On Hops

"On Hops" is an introduction to the intriguing world of hops, as seen through the eyes of a budding hopmeister on 'Hop-A-Bout" in Belgium and beyond. Please join us as we attempt to answer the burning questions: what do we know about hops? What don't we know about hops? What do we want to know if only we knew enough to ask? And, finally, if we threw the smartest hop scientists into a pub and locked the door, could they come up with a new hop flower that would change the world? Or would they simply pass out? Please join us on this magical mystery tour and don't forget to tell us what you love about hops and why.

(1) The National Hop Museum of Poperinge, Belgium.
This town is hopped up on hops. They have an annual hop parade., the sidewalks are dotted with bronze hop plaques, hop cones dominate the city’s flag and monuments honoring hops, farmers and pickers abound. 

On Hop-A-Bout in Belgium and Beyond

Throughout the ages hops have received mixed reviews. They’re either a curse or a panacea, a “wicked weed” or medicinal, “green gold” or “the sperm of Satan.”

That last reference is harsh, yet intriguing. I heard the unkind metaphor on a recent trip to The Hop Museum in Poperinge, Belgium (West Flanders), renown for cultivating hops since the 1500’s. Prior, I had always bristled at the tendency of some brewers to invoke Satanic imagery in naming their big bold beers. (1)

How, I thought, could a beverage that inspires moods ranging from the tranquil to the romantic be linked to the Dark Angel?

Well, according to the Belgians, there’s a myth that goes something like this.  When the earth was created, Satan was down under and decided to come up for air. On dry land, he scooped up in his craw a chunk of Mother Earth.  God came down from above to greet his nemesis, at which point Satan began choking. God, ever the merciful, intervened by performing a sort of Heimlich maneuver.

God squeezed hard and Satan spat out a stringy clump of weeds that had been clogging his throat. The plant? Yep – the hop. According to myth, the hop was the only plant on Earth not created by God.

Does this mean that the clergy from way back when has condemned hops? Far from it. The patron saint of hops is said to be Bishop Arnold, who in the 16th century encouraged townsfolk to drink hop-infused beer. (2)

Not because the Bishop advocated getting scuppered all day, mind you, but during medieval times, the drinking water often came from the same place in which the chamber pots were dumped.  Beer, at least, was boiled, which killed water borne parasites. Hops by the 1550’s also began to draw attention for their preservative powers, that is, they would delay spoiling. (3)

And of course we all know that for years in Europe The Church at least at the grass roots level was the source of much great brewing, a tradition which continues today, especially in Belgium, which is home to 5 of the 6 certified trappiste monastery breweries.

(2) Holy Water? 
Historically, hops have been called both Satanic and blessed by the hands of god. In the medieval era, the Church was a strong proponent of hopped beers, first because various abbeys brewed beer and thus made money, and second because beer posed less of a health risk than unboiled water.  St. Arnoldus, the Patron Saint of Hops and Beer, is on the far right.

(3) St. Arnold, Patron Saint of Beer and Hops,
who made beer drinking a public health necessity.  Brewers House, Brussels.

So then, what is this weed they call hops?  Why has it at once been revered and rebuked? Where does it get its magic, for better or worse? Why do brewers crave it? Is it a spice? Does it serve any other uses outside the brewing industry? (4)

I’m not a scientist. Nor am I a brewer.  By trade, I’m a lawyer.  That’s not important. What’s important is that I love beer and I yearn to learn more about the noble flower that gives beer its taste, aroma, shelf-life and potentially therapeutic powers.

I recently traveled to Belgium, “the Beer Paradise,” on my quest to learn more about the noble flower.  My travels took me to La Maison des Brasseurs (the Brewer’s House, circa 1695) in Brussels (5), the Gruut House in Bruges (circa 1400), and the National Hop Museum in Poperinge, as well as a few of the surrounding hopyards and breweries. (6)

(4) In Hops We Lust?
Outrageously salacious hop nymph adorning cover photo of Hop Museum Poperinge tour booklet. Take that, Bud Girls!

(5) The Brewers House on the Grand Place in Brussels. 
Belgian Brewing has always been a wellspring of creativity, wealth, and taxes.

(6) Hop Tour! 
Belgium is a beer and a bicycle paradise. My wife and I enjoyed a riding our bikes from Poperinge to Abele and Watou, stopping along the way to smell the hop flowers and sample the abbey-style beers. Even the kind soul who rented us our bikes grew hops. “I grew one hectare of Magnum and just sold it,” he beamed.

The sight, sounds, smells, and tastes set my brain abuzz. So much history, so much living history.  I came home from my Belgium beer tour thirsty to learn more. Below is my admittedly unlearned stab at deconstructing hops, aka, “humulus lupulus,” for regular folks who, like me, love a hoppy beer but want to know more about why this is so and how.  (7)

(7) Grinning Hop Pilgrim.
Standing on hallowed grounds were hops were first cultivated about 600 years ago. The terroir in Poperinge  favors Target, Magnum and Challenger. .In the 1400s, Poperinge farmers borrowed hop varieties from two established European hop hotspots, Wolnzach in the Hallertau region of Bavaria (Germany) and Zatec, in the Saaz area of what’s now the Czech Republic.

What is Humulus Lupulus?
The word. “humulus” probably derives from the word humus, which we know means rich, fertile soil. Humela comes from the German word for hops.

“Lupulus” means what it sounds like it means: a wolf, in this case, a small wolf, with a big appetite for strangling and smothering willows or whatever innocent lamb-like bush is in the path of its rapacious vines. (8)

So now hops are associated with the diabolical Satan and the insatiably wicked wolves of lore? Sheesh! Is the folklore right? Are hops a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Do they seduce their prey with a promise of a kiss but deliver instead a punch in the stomach or a crack on the head? Let’s find out more.

Is Hops related to Cannabis, the wacky weed?
Sort of.  The genus Humulus belongs to the Cannabaceae, or hemp, family.  Does this mean smoking hops will get you high? I don’t have any personal knowledge, but I don’t think so. Cannabis, indeed, is a narcotic – a hallucinogen -- but I’m not aware that it’s active ingredient (viz, THC), has ever been located in hops. 

So, if on the rare occasion you enjoyeth a hopped beverage too much, you may deserve to be called many things, and I don’t mean to sound unbearably wonkish, but technically you’re not a “hop head.”  That slang was originally used in the early 20th century to describe opium addicts, not upstanding beer drinkers. The alcohol in beer may get you high(or low), but probably not the hops (darn!).  

But, as we’ll find out, hops historically (think here of Native American Indians) have been used for many of the same reasons that humans have lit up a blunt: to relax, to alleviate nausea, to combat insomnia, and to transport oneself to a distant galaxy far, far away.   Sometimes you just have to believe.

Are Hops a Weed, a Fruit, or a Flower?

The short answer is that a hop is the un-deflowered virgin female fruit of the once and former climbing weed that still grows wild in places but in the most part over the past 50 years has been bred to meet specific farmer, brewer and consumer needs.

I like to think of the female cone as a greenish bee hive (bzzzz). (9) Or a berry-sized hand grenade (kabamm!). Or a dwarf-sized, greenish-yellow pine cone (what sound does oozing sap make?).  During its peak growth spurt on a really hot day, the vine can explode upward at the astonishing rate of about an inch an hour. (10)

(8) A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?
Magnum hops in Poperinge reaching for the sky, blotting out the sun. 
(9) Hop Honey. 
You can almost hear the buzz. Magnum hops, Poperinge.

