While the addition of the aromatic and bitter hops blossoms to beer is a relatively new development in the history of brewing, it’s almost impossible to imagine modern beer without the flavors this provides. In fact, the existence of hops in beer is legally mandated in the United States and the UK. The hops plant balances the sweetness of the malt in beer, adding complex flavors reminiscent of pine, flowers and citrus. They also have an antiseptic benefit, helping the product last longer in storage, which is what initially led to their widespread use. You may have heard the story of how the super-hoppy India Pale Ale originated when British brewers realized beer shipped better to far off colonies when dosed with a ton of hops.
While even most brewers likely know hops as little green pellets formed after dehydration, the hops plant itself is a beautiful specimen, with varied effects depending on the variety and the harvest. Beers from different regions can be imitated using the hops from the regions, and as such, growing and using a personal crop of hops is perhaps the pinnacle of a unique and personalized homebrew. It’s also pretty fun and interesting, a mix of gardening, chemistry and brewing skills.
So how does one get from homegrown plant to beer? This brief overview will actually skip ahead to the point when a hop grower has his or her first harvest ready to come home (for more on planting and growing see [here]), what magic each little nugget holds, and how to prepare and handle the final product.
Intro to Hops Anatomy and Chemistry
Long before they become powdery little pellets in sealed pouches at the homebrew store, the parts of the hops we’re after are the cone-like blossoms of the female plant. These soft, ruffly little bulbs are very simple structures made up of bracts, or tiny leaf-like structures, that encase yellow glands producing a powdery substance called lupulin. Lupulin carries pretty much everything you want to get out of the hops for brewing beer.
The subtleties of lupulin chemistry are demonstrated by the devoted craft of hops cultivation and the 80-some varieties of hops, each with a unique composition that is best for certain types of beer and stages of brewing. But there are two main components we want—alpha acids and beta acids. In short, the alpha acids are what provide the bitterness, and the beta acids provide aroma. Hops that are high in each are used for building in each component. American hops tend to be higher in alpha acids, hence the West Coast Pale Ale or IPA style. The term noble hops refers to a few varieties that have a perfect balance of the two, used in European pilsners.
So now that we know what we’re after in the hops plant, let’s go get it. Harvest time varies by variety and climate, and usually happens in late June or August, but you’ll know the cones are ready by feel and aroma. You don’t want a cone that is too moist or squishy, but one that is a bit lighter in color and papery in texture, a touch dryer than the green cones. They’ll be sticky with yellow lupulin and carry that unmistakable hops smell that will rub off on your hands.
To harvest, if you’ve supported the plant’s growth with string or twine, you can cut it down at the top and lie flat on the ground for ease, or just pick the cones from the standing vines. It will be pretty amazing how much comes off of each vine, especially in the second year of harvest and beyond. It’s also possible to make multiple harvests in a season, by plucking the most mature cones first and then going back for the rest as they become ready for harvest. One cool trick is to suspend the cords with removable hooks so you can lower them to the ground for harvest and then replace the vines.
You could just use the hops as they come off the plant, and some brewers have started strategically doing this in more recent years for a unique effect. But using fresh hops is unpredictable because they have such high water content. Fresh hops have up to 70% moisture, so it can be difficult to know how much to use for the desired flavors. Drying the hops out makes them easy to store and their content more predictable in recipes.
There are a few techniques for drying fresh hops. First, a food dehydrator at its lowest setting will work, if you were a fan of Ronco infomercials back in the 90s. Air-drying them will also work, by laying them flat out on a window screen and placing them in a warm environment, but not in direct sunlight. Another approach is storing them in a paper bag and shaking them gently once a day. Some people recommend drying them at low temperature in the oven, but after all the time invested in your plants, I think it’s worth it to give them the time to dry out slowly and evenly. The main ingredients are air and time.
One important thing to note here, hops cones are toxic to dogs, so don’t let your pets near them in any stage of the growing, harvesting, drying or storage.
Once the hops are dry, the petals will flake off easily and the centers will be dry if you break a cone open. Once you reach this point, however, it’s important to either use soon or place in storage. Hops are perishable and if they turn, they’ll lose aroma and bitterness or even develop a cheesy or gym sock flavor and smell. To keep them intact, store the dried hops in an airtight receptacle in the freezer. Plastic Ziploc baggies doubled up are a common method that will work short-term, but not ideal. The best solution is oxygen-barrier bags or Mylar bags, which really keep the air out. For that same reason, a vacuum sealer is also very beneficial (see Ronco infomercial comment above).
Finally, for convenience, keep them in small bags to avoid opening and reopening every time you need to access your stock. And if you’re dealing in multiple varieties, don’t forget to label them clearly for when it’s time to brew.