What Are Hops? A Deep Dive Into the Beer Essential with Jim Koch of Sam Adams

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Without hops, there is no beer (there would be gruit, but not beer). In fact, according to the 1516 Bavarian Purity Law known as the Reinheitsgebot, beer is and can only be made of three ingredients: water, barley, and hops. (Brewers at the time did not understand the role yeast plays in the fermenting process; the rule as issued more than 500 years ago by Duke Wilhelm IV was later amended to allow yeast and wheat. It stands to this day, albeit in a largely ceremonial role.) Hops give beer its delightful bitter, often floral, piney, or citrusy flavor that balances the malty sweetness of the grain. Hops also serve as a preservative, keeping beer fresher and safer to drink for a longer period of time. (India Pale Ales, for example, are so called as they were brewed and then sent along from Britain on the long passage to India. Their high hop profile is today a matter of preference, but was in the Age of Empire a matter of preservation.)

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A crowd gathers at the hop market in Nuremberg in the early 1900s. Deutsches Hopfenmuseum

But what are hops, anyway?

If you really want to know, there’s no better place to go than to the Hallertau region of Bavaria. It is the single largest hop-growing region of Germany and is home to some of the oldest and most celebrated hop varieties on the planet. In the Hallertau, head to the town of Wolnzach, home to the German Hop Museum, a one-of-a-kind attraction devoted entirely to hops. There, you can learn about the long history of this beloved plant, its many varieties, how it was harvested, traded, and processed in the past and how brewers use hops today.

No time for a trip to Bavaria? Then here are some quick facts for you.

What Are Hops?

The hop plant (the plural, “hops,” refers to the cone-shaped flower) is a vine-like plant from the hemp family (yes, there’s a relation to cannabis) that is known to have been grown and harvested by humans since the 700s BCE, though their use may well predate the 8th century. And where were the first known hops grown? You guessed it: the Hallertau.

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Dirk Spath

The traditional hop growing season spans from the late spring to the early fall. During the growing season, some varieties of the fast-growing hop bine (hop plants are not technically vines and are properly called bines, FYI) can climb as much as six inches in a single day. All hop plants grow by curling upward in a clockwise pattern. Modern hop farmers use massive trellis systems linking thick wires down to the planted rows of hops, while in the past growers encouraged the bines to grow up and around trees. While the length of bine that grows above the earth is harvested almost down to the ground each season, an individual hop plant has an average lifespan of over two decades, though some plants have survived for more than a century.

An individual hop plant has an average lifespan of over two decades, though some plants have survived for more than a century.

When broken down during the brewing process, the yellow-colored lupulin powder found within the hop cones impart a bitter flavor and preservative quality to the beer. Depending on which hops a brewer chooses, hops impart flavors ranging from citrus fruit to pepper and spice to pine and give beers aromas ranging from floral to grassy to earthy to lemon and beyond. Brewers have created many new hop varieties in recent decades (it takes about twenty years to develop a distinctly new variety), much of which activity has taken place in the United States, in particular on the West Coast.

And while many of the newer hop species are bold and exciting, such as the very recent Lemondrop strain or the modern classic Casdade hops, there is much to be said for the legacy varieties grown in the Old World.

Hops, much like wine grapes, are deeply influenced by their growing conditions; the same plant raised in two different regions will not produce the same flavor and aroma profiles. Thus when brewer Jim Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Company, better known as Sam Adams, set out to brew a lager based on an old family recipe, he knew he couldn’t use just any hops available. A sixth-generation brewer, Jim was committed to getting it right, so he had to get his hands on Hallertau Mittelfrüh hops.

Sam Adams and Hops

The year was 1984, and the legend in the making was Samuel Adams Boston Lager, the beer that still defines the craft brewery that has played a pivotal role in the return of great American brewing. Year after year since then, Jim Koch has traveled to the Hallertau along with his lead brewers to hand-pick the hops that will be used in Sam Adams beers the next year. By carefully selecting from among dozens of batches of Bavarian hops, the Boston Beer Company brewers ensure a consistent flavor and aroma profile in their beers each and every year.

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Owner and lead farmer of the Stanglmair hops farm, Stefan Stanglmair. Dirk Spath

One major reason they can always achieve that consistency? The Stanglmair family. The Stanglmairs have been farming hops on the same land since 1722, though in fact their heritage as hop farmers dates back more than 500 years, albeit with a few changes of surname through the centuries. Today, Stefan Stanglmair is in charge of daily operations at the farm. He is an ebullient man in his mid-40s with a barrel chest, a ready smile, and, more often than not, a beer in one hand. Herr and Frau Stanglmair, Stefan’s parents, are still alive and well, but it is Stefan who will proudly show off the farm’s operations to a visitor. These operations include, of course, the growing of hops on many acres of rolling farmland, the annual September harvest, the drying of the hops, and then their packaging into dense plastic-wrapped bales.

The Stanglmairs have been farming hops on the same land since 1722.

For many years now, almost the entirety of the annual Stanglmair hop harvest goes to Sam Adams. In the 1990s, Jim Koch came to realize that while on their annual hop selection tour, his brewery without fail selected Stanglmair farm hops (they also source hops from many other farms, for the record). He decided to forge a direct relationship rather than working only through a hop broker, and thus the deal to essentially buy out the entire Stanglmair harvest was struck, ensuring beer drinkers worldwide would always taste and smell the same hop profile in their Boston Lager (and numerous other beers now, of course).

How to Select Hops

The hop selection process is laughably hands on. It starts with a few ounces of a given hop varietal spread out on a sheet of royal blue paper produced expressly for the purpose of hop inspection; the deep blue-purple shade makes the bright green hop cones stand out starkly, enhancing the first part of the process, a visual inspection. During this stage, you look for flaky cones that fall apart too easily, windburn or sun damage, and, of course, “aphid shit … you don’t want to see aphid shit,” Jim Koch advises. Too much of it, and you can be assured of insect damage to the cones.

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Founder of Boston Beer Company, Jim Koch, explains the subtle variations he looks for when sourcing hops for Boston Beer Company beers.

Then comes the heart of the matter — the real test of the hops. It essentially consists of grabbing a handful of hop cones, grinding them down between your palms, and then shoving your face down into the flaky, oily mess you’ve made and breathing in the aroma and essence of the hops. Jim described the end of one long hop selection session in which his hands were actually bleeding and his clothes permanently stained with the oily lupulin released from countless handfuls of hop cones.

During this scenting process, an expert brewer can identify the flavor and aroma elements that will contribute to a finished beer’s profile, determining which hops suit, which do not, and which must be blended together to achieve the desired result. If you want to learn more about the specifics, talk to Jim Koch, but make sure you set aside some time after you ask him a question. This man is passionate about hops. Nay — fanatic. Care for an example? When a journalist asked Jim a quick question for an on-camera segment, he answered the initial query, thus delivering the soundbite, but then seemed to entirely forget a camera was rolling, launching into a ten-minute off-the-cuff education about the chemistry of the hop flower and more.

And later, at a lunch served by Frau Stanglmair, as Stefan Stanglmair raised toast after toast of fine German beer, Koch and one of his lead brewers, Jennifer Glanville, remained outside grinding and sniffing hops, seemingly unaware that the rest of the group had switched to dining and sipping.

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