(10) The vines spiral in a clockwise fashion around the stringer. 
The farmer will need to train the vine during the infancy of its growth to move in a clockwise rotation. Charles Darwin wrote in 1875 that the vine traveled upward “round towards all points of the compass, moving, like the hands of a watch, with the sun.”  The Movement and Habits of Climbing Plants.  Darwin observed that “the average (growth) rate during hot weather and during the day is 2 hrs. 8 m. for each revolution.”  Since I’m quoting Darwin, let me get this right: it’s not a vine, technically, it’s a “bine,” which uses its stout stems with stiff hairs to help it climb. Vines, on the other hand, use tendrils, hooks, and suckers for attaching themselves.

The word ‘hops” refers to the mature female “honey” cone.  When it comes to male “hop” visitation, farmers strictly enforce the “no fly zone.”  Males have a tendency to spew their pollen, which is good for propagating the species and increasing yields, but fertilization also results in seeds, which brewers can’t use and don’t like.  In some countries, it’s against the law to grow libidinous male hop plants too close to our vulnerable virgin hop daughters.

By the way, it sounds weird, but “hops” is not plural. It refers to the female flower, which is the cone valued by brewers, homeopaths, nutritionists and beer lovers. If you don’t mind, I’ll try to be semantically correct (first time for everything!).

What’s Inside the Fruit? Anatomy 101.

This is where the magic is hidden.  Let’s take a look inside the un-forbidden fruit, starting with the precious, brightly yellow itty-bitty granules known as lupulin glands. The glands cluster together in sticky balls which remind me of caviar, except they’re yellow.

Let’s cut open a cone.  Take a look at the cleaved cone. (11)  Focus on four words:  resins, oils, polyphenols and tannins.  These are the precious metabolites of the mother’s lupulin loins. Most of the power from the hops is packed inside these volatile lupulin glands.

Lupulin: Bitter and Spice and Everything Nice.

Brewers love hops for a number of reasons, in particular their bittering, flavor, aroma, and preservative or “bacteriacidal” properties.  In tandem with yeast, hops also help stabilize foam and clarify the beer.

In simplified terms, the resins contain the bittering compounds. The oils contain the aroma substances. The tannins (in the bracteoles and leaves of the cone) contain the polyphenols, those much ballyhooed molecules found in plants that are revered for their anti-oxidant, anti-cancer and anti-aging properties.  (12)

I must add that even the leaves of mature cones ooze a smattering of lupulin.  Lupulin lupulin lupulin! These babies are lousy with the stuff. 

(12) Flower Power! 
If it’s good, the lupulin resin will stick to your fingers like Cheetos cheese dust.

Boning up on Bitterness

What gives beer that bitter taste? Acid. There are two main kinds of acids: alpha acid (humulones) and beta acids (lupulones). Don’t worry, you’re not going to be tested on this, but I love the look and sound of these words.  You are encouraged to Google from here on out.

Back in The Day (way back in the 1500’s), brewers relied on their nose to determine the utility of hops. Nowadays, the nose still rules, but it’s supported by a dizzying amount of data generated from hi-tech equipment that measures acids, oils and the other constituents.

Chemists have identified over 100 bitter substances in hops.   The acid content varies greatly depending on the climate and soil conditions where the hop is grown, the ripeness of the cone, the interlude between harvest and processing, the integrity of the conversion of the cone into a dried cone or pellet, the storage environment, and of course the hops variety – or “cultivar.”  There are about 50 cultivars which can be traced back to a handful of noble grandmothers (more on that later). Remember this: hops are not a fungible commodity. Like grapes, each cultivar has a distinct aroma and flavor.

A bittering hops contains higher levels of alpha acids than their counterpart, the aroma hops.   High alpha acid hops are generally the province of macro-brewers, but whatever the size of the kettle, it’s going to contain a healthy dose of alpha acids.

 (13) Sulphur?
When drying hops, in order to help maintain the cone’s brilliance, farmers would often burn big chunks of sulphur, whose vapors would rise up and saturate the cones on the drying beds above.  The practice was banned in Belgium in 1992

The insoluble alpha acid resins become soluble when boiled in the wort, a process called “isomerization.” The resulting  downstream acid derivatives after boiling are called “iso-alpha-acids.” This is what you taste in your beer – the bitterness. 

About 25-35% of the alpha acids are actually isomerized in the wort.  More numbers, uggh, but listen up: the resulting “metabolite” of that boiling – the iso-alpha-acid, depending on the beer style and hoppiness of the brewer – usually amounts to about 80% of all hop-derived constituents in your beer. 

In other words, alpha acids and their progeny are in it for the long haul.  Which is good, as they help stabilize beer foam (more, longer, stickier) and kill off the yucky bacteria. On the other hand, you won’t find a trace of beta acids in the beer you drink.  If your mouth puckers unpleasantly (the insider’s word is “astringency”), that may be because you have just tasted the oxidized by-products of beta acids, which generally are about twice as bitter as iso-alpha acids.

By the way, the length and “hotness” of the boil are thought to both contribute to the beer’s bitterness quality. 

How, exactly, this happens is beyond the grasp of this budding hopmeister, but it stands to reason that during the boiling and fermenting there’s a vast, swirling and nearly mystical maelstrom of chemical reactions that add, subtract and re-create beer molecules, many of which have yet to be discovered and classified, sort of like exotic flowers hidden in the Amazon.

Put another way: Who can make your brain glow? The beer man can because he mixes it with hops and makes the world go round…With apologies to Willy Wonka, female brewers, and to you, the bewildered reader, who had just been rapped on the knuckles for harboring the wild idea that hops can get you high. Hang in there and remember what Emerson said about foolish consistency, hobgoblins, small minds and all that rot. (14)

(14) Humulus Lupulus, the Hop Siren’s Call.
A café adjacent to the Hommelbier brewery in Watou, seducing tourists on bicycles in search of the magic brew.

Oddly, a hops variety with a high alpha acid content does not necessarily mean that the beer it’s used in will be proportionately bitter. I mention this because even the lab coats don’t know exactly how alpha acids contribute to a beer’s bitterness quality. It’s not clear whether you can detect the bitterness from an alpha acid with your nose or tongue. Don’t you just love these mysteries and conundrums that are beyond the reach of science?. Ah, the romance…(15)

(15) Honoring Hops.
In nearby Watou, we enjoyed a proper glass of Poperings Hommelbier at a café that was next door to the Van Eecke brewery.  Look at that head.

Aroma hops:  Breathe in the Great Outdoors!

Alpha acids thrive in bittering hops, but the beta acids predominate in the aroma hops.  The aroma exudes from the essential oils secreted from the pungent lupulin glands.  When you breathe in a frothy pint of an American style India pale ale, close your eyes and go back to your childhood days when you ran barefoot in the park.

What do you smell? Fresh cut grass? Pine trees? Flowers? Grapefruit? Citrus?  These aromas flow from the essential oils, which carry a complimentary flavor as well.  To be sure, all hops, whether classified as “bittering” or “aroma,” have an aroma, but like roses some are more fragrant than others. (16)

(16) Happy Pappy! 
St. Bernardus brewery, Watou, Belgium, a mere hops throw from the Van Eecke brewery.  In the early 1900’s, a group of parishioners established the Refuge de Notre Dame de StBernard in Watou, where they originally made cheese.  Eventually a brewery was built on the farm where Sixtus beers were concocted with the help of the master brewers from Westvleteren, a nearby certified trappist monastery.

