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Hops have been used on and off in the history of beer making, but only became a popular, and required by the Reinheitsgebot, relatively recently in terms of beer history.
Before hops were used, many different plants, herbs, and other ingredients (called gruit) were used to offset the sweetness of the “wort,” or unfermented beer. Barley is a cereal grain and like all other cereals is composed of sugars. Unlike fruits though, barley has some chemical differences from the simple sugars like fructose and sucrose. These differences allow barley to have more complex sugars that can’t be completely fermented and thus, add body and sweetness. If you ever try malta, that is a sweet, unfermented barley drink that has very minimal bitterness.
Hops counteract the sweetness and also have three very important functions, bitterness, flavor, and preservative properties. In fact, hops were originally used as an addition to gruits simply for their preservative powers. The Germans were the first to use hops, and some countries, like Great Britain, were very late in embracing the use of hops in beer.
It is important to understand that there are many varieties of hops and certain characteristics can be noted.Noble hops were originally prized for aroma and come from Germany and the Czech Republic. These include names like, Saaz, Hallertauer, Tettnanger and Spalt. Other hops are most noted for their bittering component and come from many countries, especially Great Britain and the United States. More recently New Zealand has become a hop power house, but these hops are hard to find in the Northern Hemisphere. Some varieties known for bittering include, Brewers Gold, Nugget and Galena. There is also a type of hop that is used for both bittering and aroma and these include, Perle, Centennial and Northern Brewer.