongy stew, requiring a washing machine spin-cycle to recover the hop-trapped wort. (By the way, I don’t know if this has been done, but it’s sure been contemplated.)

Unfortunately, breeders of high-alpha hops were not too picky about the quality of aroma, although newer varieties are more pleasant. Try varieties like Ahtanum, Columbus and Centennial, and avoid Nugget and Brewer’s Gold. Chinook is very grapefruity; people either love it or hate it.

And don’t forget about the malt. MHBs demand a load of maltiness to balance their otherwise screechy bitterness. Caramel/crystal are the usual choices, but mid-color European malts like Munich and melanoidin can add extra depth. Too much color and you have a red—not a pale—ale.

Finally, don’t be afraid to make these beers strong. American brewers have resurrected the 19th century term ”Imperial” to designate beers of luxurious strength. It takes a lot of malt to balance 100 IBUs. Gravities of 1070 to 1090 (seven to eight percent alcohol) are typical.

But enough talk. Let’s brew…

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