Chemists have identified in hops over 250 aroma components, but only a fraction of those have been linked to distinct aromas. The four major oils found in most hop varieties are myrcene, humulene, caryophyllene and farnesene. Oils have been identified which impart particular flavors (e.g., citrussy, flowerey, piney, lemony, etc.).  Myrcene is the predominant oil but it doesn't add any flavor.  Farnesene is important, but we don't really know why. And the profile of a premium aroma hop should have a 3:1 humulene to caryophyllene ratio.

Just so you know, I'm not springing this on you like I'm an authority. I called up Dr. Al Haunold, the retired captain of the USDA hops breeding program in Corvallis, Oregon for over 30 years. Dr. Haunold pretty much knows everything about breeding alpha and aroma hops. He also mentioned that a good aroma should be high in "linalool." He mentioned that like I was supposed to know what it is. I did a web search and found out that linalool is a naturally occuring compound found in flowers and spices that imparts a pleasant scent, is used in Vitamin E, and has anti-anxiety properties. I think after trying to digest all these new words and chemicals I should get some of that and rub it all over myself.

It'd be nice if we could simply measure a hop's total oils and draw conclusions about the aroma, that is, high oils mean great aroma, but alas it's more complicated than that.  If most of the oil is myrcene, you've got butkus. Nobody's really sure which remaining oils need to be amped up, or the optimal ratio. There are dozens of other oils we've identified, but it's not clear what contributions to flavor or aroma they impart, if any.

It gets more complicated. A hop's flavor may also be influenced by sugar molecules.  During brewing, the highly volatile hop oils quickly vaporize, but hop oils “weighted down” by sugar molecules persevere. The theory is that these sugar molecules, known as “glycosidically bound hop aroma precursors,” which have no aroma, are not cleaved off until after yeast is added during fermentation. Once liberated from the sugar molecules, the aromas can flourish. So, scientists wonder, does the aroma arise from the “glycosidically bound hop aroma precursors,” or from the essential oils, or both? And what influence does yeast play?

Research has been ongoing for years on the contribution of aroma and alpha acid constituents to the taste of beer, but the unknowns far outstrip the knowns.  We do know that brewers typically add aroma hops towards the end of the boil to prevent the evaporation of their essential oils and to bring out the hop flavor and aroma.  “Dry hopping” is when the brewer adds the aroma hops after the wort has cooled and has nearly finished fermenting.

It’s easier to measure the acid composition technologically than the aroma content. For bittering, we have a universal measuring standard – BU – but we don’t have one for aromas, that is, as an Aroma Unit (AU). We can isolate and analyze bittering compounds using “high pressure liquid chromatography” (who would question that?). To isolate oils, we can crank up a capillary gas chromatograph, but it won’t tell us the whole story on the quality of an aroma. For that, we still and thankfully need to rely on our nose. (17)

(17) Old-timer testing hops using low-tech nose, lips, eyes, and fingers. "I don't need no stinkin' lab..."

Another aside: beer without a bouquet is like a perfume without a scent. Brewers who focus on super alphas but either don’t use or underuse aroma hops in my view are undermining the evolution of our species. If we don’t use our nose, as when we pop a top and unblinkingly inhale a cold frosty, sort of like a dog lapping up water from a mud puddle, over time, will we lose our sense of smell? Is industrial beer counter-evolutionary? These important questions must be asked. (18)

(18) A liquid ticket to heaven. 
St. Bernardus Tripel. Blond, mellow and delightfully bitter.  We sat at a table below a masculine cross beam festooned with strings of decorative hop vines loaded down with ageless flowers, gazing down on their disciples like approving gods.

The amount of oil in a cone tends to increase as the flower ripens on the bine.  Delaying the harvest will enhance the oil content. A perfect hop for the craft brewer would be an aroma hop that was harvested at its peak oil output, baled delicately, milled and processed at the lowest temperature technologically possible, and refrigerated just above freezing, all within a few days of harvest.  Timing and TLC matter.

In the real world, delaying the harvest of aroma hops may be a challenge. Many farmers begin harvesting when the alpha hops are primed (since much more acreage is usually contracted for alpha hops).  Delaying the harvest of aroma hops by even two weeks can substantially increase the yield of essential oils. Since high alpha hops tend to fetch longer, more secure and more lucrative contracts, not only do they drive the timing of harvest for all varieties a farmer may grow, the alphas also get priority when it comes to processing. For most pelleting plants, the aroma hops get pushed to the back of the line, behind the alphas. 

Since we're talking about a "perfect" aroma hop, not only is the maturity important to optimize oils, but also the timing of the "training" of the hop plant.  It takes time to "train" a hop bine to climb the ladder. Too early, and it will experience a premature bloom followed by a second bloom. Nobody's ever really studied the optimal time for training the bine with respect to how it impacts the oil content. This factoid is critical for two reasons: 1) not all varieties are the same and thus should have different optimal training and harvesting times, and 2) high-volume  factory farmers generally train and harvest on a timetable that is driven by the economic imperative of maximing alpha acids, not by what's best for optimizing oils. Aromas need more TLC, which means more labor, which means more cost.

The Bones of the Cone: Tannins

If the lupulin glands generate the juice (i.e, the acids and aromas), then the stems and the strig of the cone are the bones that produce the blood. The blood are the tannins, which pump out the much ballyhooed medicinal or bioactive properties of hops, also known as “polyphenols.”

Polyphenols are the stuff that vitamins, energy drinks and all manner of magical potions, powders and elixirs are made of.  These would include those natural little life-sustaining gems like flavonoids, catechins, quercetin and xanthohumol. If you look these up, you’ll know why your momma urged you to eat your veggies. 

Polyphenols help protect plants and beverages (like green tea and wine) from the ravages of oxidation. In the human body, they’re supposed to roam through the immune system scavenging free radicals which can trigger fatigue, inflammation and, much worse, cancer.  Hops contain one of the highest levels of polyphenols in plants (around 4-6% by weight).The polyphenols also contribute to the harshness or smoothness of the bitterness. According to Dr. Thomas Shellhammer of Oregon State University, while most of the polyphenolic content of beer comes from the malt, hop polyphenols contribute up to 1/3 of the load in finished beer.

Industrial brewers, however, in their zeal for lighter, thinner, and fizzier lagers, consider polyphenols a “nuisance.” They generally use extracts which suck up the alpha acids but leave out the polyphenols, which arguably inject “haziness” in beer (you know, the stuff traditionally referred to as “food”).  It remains controversial whether polyphenols can enhance the flavor of beer. If it does, then we still don’t know exactly when’s the best time to “boost the juice” during the brewing process nor the best form with which to do it (that is, via whole hops, pellets, or concentrated extract) .

Dr. Shellhammer has found that it’s possible to soup up a beer’s anti-oxidant powers by dry hopping with hops cultivars which have a  higher polyphenol content.  Good work!  More beer, cleaner arteries, fewer bust-out cancer cells, and joints that don’t creak like a rusty door hinge?  The neutraceutical angle has certainly worked for the wine industry, which smartly marketed resveratrol-boosted red wine as a must-drink, heart healthy elixir.

