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The Beer Column

To truly appreciate a favorite food or drink it is necessary to understand what it’s made of. Once you understand the ingredients and how they affect flavor and aroma, you learn to recognize which brands or varieties you enjoy the most. While this theory doesn’t hold for Twinkies or Haggis, it is very helpful when you learn to appreciate beer. Beer is essentially just water, barley malt, hops and yeast yet from these four ingredients come dozens of styles, colors and flavors. Once you understand what gives your favorite beer the qualities you enjoy, a greater range of brands will appeal to you.

Though hops are a key ingredient in beer but most people know very little about them. Unlike malt or yeast, they aren’t used for much else nor are they visible in beer when you drink it. Though they are unseen, they provide many of the characteristics that influence whether we like a particular beer. Hence, a better appreciation of hops leads to a greater appreciation and enjoyment of beer in general.

The hop plant itself is a vine that bears cone-like flowers. The oils in the plant make beer bitter and impart a floral aroma when used in the brewing process. Without them beer would be too malty and sweet to drink. In addition, hops provide preservative qualities, allowing beer to be stored for greater lengths of time.

In the days before hops were used, beer was flavored with a variety of herbs, vegetables, berries, flowers and whatever else was available. Beer making in those days was a risky venture to begin with and this random assortment of flavors didn’t help to produce a quality beverage. With no alternative, people had to drink this putrid swill or go thirsty. These were indeed dark ages.

Thankfully, European brewers discovered the usefulness of hops and a new era was born. The flowers were found to be easy to harvest, more manageable in the brew pot and better tasting than what came before. Brewers quickly adopted the practice and now it is rare to find a beer that doesn’t use hops to some degree.

The popularity of hop flavor has led to some very bitter beers. India Pale Ales were made extra hoppy for long shipment to English colonies and became a model for bitter beers to come. Since then, beer in general became more generously hopped. If you’re looking for strong hop flavor, most IPAs should satisfy a regular hop hankering but if you want more, look for the following in better beer stores:

 Victory Hop Devil (PA)- Evilly delicious.
 Flying Dog’s Doggy Style (CO)- It gets you from behind.
 Long Trail IPA (VT)- An extremely hop-drenched version of the style sure to please the hophead.

Whatever your preference in beer, it is good to know what hops have to do with it. Thanks to this hardy vine, beer rose from a crude medieval beverage to the celebrated drink it is today. I’ve tried modern versions of pre-hopped beer and am personally very grateful for the hop plant as a result.

January 22, 2002
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