After a full year of blogging about beer and food, I’ve realized that perhaps not everyone reading this blog is a die-hard beer geek and might be interested in the basics of what makes beer awesome. Therefore, in the next weeks I’ll be rolling out Beer School 101. The first installment covers “The Harvest”, wherein I’ll discuss the growing of hops and barleys, and the different varietals among them.
Hops are an essential ingredient to beer and are a product of a female plant. They provide an array of different flavors and aromas in beer when used at different periods of the beer making process which will be discussed in greater detail later. As for growing hops, something I have yet to try, their process is fairly easy and has been likened to the rapid growth of kudzu. They are trained up stakes or trellises as they are a climbing plant. Only the cones/flowers are used in the brewing process and look like spikey, leafy pine cones but smaller and bright green.
Pictured above are fresh hops which can be used in brewing but offer some difficulties in consistency for the brewer. More commonly, hops in pellet form are being used for their increased stability and consistent flavor delivery during the boil. If you have access to your own fresh hops, you can crush one of the cones between your fingers then drop in the bottom of a glass and pour say an IPA over it: having crushed the cone you’ve released the aromatic oils of the hop flower which can greatly enhance your drinking experience.
There are many different varietals of hops, each with their own distinct profile that results in a spectrum of flavors and aromas. Two uses for hops are bittering and finishing: bittering is used to make a beer have a bitter bite to it while a finishing hop is used to produce certain aromas that are citrus/piney/resinous/floral/grassy.
Barley is the second ingredient essential to beer. It can be grown in two-row or six-row which indicates the style of beer in which it will be utilized. The row number refers to the amount of barley on the plant that will later be husked for use. The lower the row number = the higher amount of sugar available for fermentation which yields a higher alcohol content. Most English Ales and traditional German brews use two-row for this very reason while American ales sometimes use six-row if they’re using additives such as corn. Barley is malted for brewing use, meaning the barley is soaked in water until it germinates which gets the enzymes working so the starch of the plant turns into usable sugars. Remember that sugar is what the yeast will feed on later to create alcohol and CO2.
I could go on and on about the complexities of these two important ingredients, but hopefully you get the general idea. Now you know a little more about what goes into that beautiful thing called the beer in front of you. Cheers!