On the other hand, as we’ll discuss later, even if brewers could get past federal rules that prohibit them from making unsubstantiated health claims (e.g, “Drink Beer, Live Longer”), it’s not at all clear whether beer lovers would love a hopped up “healthy beer” if it tasted like medicine. Yuck!

The aroma hops generally sport higher contents of polyphenols than their mo-bitter brothers, but this varies. The content of course is contingent on many factors, such as the weather, the plant variety, the growing region (the terroir) and the handling, processing and storage after harvest. (19)

(19) Warning: Hop High Imminent.
Pilgrim taking a whiff of aroma hop pellets bound for a swirling brew tanks (aka, “coppers”) towards the end of the boil to add flavor and aroma to the wort.  Fuller Brewery, London.

The tannins are also good for the plant. They can help the noble weed ward off bacteria and fungi. If you sip a beer and your mouth puckers, it’s probably because your beer is loaded with tannins, which interact with your salivary glands.

Now for a brief detour. As I’ve always counseled my congenitally peevish bicycling cohorts: Bitter good, Sour bad! As with beer, in cycling, or any competition generally, bitterness is a state of mind that, with the proper channeling and discipline, can be converted into a powerful force for goodness. Ticked off you got beat? Train harder. And smarter. Sourness, on the other hand, is a self-defeating poison which at the very least can turns you into an intolerable grouch. (20)

(20) Captain Nimrod’s Bitter Ale. Drink Up, Dream On.
Bitterness, properly brewed with generous portions of robust spirit, blood, sweat, tears and freed eggs, is the breakfast of champions. Courtesy of Team Labor Power . "Click Image to enlarge"

In retrospect, my destiny as a budding hopmeister was cast years ago when I learned as a bike racer that without bitterness – the agony of defeat – there can be no thrill of victory.

Does Lance Armstrong Endorse Hops?

Not that I know of, but he does like to boast of his enjoyment of a cold Shiner bock.  It’s a trick question of course designed to get your attention and let me tell you a story. Yes, our little detour just got a little longer, but hold on, please.

As alluded to above, I’m a bike racer. As such, I’m always looking for an edge, especially when it comes to what I eat and drink. A few years ago, Lance Armstrong’s mug began appearing everywhere on the web, posing the annoyingly catchy question: “Tired of being tired?” 

Lance suggested that if the answer was “yes,” then the serious athlete ought to be drinking cases of FRS (short for “free radical scavenger’), the active ingredient in which was a powerful anti-oxidant mentioned above: quercetin.

Lance’s FRS ad program spotlighted quercetin as a miracle molecule that would all but suck up the lactic acid in your legs like a sponge and clean out the crud in your blood. Lance taught that quercetin originated in onions, tea leaves and the skin of red grapes: foods associated with good clean health.  We also learned that quercetin was renown for being one of the most potent plant-derived anti-oxidants.

But wait. It turns out that a healthy dose of quercetin can also be found in hops.  Not only do hops offer quercetin, they also pack another powerful flavonoid called xanthohumol (XN).  Xantho  what?

Now this is where I get excited.  As a lawyer the past 20 years, I’ve been representing patients stricken with mesothelioma, a terrible cancer of the lung and stomach linings caused by asbestos.  There’s no cure, so I’m always on the look out for natural cancer preventatives and remedies. [Don’t worry, we won’t get sidetracked with deposition war stories!].  (20, 21)

(20, 21)  Your pilgrim
manhandling an old school cask beer hand pump at the Fuller Brewery tasting room.  I enjoyed the London Pride, but preferred the Organic Honey Dew. Sadly, although zillions of pubs in London are “tied” to the Fuller Brewery, I never found their organic beer on tap.

I did a “pubmed”  search (much faster but not as much fun as a “pub crawl”) and lo and behold, the medical literature is bursting with articles that have confirmed the anti-cancer properties of XN, which is found only in hops and, unhappily,  to a much lesser extent, in beer.

Xanthohumol : Does it Do a Body Good?

The consensus in the literature on hop-derived XN can be summarized as follows.  XN is one of the most powerful anti-oxidants around – more beneficial than Vitamin E and even Vitamin C.

It can energize the body’s natural defense mechanisms. It can help lower bad cholesterol (LDL), and thus reduce the risk of heart disease. As a botanical cholesterol buster it packs more punch than the anti-oxidants in green tea and red wine.

XN has been shown in multiple in vitro studies (that is, in test tubes, not in human clinical trials), to kill cancer cells, retard cancer cell proliferation, and block angiogenesis (the process by which cancer cells stay fed by sprouting blood vessels).

XN has been shown to be a terminator of various bad bugs, viruses and fungi. It can even guard against neuro-degenerative diseases. Basically, a dose of XN is like a sip from the mythical fountain of youth.

Does this mean that by drinking beer you will lower your risk of cancer, heart disease, malaria, Alzheimer’s and jock rot? No, not by a long shot. Remember, the bulked up acids and oils in hops get isomerized in the brew process and the hoppy byproducts of all that heating, worting and yeasting get stretched pretty thin.

It turns out to get a medically beneficial dosage of hop-based XN in a typical industrial lager you would need to guzzle 120 gallons of beer – a day.

Scientists at OSU have suggested that concentrating the XN in a pill form would offer a more palatable option. Perhaps the bio-chemists at OSU, where much of the pharmaceutical research is ongoing, can sit down over a beer (or six) with their colleagues a few buildings over at the USDA/OSU hops breeding program to figure out a way to genetically engineer hops to boost their XN content from birth to bottling.  

(22) A two-barrel pilot brewing plant
at OSU's Fermentation Sciences facility.
(23) USDA-ARS Hop Research site. 
What humulus lupulus lurks under this soil? 

Better yet, why doesn’t Indie Hops help make that collaboration happen?  Note to self: talk to the lab coats at OSU about breeding new salubrious (a pretentious but addictive word I learned in college that means tending to promote well-being) hop cultivars that amplify the good stuff. (22, 23)

Ok, let’s get back on our sidetrack. I’ve heard that in Germany a brewer added polyphenol extract to the fermented brew just before bottling in an effort to boost it’s nutrition content. I don’t know if it tasted any good. [Note to self: call Germany]. Theoretically, if polyphenol concentrate or extract could be added after the boiling and fermenting without compromising the taste or aroma, then we’d be looking at a home run. Note to self: don’t’ just talk about it, get on the phone with the OSU lab coats and make this happen!

It’s been reported that lager beers have a higher anti-oxidant impact than that of green tea, red wine and grape juice. An association has been found between higher alpha acid hops and higher XN content. Again, more research is needed.

Hallelujah!  Just called OSU. We’re going to try to make something happen. As of this writing, Indie Hops has offered to sponsor research at OSU that will breed new aroma hops varieties especially for the craft brewer.  (CLICK HERE to OSU/IH research page). 

Awesome! This feels right. I grew up in Corvallis, my father got his Ph.D in genetics at OSU, my stepfather was his doctorate advisor (now that’s a titillating story, which we’ll save for another day), and I spent the best days of my youth  playing Pop Warner football at Parker Stadium and pick-up hoops at Gill Coliseum.

Little did I know then that I was destined to return to OSU – which has housed the brain trust of hops breeding since the 1960s – with hops on my brain. I know from my days as an asbestos lawyer the importance of supporting basic and applied research.  OSU not only has a breeding program run by the USDA on campus but also a fermentation sciences department.

