Hops, A Beginners Guide

I was fortunate this week to sample one of the less well-known epicurean delights of hops. That’s right my friends, hops are not only a prized ingredient in beer: you can eat them too.

Hop shoots, also known as hopscheuten in (Flemish speaking) Belgium & bruscandoli in Italy are in fact one of the most expensive vegetables in the world. As the season is very short-lived, lasting for only a few weeks in March or April, & harvesting is labour-intensive, prices can reach as high as 1000 Euros a kilo. In Belgium, they are grown in darkened areas in order to maintain tenderness & therefore have a blanched appearance. Elsewhere, they are green, trimmed from the growing bines & either steamed or boiled for slightly longer to become tender. They look & taste a little like asparagus but with a hidden earthy depth to their flavour, perfect with light, creamy or lemony sauces & a poached egg on top. You can buy them from hopshoots.com. Here’s a recipe for Risotto di Bruscandoli.

A glass of De Landtsheer Brewery’s Bière Brut Malheur balanced the flavours of the hop shoots very well. Malheur is a blond, top-fermented ale beer, which is then re-fermented with similar yeast & finished in a similar style to that used in producing Champagne & other sparkling wines. I am indeed a superbly spoiled squirrel!

All this talk about hops got me thinking about how they relate to our favourite beverage. The current fashion among beer writers & expert commentators to focus on the individual hop varieties at the expense of other flavours & brewing techniques is, I feel, a little misplaced. What about the unsung heroes that contribute to our beer drinking enjoyment?

Beer is made, contrary to popular belief, not from hops but from malted grains, mainly barley. For centuries, herbs & spices known as gruit have been used to flavour & preserve beer, hops only being well established in the 15th & 16th centuries in Europe. Hops are added for the following reasons:

To add bitterness & dryness, counterbalancing the sweetness of the grain

To add a pleasant aroma

To stabilize the foam

To add a flavour that is unique to the variety of hop eg. lemon, grapefruit, herbal

To act as a natural preservative – hops have antiseptic properties

Hop plants come in two by two: male & female. The brewer uses seedless female hop cones as they contain the largest amount of Lupuline, the yellow resin that contains the goodies. They are added at various stages of the brewing process, most often at the boiling stage & even to the fermented beer, known as dry hopping. They are used in various forms, either neat or as pellets, oils or resins. The quantity of hops determines the bitterness of the beer – more hops = more bitter, the levels being measured in IBUs or International Bitterness Units. You can sometimes find this on the beer label: an IBU level of below 10 is low, 50+ is high.

Most beers are made with two kinds of hop: one for bitterness (known as bittering hops) & one for aroma. Some brewers however are experimenting with single hop, triple or more hop brews, pushing the boundaries of bitterness to the extreme. Craft brewers occasionally compete to create the hoppiest beers but perhaps they have forgotten what the function of hops really is? Hops are there to create a balance, a bit like the seasoning in your cooking, not to overpower the other flavours. There can be too much of a good thing!

Let’s hear it for hops – enjoy, whether you are eating or drinking them!


One response to “Hops, A Beginners Guide”

  1. anna mos says :

    so where does this leave me, having chosen a wheat beer at lunchtime in Ludlow today?
    How much of my glass was likely to be wheat??

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