Before there were hops there was gruit, a mixture of herbs such as juniper berries, yarrow, horehound and my favorite, because of the name, mugwort which also is sometimes known as wild wormwood and naughty man. Other ingredients could include ginger, anise, sweet myrtle and at times, maybe for the added kick, hallucinogens like hemp (think marijuana) and poppy.
“People do compare hops to marijuana,” says Steve Mazylewski, brewmaster at Crown Point Brewing Company.
Indeed, both are members of the Cannabaceae but last we heard no one was smoking hops. Instead, hops—the flower of the hop plant and a necessary ingredient for making beer along with grain, yeast and water—eventually came to replace herbs some 1500 years ago as they added both an aromatic flavor and acted as a preservative at a time when water was often unsafe to drink.
“They really started putting hops in beer not only for flavor but as a way to ship it to India,” says Andrew Hlebasko, a home brewing enthusiast who works at Kennywood Brewing and Wine Making Supply.
To get good English ale to British troops busy colonizing India, Great Britain’s brewers increased the amount of hops and alcohol in their pale ale recipes so that barrels of hops, which were shipped first by boat, then rail and ultimately by horse and wagon to India—a journey that could take six months—wouldn’t spoil.
Now hops are used for creating the ever increasing demand for artisan microbrews.
“We import varieties from German, Czechoslovakia and England and also are playing around with hops from New Zealand, Slovenia and Bohemia,” says Mazylewski who just returned from a brewer’s convention in Colorado. “We continue to branch out and trying different hops such as noble hops like the German Hallertau.”
Mazylewski is excited because this year five new crossbred public varieties are being released.
“This is the first time in ten years that we have new public varieties,” he says. “All the varieties in the last ten years have been private hops which can be hard to get a hold of.”
Figure Eight’s head brewer Mike Lahti wants all of the beers he makes to have their own identity. Though they use common hops like Cascade, Nugget, Centennial, Progress, East Kent Goldings and Czech Saaz but says for brewing he tries not to limit the hops he uses.
“I'm always trying to get my hands on new varieties but when I can't I like anything with a distinct aroma like Strisselspalt, a French variety, or Styrian Celeia,” says Lahti noting that his favorite hops seem to be the new ones on the market. “I like things that are more aromatic than bitter. My bosses think I'm crazy cause I have such a large library of hops in use but I always try to let a beer take on its own character and I try to remember that every beer should taste unique so variety is the spice of life on our hop usage.”
For American style beers, Barb Kehe, owner and brewmaster at Ironwood Brewing Company in Valparaiso, says she uses Chinook, Cascade, Centennial and Citria.
“For European style beer, I use hops like Kent Golden, which is a very English hops and Spalter, a German hops,” she says.
Hlebasko discovered great beer when backpacking through Germany. Sampling beers in beer gardens and rathskellers made him realize how weak and flavorless many of the mass produced beers were in the U.S.
And so when Hlebasko returned to Northwest Indiana he decided he would begin making his own.
“One of my favorites to make is a knock-off of 3 Floyds Zombie Dust,” says Hlebasko, noting that Websites offer copycat recipes for favorite handcrafted brews. “It’s a pale ale that you over hop once during the brewing process and then when the beer is fermenting and the live bacteria yeast are eating and expelling alcohol, hop it again.”
He also has grown his own hops like Glacier, Warrior and Citra in his backyard.
“It takes a couple of years of growing and budding before the hops are ready to harvest,” he says of the beanstalk like vines which are aromatic and produce a pretty cone shaped flower.
Deb Heinlein, who owns Kennywood with her husband, Bob, also grows hops in her backyard.
“We grow Cascade which is a citrusy, floral and well rounded hop,” she says noting that they’re normally grown in the Pacific Northwest but Cascade hops grown here have a different taste because of the climate. Though hops are normally strung on a pole as they grow quite tall, Heinlein has hers twining up and around her deck.
“If I’m not using them right away, I’ll dry them by laying the cones out on cardboard and then freeze them in vacuum sealed bags,” she says. “But we make a harvest ale in the fall where you just pick and use them. Those are called wet hops, which has a more grassy taste.”
Mazylewski says they buy most of their hops which come dried.
“They kind of look like rabbit food pellets,” he says. “But we have six types of hop vines growing in our beer garden—Nugget, Columbus, Cascade, Northern Brewer, Glacier and Hellertau. “The first year we harvest them and made our Patio Pale Ale. We also do some whole hops on a smaller scale and add them to our barrels when they’re fermenting.”
Lahti also has grown his own hops at home because he likes their aroma.
“On the brewery side we have thought about it but the volume of hops we use we could not really sustain with growing our own,” he says, “although we may grow a few and use it in a five gallon one off type beer.”
Lahti says when he’s developing new handcrafted microbrews he considers how the hops will play with the yeast and malt he’s using, asking himself will the hops overpower the other flavors or accentuate it.
“I like balanced flavored beer, nothing skewed to one side—malt or the other—hops, although every now and again I will make a hop bomb or a maltier based beer,” he says.
“”There are so many different things you can do with all the hops available,” says Mazylewski. “Sometimes we’ll a hold of a hop that we’ve never had before. That’s so great.”