Talk about bang for your buck. An investment in hops research at OSU can help bring new super aroma cultivars to market, help bring new crops to Oregon farmers, and help develop beers that not only taste and smell great but might even be good for you.

 (24) Honing the Cone.
An exhibit at the Hop Museum which shows the three forms of commercially available hops:  dried whole cones (rt), palletized hops in vaccum sealed bags (top), and tin cans with dark sludge (yuck!), also known as extract or jelly. One bag of pellets is equivalent to the crate of dried cones.

Listen up: total beer sales in the U.S. exceed $80 billion a year. Billion with a B! Of that, the craft beer segment brings in about $5.5 billion, or about 6% of the US beer market.

The macros (In Bev/Bud, Coors, Miller and so on) have tons of money, but they make lite, fizzy, industrial lagers, not the rich, hopped-up craft beers that you’ve come to love. They’ll spend billions on advertising, but do you think they’ll spend more than a dime on research to amp up those cloudy polyphenols in the beer you drink? Not likely.

The Macros want extracts. They want juice. (24) They’ve perfected the dark art of separating the resins from the tannins, which include the polyphenols.  The macros are pumping out beer with the nutritional equivalent of Wonder Bread, a bleached and bland processed product that’s been stripped of all food value. True, there’s an honest debate among brewers whether polyphenols erode the taste of beer. Similarly, brewers question whether polyphenols reduce the clarity of beer, creating haze.

But who’s going to drive the research to answer these exciting questions? Who’s going to breed new hops with higher essential oils and more flavors? Who’s going to work with farmers to grow amply supplies of a wide variety of aroma hops? Who’s going to take seriously the idea that drinking vitamin-packed beer can promote health? Not the macros.  In their quest for lighter, thinner, more transparent and less cloudy lagers, the macros will continue to demand extracts without the tannins.  This is a classic case of putting fizz over substance.

OK, hopsters. Let’s get back on track, for real this time. Question: are hops good for anything else besides beer?

Hops and Homeopathy

Beyond their utility in brew-making, a tiny tiny volume of the hops produced worldwide are used in a number of different applications.  Hops have been touted for treating insomnia, menstrual cramps, anxiety, low libido, menopause – even -

(25) Hop down and relax.
A package of humulus lupulus “Rustgevend” from a dutch company, Biover. Marketed as a natural sedative that relaxes the brain and engages Mr. Sand Man.
(26) Menohop®.
For menopausal women to help ease the discomfort of cramping.

For years, in Europe, as a sleep aid, homeopaths recommended stuffing whole hop cones inside a pillow. The aroma was said to combat nervousness, ease the mind, and usher in drowsiness. Hops have been used in teas as a sedative.  Of interest, IH is offering a hop variety called “teamaker,” which contains zero alpha acids. 

The hop vines (sorry Charles Darwin, I mean “bines”), are strong, long and hearty. Hop bines, similar to hemp, have been used to weave baskets and make decorative wreaths. Hops have been used as perfume (presumably to seduce beer lovers). Because of its anti-bacterial properties, hops have been used in toothpaste. (27,28,29)

 (27) Salvia.
Not sure what this is. One salvia subspecies is a psychedelic. Salvia flowers are sold by headshops in Amsterdam, advertised as marijuana surrogates.  Or maybe this is simply an anti-fungal foot cream.
  (28) Hop pillow.
Want to sleep deeply? Forget about running through poppy fields like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Pack a pillow with dried hop cones and, if the folklore is right, you’ll be out like a light.
 (29) Hop wreath
using hop vines (or bines). 
I wonder if they can be used for quilts.

At the hop museum in Poperinge, I saw a jar containing peeled hops shoots. They looked like bean sprouts.  Hop shoots in Europe, especially Belgium, are a delicacy. In fact, hop shoots are traded on a commodities exchange in Europe.  (30)

 (30) Hops-paragus! Jar of hops shoots. 
A long time ago, Pliny the Elder purportedly enjoyed them sautéed like asparagus presumably in butter.

I learned that none other than Pliny The Elder, the great Roman historian, enjoyed his hop shoots sautéed like asparagus. I also marveled at a box of a hops-infused cream that was specially designed for proud and defiant cougars presumably as a bulwark to “firm up breasts.”

How Much Juice is in the Fruit?

Ok. So the hops fruit is loaded with juice. But how much? How much of happy stuff is found in your typical dried hops flower? Here’s how it breaks down, according to the scholar J. Benitez in a textbook on hops published in Germany (1997), expressed in percent by weight: 

  • Cellulose:                    40-50%
  • Water                          8-12%
  • Alpha Acids:                2-17%
  • Beta Acids:                  2-10%
  • Polyphenols /Tannins:   3-6%
  • Volatile Oils:                1-5% (as in combustible*)

As you can see, the most valued ingredients in hops are, like gold, scarce – even before you attempt to extract the magic for use in brewing or in any other process which will result in further degradation.  Acids and oils are very prone to oxidation or vaporization and must be handled and stored with TLC.

*Do hops catch fire? Read on.

How Hopped Up is Your Brew?

Since we’re talking about how hop ingredients affect taste, flavor, storability and even human health, the question arises: when you drink a pint of beer, how much hops “extract” are you getting?  How much of the hops resin, acid and oils are utilized in the beer you drink?

We know that beer consists mainly of water, barley malt, yeast and hops. I’ve read that,  depending on the beer style, water accounts for between 86% to 97% by weight. In a typical India Pale Ale, I’ve read that about 13% of the weight of the beer consists of barley, and hops account for only .8% -- less than 1%. This number can be boosted or dampened depending on the brewer’s rebel index.

A discussion about how acids, oils and resins are isomerized (or made soluble in water by boiling) is beyond your attention span and my ken, but the take-home message is, when it comes to the aroma constituents in hops, like French perfume, a little dab can go a long way.

*Can a Heavily Hopped Libation Spike Your Risk of Spontaneous Combustion?

Answer: about the same risk of eating too much ice cream, that is, zero. But, notice above we referred to “volatile oils.” I’m sure as a hop fan you’ve heard about a major conflagration in 2006 in Yakima that destroyed about 2 million pounds of dry hops, which amounted to about 4% of the US hop crop that year.  Bales of super alpha acid hops spontaneously combusted.

The force of the explosion was so great, as the story goes, three bales shot like cannon balls out through the warehouse roof and landed hundreds of yards away. Thar she blows!

Other than being a curious story, this illustrates the volatility of the resins and oils in hops. If not stored properly, that is refrigerated at about 38 degrees Fahrenheit, heat can build up in the resin-coated hops to the point of combustion. In addition, after the hops have been dried in the kiln, they need to cool off for at least 36 to 48 hours before baling. Otherwise, Hop St. Helens -- kaboom!

As a result of the high demand for “juice” extract by the industrial brewers (for their diet beers and thin fizzy lagers), the hops farmers in Yakima who didn’t move into soybeans or corn after the price crash in the late 1990s put in more acreage for mega-alpha acid cultivars.  Microbrewers, on the other hand, generally prefer aroma hops.

In 2008, microbrewers very nearly combusted spontaneously themselves when they were forced due to an undersupply (among other factors) to scramble to find aroma hops. When they did find desirable aroma hops on the spot market, they oftentimes had to pay 5 to 6 times their normal price (that’s a 500 to 600% price increase, folks). 

