There’s a myth that one or more Kings of England referred to hops as “a wicked and pernicious weed,” which isn’t true, but it sounds really good and people who love hops — such as myself — enjoy sniggering at it.
Beginning in the High Middle Ages in England, there was a distinction between ale brewed with cereal grains and no hops (but with gruit, which is another post altogether), and hopped beer that often came from the Low Countries and Germany. So I’m sure there were some old codgers who didn’t like the new-fangled use of some smelly weed in their drinks, so I’m sure someone said that quoted phrase at some point or another.
But is hops a “wicked and pernicious weed?” I certainly don’t think so. In fact, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be the beer geek I am today if we didn’t have hopped beers. Why are hops so important? I’m so glad you asked!
You can break this down in a few different ways, but hops do, essentially three different things:
- They impart bitterness
- They provide aroma
- They protect your beer
Let’s talk about them all!
I LOVE bitterness. I may be in the minority, and that’s fine, but bitterness is wonderful. I can’t get enough. While you may not appreciate bitterness the way I do, the beer you drink would be a WAY different product without it.
The main ingredient in beer (other than water) is sugar extracted from barley, and sometimes other cereal grains. Beer without hops would be a syrupy, goopy, not nearly as refreshing drink. There are some styles that have just enough hops to balance out the malty sweetness (browns, porters, lots of Belgians), some that are way more malty (Scottish ales, dunkels), but pretty much all beers rely on some amount of hops to help strike some sort of balance. Without hop bitterness, you’ve just got alcoholic syrup, which sounds nice, but — trust me — it ain’t.
Yeah, you don’t care. But you do. Aroma is an underappreciated aspect of beer consumption. You might not realize it, but part of how you experience beer is simply smelling it before and after you drink it. It’s part of the tasting process and without it the beer doesn’t drink the same! Hops, depending on the variety, can impart an almost magical scent to beers… some are citrusy and piney (typically American hops), some are floral and spicy (typically German), some are grassy and woody (typically English). You might not be aware, but the hop aroma of your beer is a critical aspect of your drinking experience, so be grateful.
The oils in hops are antimicrobial, so they help to keep beer from getting spoiled. In this day and age we are less familiar with what spoiled beer tastes like, but beer is like any perishable food and can be infected with bacteria. The bacteria that likes to eat up beer will create weird favors like sourness and butter, and I just don’t want that in my beer. If you are into the sour beer craze, then you like infected beer — so come to terms with that however you will. Hops help to inhibit the growth of these bacteria, so generally, the hoppier your beer, the longer it will last. In fact, that’s the legend of the India Pale Ale. Purportedly it was found that the intensely hoppy beer produced by a certain brewery did a better job of surviving the long journey from England to the Indian Colonies, so yay Colonialism, I guess.
So, you may not be a hop head like me, but hopefully after reading this you understand and appreciate this tricky weed and how it improves your beer experience every day. Now go getchoo the hoppiest beer you can find and be happy.