Whenever anyone mentions brewing beer, often the thought of “hops” follows on.
Yet many Australians are not entirely clear what hops are or what purpose they serve in beer production.
In the middle ages, beers were made with a variety of secondary ingredients added (often weeds and herbs), designed to add flavour and help preserve the final product. Some of the ingredients back then were “rough” to say the least and many today might be considered to be harmful!
However, something had to be done. The very basic ingredients of beer brewing will typically field a rather sickly-sweet mixture that will be highly prone to fast deterioration. Something was needed to both add a touch of counterbalancing bitter flavour to the brew and also to increase its longevity.
Over many centuries, trial and error led to a focus on hops. They’re actually a climbing plant which many argue is no more than a weed but their cultivation over a long period of time has led to them now being considered one of the four basic ingredients of classically brewed beer.
Flavour and preservation
Way back in the old days, the brewers used a rather higher concentration of hops in their processes than is the norm today. That was because the anti-microbial properties in hops were needed in some strength in order to compensate for the rather shaky hygiene and lack of quality standards that existed in many local breweries.
What that meant was that full-strength beer in centuries past would probably have been very bitter to our tastes today. Over time, as production methods and beer delivery systems plus refrigeration have improved, the need for very high concentrations of preservative hops has diminished.
In modern brewing there are a number of different hops to choose from, each of which is regarded probably as much for its ability to add flavour to the final drink as for its preservative qualities. That’s one of the reasons why modern beers are much lighter and pleasanter to the taste than at least some of those made in the ancient past would have been.
True, today, not all use hops in exactly the same fashion.
Although some breweries continue to use conventional hop processing methods, others have adopted the use of special hop extracts. Which adds more to the beer is a hot subject of the debate and we’ll duck that one!
However, overall in one form or another, hops continue to play a major role in most beer production. It’s a direct link to the past and our ancestors.