Hops brokers used the undersupply “crisis” as an opportunity to “lock in” brewers to 3 to 5 year forward contracts at fixed prices and quantities for specified varieties. Growers naturally are reluctant to put in new acreage (which can cost up to $6,000 per acre for the trellis and irrigation infrastructure) without the security of a production contract in hand.

Historically, the industrial brewers have driven much of the supply of both alpha acid and aroma hops. By custom, most growers add another 10% to the acreage they’ve contracted for with the big guys. They’ll either sell the “excess” directly to microbrewers or to merchants, who will turn around and offer it to the small brewers on the “spot” market, where the price is whatever the desperate buyer will pay, and whatever the sharp broker can fetch. 

Until recently, a small brewer’s choice for particular hop varieties has been limited to “the leftovers.”  Indie Hops intends to canvass craft brewers for the varieties they both want and need, and parlay this demand into long term production farmers with Oregon farmers.

Does it Matter Where Hops Are Grown? The Terroir

Yes. The climate, soil type, and topography – the terroir—influence the quality of the plant. Terroir is a French word associated with wine to denote the special place where particular grape varieties thrive best. The terroir concept also applies to tea, coffee, cheese and cocoa beans.

Although hops varieties have grown like weeds on every continent probably for thousands of years, certain “grand daddy” or “noble hop” varieties are associated with specific regions in Europe. Hallertauer hops originated from a region of old Bavaria, Saazer hops from old Bohemia, Spalt from the Spalter region in Germany, and Tettnanger from the town of Tettnang in Southern Germany.  Fuggles, from which the aroma workhorses Cascade and Willamette were bred, originated in the Kent and Sussex regions of Great Britain.

While the fertility of the soil, the access to fresh water, and the interaction between the climate and the hopyards directly influence the quality and yield of hops, the expertise of the farmer is equally important. Before prohibition, Oregon was for a time the leading producer of hops in North America. Today, about 75% the U.S. hop production comes from Yakima, Washington, a terroir which because of its arid climate is renown for its high alpha acid hops.

Oregon’s Willamette Valley, on the other hand, is a terroir known for it’s aroma hops, which include Cascade, Mt. Hood, Columbia, Willamette, Centennial, Santiam, Liberty, and Sterling.  Each of these “cultivars” can be traced back to one of the “noble hop” progenitors. 

Over the years, scientists, especially at the USDA Hops Breeding Program in Corvallis, Oregon, have been breeding hybridized hop cultivars that select for desirable characteristics, such as disease resistance, crop yield, storability, and acid content. The creation of new aroma hops cultivars in the U.S., it seems, was driven more by curiosity than the prospect of immediate profit, as for decades the primary source of funding was from Annheuser-Busch, whose holy grail has been super alpha acid hops with bigger yields.

About 95% of the U.S. hop cultivars used by American craft brewers were developed at the USDA-ARS breeding program in Corvallis.   The varieties generated from OSU have been free to the public.  Commercial breeders have patented hops cultivars and require growers and distributors to pay a royalty. Thanks to Dr. Haunold, the granddaddy of hops breeding, the original cast of noble hops are now well represented in Oregon hop yards and craft breweries throughout the US. You talk about a keen sense of smell, this guy's the bloodhound of hops!

For Tettnanger, we have Santiam. For Saazer, we have Sterling. For Hallertauer Mittilfrueh, we have Liberty, Crystal, Mr. Hood and Ultra. For Fuggles, we have the workhorses Cascade and Willamette. What’s amazing to me is that Professor Haunold’s mission in breeding these cultivars was simply to mimic the originals with the exception of amping up the alpha acids and yields, as well as disease resistance. His mission was not to beef up the oils, or aroma precursors, or tannins.  Prior to Indie Hops, OSU has never set out to develop a hop cultivar with a laser-like focus on flavor and aroma.

For a chart that shows the origin, acid content and aroma characteristics of hop click here.

Follow Your Nose?

So we’ve learned from a wide-eyed reforming lawyer a few of the more interesting aspects of the green gold formerly known as a creeping weed.  By training, I like to compare anything from animal behavior to cancer treatment options to an objective, time-tested and peer-reviewed standard.

With hops, there’s plenty of “analytics” that can help us determine how bitter a hop is, or much oil it has, or how long it can be stored, or how many flavonoids it may contain. Does that mean, in the final analysis, harried brewers simply defer to the analytics?

Again, I’m not a brewer, but the answer has to be no, for the same reason that you don’t need lab data to tell you whether a strawberry is juicy, sweet or bursting with flavor.  You take a whiff, you look at the color, you behold the firmness, and you pop it down the hatch.  Your nose, mouth, eyes and touch will tell you if it’s good, bad, or to-die-for.

The first brewer I met on my initial foray into hop world, David Mills in Corvallis, Oregon, pretty much taught me what I needed to know about how brewers test their hops. 

It goes like this. You grab a big handful of dried cones. You feel them for moisture. You listen for crinkles. You check for obvious puniness, brownishness, spider webs and mildew. Then you crush them up by vigorously rubbing your mitts together. 

When you can feel the resins and oils sticking to your fingers, you humbly cradle the offering. You bury your nose in nature’s rich, fragrant bounty and take a deep, lung-filling whiff. Chances are, if it reminds you of fresh cut grass, pine cones, grapefruit, fertility or pot, it’s probably pretty good.

I’ve come to learn that this “crush and sniff” test has taken on the solemnity and protocol of lighting the sacrament or sharing a peace pipe. The difference would have to be in the “finish.” I’ve only witnessed this a few times, but each time, in the time it takes for the aroma to hit the brain, the brewer’s face has gone from grave and deliberate to joyous and satisfied, sort of like a kid blowing out all 12 candles on his first try. Whether it’s biochemical or simply a Pavlovian response, this hop pilgrim is coming around to the notion that perhaps hops can get you high.

Do Hops Age, like fine Wine (or Super Craft Beer)?

I mention this because again I am drawn to the mysteries of the noble flower.  We know that without proper refrigeration, the essential oils and resins in the whole cone or pellet, respectively, will oxidize. That’s not good.

But what if we kept cultivars of whole cones or pellets properly refrigerated for a few years? Will they spring forth new and exciting aromas and flavors? Will they age like a fine wine?

First, a bit of background. As a general rule, alpha acids tend to degrade as soon as they are harvested. The colder the refrigeration temperature, the longer they’ll last. You can tell that alpha acids have grossly oxidized if they start smelling like bad cheese. Oxidized alpha acids are useless.

Beta acids, on the other hand, need some oxidation in order to form bitterness compounds (as always, the hop variety matters).  Just how much air exposure is good is a question I’ll leave for others.

Second, oils also will oxidize over time.  Here’s where I’m intrigued. I spoke to a well known craft brewer who told me an interesting anecdote. He had several bales of whole cone aroma hops that over time had been pushed into the corner of his storage locker. Five years, to be exact. Instead of throwing them out, he performed the crumble and sniff test and, ta da!, they passed muster. So he brewed them. The results were consistent with his sniff test – exquisite.

Conclusion: don’t go throwing out aroma hops if they’ve been properly refrigerated and dried simply because they’re older.  How or whether aging of certain varieties enhances beer flavor and aroma is one of those issues which “deserves further study,” which is academic jargon for “give us the money and we’ll check it out.”   We’d prefer, of course, that brewers use up all they have and continue to buy more hops.

Hop History: the short version.

