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Hip on hops: everything you've ever wanted to know about beer's perfect companion

Added: Sunday, March 17th 2013

For the Love of Hops, Stan Hieronymus (Brewers Publications, $19.95)


Hops have come of age. Even the most casual beer drinker knew that hops added bitterness to beer. But it’s only in recent years that drinkers have become aware that hops also add aroma and flavour and those aromas and flavours vary according to which variety of hops is used.

The reason for this greater awareness is the result of consumers demanding better knowledge of what goes in to their pints and brewers responding by opening their recipe books to inspection. Drinkers and brewers are united in promoting beer as a drink that’s as complex as wine and that the character of beer is a fusion of two radically different raw materials: grain and hops.

Stan Hieronymus has written a brilliant book, one that will inform our knowledge and appreciation of the hop plant. Stan is a seasoned beer and travel writer and he knows how to tell a good story and to keep the reader’s attention. He has not, he makes clear at the outset, attempted to write a history of hops: that would demand a bigger and different book. He has set out to explain how hops are grown, the difference in varieties as a result of climate and soil, and the manner in which brewers and scientists constantly and even restlessly seek to develop new varieties. In the age of craft beer, with a worldwide passion for beer with flavour, brewers have to meet that growing demand with hops that widen our appreciation.

The book is a delight the read. With a travel writer’s eye for detail and colour, Stan describes hop festivals in different parts of the world, concentrating on harvest festivities in such key areas as the Bavarian Hallertau and the Zatec or Saaz region of the Czech Republic.

He describes in detail how hops are planted, the move from tall hops to the more recent development of dwarf or hedgerow varieties, and the critical importance of climate, soil and temperature. He details, in layman’s language, the critical time for harvesting hops in order that brewers will gain the maximum aroma and flavour – or, in the case of Anheuser-Busch, producer of American Budweiser, minimum aroma and flavour. One of the many nuggets in the book is the news that A-B demands that its hops are picked early to avoid too much aroma in the finished beer. Mustn’t overwhelm the rice, guys!

Stan explains the difference between high alpha hops and aroma hops. The former are traded on the commodities market and are used primarily by giant global brewers seeking essential bitterness but low aroma in their products. Aroma hops, as the name implies, are in demand from smaller brewers who aim their beers at drinkers who are not afraid of being regaled by citrus, cedarwood, herbal, floral spicy and grassy aromas, to name just a few. Thanks to his detailed analysis of hop varieties, we now have a bigger lexicon of descriptors, including rose, geranium, gooseberry, bergamot and vine. Did you know pomelo is another name for grapefruit? This book will open your eyes.

Stan goes into considerable detail about the merits of whole flower, pellet or hop oil versions of the plant, and allows brewers on all sides of the argument to have their say. It’s difficult to decide which side of the argument to support when such great brewers as John Keeling at Fuller’s in London and Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada in California line up in support of pellets (Keeling) and whole flowers (Grossman). Those who prefer hop oil keep a lower profile.

You will learn about the acids, tannins and resins that combine inside this remarkable little plant to give character to beer and how, to advance beer flavour, scientists will take the best elements of different hops and clone them to produce a new variety. And because science and agriculture cannot be perfect, it’s fascinating to learn that a comparatively new hop, Amarillo, was found by chance growing wild in the U.S. and didn’t come from a laboratory.

Stan describes in detail the problems of hop growing, not just as a result of climate change and wet and cold summers but the pests and diseases, such as mildew and verticillium wilt, that attack the plant and can wipe out a whole crop. There’s a telling description of a Bavarian farmer glancing at his hop fields, thinking the colour of the plants was odd and, on closer inspection, discovering that a vast army of mites was cheerfully munching its way through the entire crop.

The section called the Hop Store will be of particular interest as it’s a list of every known major variety, from Admiral to Zeus, detailing each one’s acids and oil levels and giving a snapshot of the aromas to be found.

The final section, What Works, describes how hops are added at different stages of the copper boil in the brewery and goes on to list the recipes for some 20 beers – lagers, wheat beers and ales – from around the globe with the hops and their proportions.

Stan says he has not written a history of the hop but he does go into some of the detail of how the plant was singled out as the best one to give not only flavour to beer but also to keep bacteria at bay. He tells of the centuries-long battle for supremacy between the young upstart hop and the older use of gruut or gruit, a mixture of herbs and spices that was controlled in Europe by the church. It took the Reformation to install the hop as the true friend of beer and brewers.

The book is also leavened with humour. That tendentious old bore Andrew Boorde, whose 16th-century attack on hopped beer made by “Dutchmen” has been reprinted many times, got his comeuppance while he was studying in Montpellier in France. Boorde got so drunk on beer at the house of a “Dutchman” that he threw up in his beard just before he fell into bed. When Boorde work the following morning the smell under his nose was so bad he had to shave his beard off. It puts verticillium wilt in the shade.

*For the Love of Hops can ordered from or from Amazon.

hop book cover