My trip into “Hoppeland” showed me that as long as we’ve been baking bread, we’ve been brewing beer. And as long as we’ve been brewing beers, there have been efforts to add flavor, aroma and longevity to beer. Beers in various crude permutations have been around for about 5,000 years.

The earlier beers didn’t use hops. They used “gruit,” a whimsical blend of herbs and spices (e.g., sweet gale, mugwort, heather, anis, St. John’s wort, juniper berries, Labrador tea, ginger, nutmeg and more). The gruit merchants in Belgium lived high off the hog. They owned the recipe to gruit (like a patent). Before the 1300s, most brewers outside Bavaria generally were required to use it and they had to pay a licensing tax. (31)

The gruit merchants, who lived in mansions adorned with tapestries, usually in the shadows of a giant medieval church, didn’t exactly rejoice when hops began migrating westward from Bavaria.  For years, they resisted the transition from gruit to hops. The Roman Catholic Church, with whom the gruit merchants shared their bounty, sought to protect their revenue stream, as well.

Eventually, the gruit merchants learned if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and they retooled.  When hops finally replaced gruit in the late1600’s, many former gruit merchants continued to prosper, with the help of whatever clergy and monarchy was in power, as reformed but devout hops merchants. (32)

 (31) Gruut House Museum, Bruges.
An ornate gothic mansion built in the 1400’s to pamper the elite and wealthy Gruit merchants. Not coincidentally, the gruit mansion nestled up against the biggest church in town – keep your friends close and your enemies closer. The Gruut grifters were the original monopolists.
(32) Your Hops Pilgrim outside the Gruutuse Hof in Bruges,
which sits in the shadow of a monolithic church adjacent to the original Gruut House where the gruit merchants counted their money and shaved off a thick slice for their holy partners.

Here’s a brief time line of the history of hops, with an emphasis on the Pacific Coast and Oregon.
At or Before Christ:

Pliny the Elder savored hop shoots succulently sautéed like asparagus. Meanwhile, North American Indians reportedly dipped bags of wild cones to cure toothaches and imbibed hops teas to calm down and get some sleep.

800’s AD:   German brewers began adding hops to their brews because they liked the bitter flavor and the batch didn’t sour as quickly.

1000’s:   Monasteries in Germany begin farming hops.

1100’s:   Saint Hildegard, a Benedictine nun in the abbess of Diessenberg and a passionate herbalist, began to study the use of hops as a preservative. She wrote: “Hops, when used in beer, stops putrification and lends longer durability.” The nun also reported that men who drink too much beer become melancholy and if the beer was warmed “it made their testicles hurt.”

1300’s:   Most European beers contained hops, but Gruit merchant cartel refused to surrender.  Consumers mistook the bitterness for poison.  In the Netherlands, 126 breweries were adding hops to their beers. Meanwhile, gruit-based ales continued to impose a public health risk, as they tended to spoil and often times they were laced with poisonous herbs (e.g., henbane and nightshade).

1346:   Charles IV, Emperor of Germany, obligated brewers in present day Belgium to use hops (“Novus Modus Fermentandi Cervisiam”). The French, who controlled the Flanders region, required brewers to use gruit, presumably because of kickbacks from the gruit merchants who wished to maintain royalties from their patent (in truth, an excise tax on beer sales, a form of legalized taking which continues today).

1450-ish:   In the UK, the English continued to favor ales suffused with gruit until the early 1500s when brewers began adding hops to “beer,” as distinct from the sweeter herbal “ale,” to create a “bitter beer.”

1471:   An English city passed an ordinance forbidding ale brewers from brewing “with hoppes nor gawle [sweet gale] nor noon other thing upon peyne of grevous punysshment. “ Note, beer brewers were allowed to use hops. Only the gruit-subservient ale brewers were denied the wonders of hops.

Tour of De Halve Maan Brewery, Bruges, Belgium.
The only operating brewery in Bruges, whose history stretches back to the mid 1550s. Most of the modern brewery was established in 1856.  Brew continues to be brewed on site but the hopped wort is trucked off-site for fermentation.  The flagship beer is “Brugse Zot,” which means Bruge’s Fools. Back in the 1500s, the Emperor of Austria stayed in Bruge, where he witnessed a jocular parade. He was asked later by the city’s leaders to help finance an institute for the mentally ill. The Emperor reportedly replied: “Just close the city gates. Bruges is one big house of fools!”

1516:   German Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot) Enacted.  “…Nothing is to be added to or used in beer other than solely barley, hops and water.”

1550:   The Bishop Arnold advocated that peasants drink hoppy brews instead of water, probably because it was customary for folks back then to draw their drinking water from the same pool in which they dumped their chamber pots. For his dedication to health and hoppiness, the Bishop Arnold  has been heralded as the Patron Saint of Beer and Hops.

1629:   Immigrants introduced European hops to USA (which already had wild varieties).

1638:   First US breweries established in USA in New York City area.

1662:   An English Killjoy and Scold, Thomas Fuller, wrote that hops were a public menace and lobbied the Parliament in the reign of King Henry the Sixth to ban “the wicked weed called hops.” King Henry ignored the patent nonsense and kept hops alive. 

1750:   English “beer” continued to sport hops while “ales” finally waved goodbye to gruit and hello to hops.

1800:   King George III of England rested his weary head on a pillow stuffed with hop cones to combat periodic stomach pain, seizures, vomiting and paranoia (what a mess!).

1847:   First major hop brokerage firm launched in New York.

1862:  First weekly newsletter on domestic and international pricing of hops and farming supplies published (Emmet Wells’ Weekly Hop Circular, New York City), which was widely read by growers.

1866:   Civil War surgeon Dr. Hamilton noted that soldiers who daily drank lager suffered less diarrhea than non-beer drinkers. He wrote in a U.S. Sanitary Commission report that lager “regulates the bowels, prevents constipation, and becomes in this way a valuable substitute for vegetables.”  He encouraged the troops to drink lager “moderately,” but not whiskey or wine, which he called “pernicious.” Dr. Hamilton recognized Patron Saint of the Beer Gut.

1867:   First commercial hop yard established in Buena Vista, Oregon (Polk County).

1876:   Corbit & Macleary established Oregon’s first hops brokerage house in Portland.  Growers began pledging crops to hops dealers before harvest at fixed prices. Brokers advanced costs, relieving farmers of borrowing money from banks.

1879:   New York emerged as USA’s leading hop producer, followed by Wisconsin, California (Sacramento area and Napa Valley), Washington (Puyallup area) and Oregon (Salem area).

1880:   Lane County became the top hops producing county in Oregon (143 acres). Yields purportedly averaged between 1,500 and 3,000 pounds per acre.

Pilgrim clutching Belgium Beer Bible
(Tim Webb, 2009) in the old fermentation tanks room at the Halve Maan brewery. The bloke laboring down below is a manikin.

1889:   Oregon Hops Growers Association formed to combat “evils” of brokers who used deceptive sales practices to coerce growers into contracts at below market prices.  Vision was to turn over aggregate crop yields to a single agent who would fetch the highest price.  OHGA folds 5 years later due to division within the ranks. Yuba County, CA had highest average yield per acre in the US: 2,340 pounds/acre.

1893:   Public schools in Independence, Oregon pushed back start of school so children can help with harvest of  a bumper crop.

1897:   Competition among hop brokers so cutthroat that agents in Oregon reporting to HQ from the fields were sending telegrams in secret code to stymie all the spies lurking about.

1899:   Oregon Hop Growers Association revived in Woodburn, Oregon (Marion County) with objective by growers to control prices, as well the building or leasing of warehouses to store up hops until prices increase.

1900:   Independence, Oregon (Polk County) declared itself “the Hop Center of the World.”

1905-1915:   Oregon ranked as top hops producer in the US.  Poor European crop yields in 1911 opened door to robust export market.

1914:   Hop Growers Association in Oregon formed.  Plan was that members would buy farming supplies at wholesale prices, pool and warehouse crops, and sell directly to brewers.  Never tested on account WWI brokje out.

1915-1922:   California takes over as top hops producer in the US, peaking in 1916, over 50% of US production.  After WWI, Pacific Coast growers dominated the international hops market. Exports to war ravaged Europe peaked. 

1922-1943:   Oregon re-establishes the lead in US hops production. Demand in Europe growing.

1919—1933:   Prohibition.   US beer consumption plummets. Hop growers kept alive by overseas demand. Prohibition repealed for many reasons, including professed need to create jobs and generate tax revenues.

1932:   OHGA again attempts to unify Oregon hops farmers to control cost and supply of pickers, but Great Depression shatters collective spirit and it’s every farmer for himself again. 

1935:   Hops production in Oregon peaked (26 million pounds harvested over 30,000 acres). About ½ of all hops in US produced in Oregon, followed by California and Washington. Oversupply resulted in plummeting price.

1938:   Oregon Hop Control Board adopted Hop Marketing Agreement with intent not to market hops but control surplus production and price. Agreement terminated in 1945.  Farmers unable to cooperate on plan to warehouse hops until prices rise.  Farmers angry that every time supply exceeded demand they were forced to eat huge surpluses.

Talk about your Toxic Brew! 
Back in the not-so-distant bad old days, the Half Mann brewery, and presumably its neighbors, used asbestos to filter the beer before bottling. Unconscionable.  Even today, there was no signage warning tourists not to touch or disturb the asbestos filter screens.

1940s:   Technological advances in picking, drying and refrigerating drives out many smaller farms.  Large scale monoculture, commodity, factory farming takes hold in Yakima, Washington. US consumer tastes shifts away from high-hopped “bitter” beers in favor of colder fizzier and thinner beers.  Amount of hops utilized per barrel drops.  By 1948, price of European hops again in freefall.

1953:   Oregon withdrew over half of acreage from production, Downey mildew invasion a factor. 

1950s:   Modernization sends pickers packing. Mechanical pickers account for 85% of harvesting.  Smaller farms unable to invest in labor-saving but capital intensive state-of-the-art harvesting machinery, hop kilns, hop houses and hop driers.

1956:   USDA established the Hop Breeding & Genetics Program at Oregon State University in Corvallis.  Over the next 50 years, the USDA/OSU lab pumps out about 95% of the cultivars commonly used by US Brewers (e.g. Cascade, Sterling, Willamette, Galena, Mt. Hood, Crystal, Mt. Hood, Newport, etc).  For USDA-ARS HOP CULTIVAR PEDIGREE CHART, click here.

1964:   Oregon Hop Commission formed by Oregon Department of Agriculture. Objective was “to provide for research to maintain the economic stability of hop production.”  State regulatory agency did not list marketing of Oregon hops as an objective.

1973:   70% of US hops grown in Yakima, Washington area.

1979:   The Hop Research Council is formed by brewers, dealers and grower groups to fund and direct hop research in the U.S.

1980s:   75% of US hops grown in Yakima, Washington area.

1995:   New “super alpha” hop cultivars released, which produce on average 50% higher yields than aroma hops.  Market soon flooded with super alphas, price drops below costs of production.

1996:   Oregon State University established Fermentation Science Program in response to phenomenal growth of Oregon’s microbrewery industry.

2000:   US growers scale back 30% of their acreage to equalize supply and demand.  Spot market pricing below contract pricing.

2005:   US supply levels with worldwide demand. New microbrewers entering the market, many without long term contracts with merchants or growers.

2007:   Supply crashes (pests, disease, bad weather), spot market prices skyrocket, leaving many microbrewers in the lurch. InBev purchases Budweiser, which announces it won’t renew growing contracts for farmers in Oregon. Microbrewers forced into long term contracts with brokers. Nearly 70% of US production exported to more than 60 countries worldwide.

2008:   Rush by brewers to lock in contracts encourages US growers to put in up to 8,000 new acres, which brings US total acreage to around 39,000 acres, still 5,000 acres below high in 1996.  Uncertainty continues whether needs of microbrewers for aroma hops will be met. 

2009:   Citing need for hops research, breeding, growing and processing 100% focused on the craft brewing market, Indie Hops, LLC establishes Oregon’s first hops pelleting, storage and distribution facility in Marion County.  Leveraging of Willamette Valley aroma hop terroir seen as a natural fit for craft brew quality standards.  OSU/Indie Hops Research and Breeding program formed at Oregon State University for collaborative research between Fermentation Sciences department and Crop & Soil Sciences geneticists.

*For an excellent history of the hops trade in the US, see Tomlan, Tinged With Gold: Hop Culture in the United States, Univ. of Georgia Press (1992).

Market Analysis:

For more data regarding the U.S. Hop Market, and a glimpse at how market trends are affecting the supply of aroma hops, click on the following links.

Hops: The Future is Now

Hops have been around for centuries but only in modern times have we begun to appreciate their potential.  Once considered to be poisonous, hops are now recognized for their nutritional as well as medical value. In the brewing world, today craft brewers have begun to tout their use of particular aroma hops. Seizing on the growing consumer interest in hops, even the industrials have begun to use the word “hops” in their advertising, but with neither conviction nor sincerity.  Alpha acid juice and light, fizzy, aroma-free beer continue to drive their corporate zeitgeist.

While the craft beer industry continues to gather momentum, forward thinking brewers have begun to worry about the future supply of aroma varieties. Few craft brewers contract directly with hop farmers.  Even the best and most motivated hop farmers are reluctant to undertake the risk of planting odd, exotic or showhorse aroma varieties without production contracts in place. In their quest for super alpha extracts, industrial brewers have been moving away from long term aroma variety contracts. Oversupply on industrial brewer contracts has been the primary source of aroma hops for craft breweries. 

The demand for new and exciting specialty aroma hops by crafties has certainly taken off; indeed, the smart consumer has begun to expect the use of three to five different hop varieties in her pint glass.  But, despite the growing demand, there’s been little to no effort to secure a reliable pipeline of multiple varieties.  Many delightful aroma varieties remain unavailable, while precious little research is underway to develop new and even better aroma varieties.

Every day crafties are learning new ways of making bigger, bolder and better tasting beers. To keep the trend going, brewers will need to update the proverbial grist for their mill. They will continue to need access to quality malts, yeast, water and hops -- not blended hops, but 100% pure Oregon super premium hops. And their creativity will need to fed by the promise of new and better ingredients. To that end, the craft beer industry will need to exhaust what we know about hops, sort out what we need to know, and chase the dream.

Indie Hops harbors no illusions about changing the world.  The currently available craft beers are pretty darn tasty, so much so that they have already changed our little world. It’s hard to imagine even better craft beers – and that’s exactly what draws us in – the audacity to raise the bar, as well as the thrill of the hunt. 

October 21, 2009