Hops: Beer’s Infernal Last Minute Addition

We spend a lot of time talking about barley here at Pretty Things.  It’s our favorite ingredient followed closely by hops and yeast.  Or is yeast or hops our favorite ingredient?  It’s really hard, like choosing your favorite child.  In the wake of our first ever American beer, an IPA no less, we thought it time to talk about hops, their history and how we approach them when we formulate a beer.  The following is a blog and would never be published in a scientific quarterly and shouldn’t be taken as me laying out gospel.  But if you really want to know what’s behind the scenes of some of your favorite PT beers then we hope you enjoy!


Beer is an incredibly old beverage, perhaps as old as 11,000 years.  For the vast majority of this time beer had three basic ingredients that were common to all brewers: a cereal grain, water and something to ferment this concoction  (probably a combination of yeasts and bacteria).  Outside this foundation there were probably as many variations as there were brewers.  Besides barley, other cereal grains were certainly used as well as sugars added to boost the drink’s strength. Plus probably every edible and psychotropic plant on earth has been added to some sort of beer at some point…  I wouldn’t have thought that these prehistoric concoctions excelled in “drinkability”, but there you go – very early beer in a nutshell (perhaps literally, ha ha).

By  mediaeval times, barley had a firm place as the primary grain, and hops are first mentioned as an ingredient around 800 A.D..  After  a century of derision in England, hop plants were finally planted in the early 16th century.  You could certainly argue that the English adoption of hops as the fourth and final beer ingredient is a pretty solid starting point for the modern beer we know now.  It meant that the Dutch, Germans and English were all on the same page with the beer cookery book: Beer contained barley, hops, yeast & water.  So of the long and winding 11,000 year history of fermented cereal grains, Humulus lupulus has been involved for only 488 years of brewing.  The hop plant, in addition to a lot of U’s, brought bitterness and some preservation or anti-bacterial properties that were helpful in the progression of beer into the industrial age.

From a flavour standpoint, hops kind of whip beer into shape.  Without knowing the properties of every single alternative to hops, I can’t speak to whether or not hops improved beer over any other spice, flower or herb, but the addition of hops offers a drastic improvement in flavour and creative possibilities when compared to the prospects of unhopped wort.  And here we come to my first personal beer observation: Hop bitterness is the real “backbone” of beer. The “backbone” of beer is often mistakenly attributed to malt, as in the old cliché (“that beer doesn’t have enough malt backbone to counter its bitterness”). Malt is already the body of the beer, the colour of the beer, the sweetness, the depth – clearly malt cannot be the backbone as well.  That would defy any structure – beer would be a squishy blob. And my second bug-bear of this article is this: hops and malt do not “counteract” one another.

Taste a truly great beer and notice it will have a distinct hop bitterness that runs from the beginning to the end of the beer, and will leave a ghost of bitterness on the palate when it’s all down the hatch.  In other words, the bitterness is not partially obscured by the sweet malt. The two sit side by side.  As an example, a totally unfermented beer or what we call “wort” is beer at its sweetest stage.  Even at this super heightened sweetness wort does not counteract the bitterness of the hops – they coexist adjacent to one another.  Trust me, our IPA wort is bitter as all heck. And as the sugar ferments and the solution becomes drier tasting, the bitterness remains the same.

When I formulate a beer, the idea of “balance” is not helpful in making a good beer. For me, the relationship between hops and malt or bitterness and malt is perhaps more like a dissonance, a battle at the center of the beer.  Sort of an ancient unresolved conflict.  As a brewer I have no power to balance the bitterness of hops with anything; there is no ingredient generally used in brewing that has the ability to do so.  All I have in my power is to raise and lower the bitterness and to raise and lower the final sweetness.  I’m certain that many brewers have learned this before me, but I don’t often hear it said.  As mentioned earlier, many of the truly great beers of the world have a bitterness that rises like a tower at the center of the beer; it leaves you with a postcard of itself and stands to await your future visits.

So let’s take a look at some of Pretty Thing’s hoppiest beers.  The pounds per barrel chart below might be a bit alarming to some of you.  I kind of hope it will be! If you went by volume alone our “über-hoppy” IPA doesn’t even hold a candle to the 19th century London ales we brew with historian Ron Pattinson.  Take a look at the blogs or descriptions I wrote about those beers.  You’ll notice that each and every one has me amazed by the volume of hops used (and the profit-killing cost associated with them!).  I never seem able to convey that in person however; people constantly tell me these beers “don’t taste hoppy”.  Why?  That’s because these old hops are so different than today’s varieties.

Recently one of our great Pretty Things drinkers out there wrote to us disappointed about Meadowlark IPA: that we would make a beer that was just an exercise to see how much hops we could fit into a beer.  Blatantly not: the Georgians and Victorians tried that already!  You can see the evidence in this table: Meadowlark IPA has less hops per barrel than the beers we have brewed from 1838, 1901 and 1855. Remember me saying that there was so much leaf hops in the 1832 XXXX Mild that I could stand a shovel in the kettle?  As we ran that wort through the brewhouse pump after pump gave out, and then every air-actuated valve failed.  It took three days to clean up the brewhouse after that brew and it took some rather clever maneuvers to eventually get it all out.  After that we decided that if we brewed another beer from that era we would be forced to use pelletized hops. Imagine if we used whole leaf hops for the East India Porter!  I probably could have erected a regulation basketball hoop in the thickness of that boil. Or walked on it.

Despite these numbers I have heard comments and read reviews of beers like the 1838 X Ale that said something like “restrained hoppiness” or that the East India Porter was “mildly hoppy”. Now there’s quite a difference between the Kent Goldings of the 1800’s and the sort of circusy hops we have today, and I’m not certain because of this whether “hoppy” means volume of hops added or volume of flavour perceived.  But the peppery, dried apricot, pipe-tobacco-like character that defines the Goldings mingle much more with the malt and the overall flavour of the beer. This has lead others to believe that some of these historical beers are not in fact hoppy but very malty.  It shows how seldom we modern beer drinkers get to appreciate these older properties of hops, and it shows that our palates are easily confused by them. Strange stuff and not straight forward if you are formulating beers lemme tell you!

Our Meadowlark is really emblematic of how far hops have come since then.  Without having to worry about how many hops can fit in the kettle, we can achieve a really hop-centric beer.  It would be interesting (if I had the technology) to see this chart from the perspective of hop oils (the part of the hops that give the definitive characteristic aromatic qualities).  The East India Porter of 1855 was loaded with hops cones themselves but probably less oils.  Certainly these beers would have been loaded with the vegetal matter of the hops, with a decreased oil content due to picking and storage losses.  You can taste this in the historical beers when you get your hands on them – you can just about taste how the wort is caramelizing on the leaf material in the boil. Normally you wouldn’t be able to get this, but the massive volume of hops helps accentuate the phenomenon. The delicate oil aromas are very much in the background.

Conversely, our IPA shows a complete lack of harshness from anything but the (intentional) bitterness itself.  What is left is a basket of fruit and flowers, the hop oils, taking over and coming front and center with very little contribution from hop mass.  This is really the difference between hops old and new.  You could never have made a beer as smooth and confounding as Meadowlark in the olden days.  Now we have hop varieties that are loaded with lovely oils, pelletized in nitrogen cooled dies, vacuum packed and stored at very cold temps.

Well, what a soliloquy.  As brewers, we think about the ingredients of beer constantly and approach them with often contrary and personal attitudes. These aren’t meant to be rules for anyone else, it’s all just part of our bizarre outlook to making the Pretty Things beers that we do. I hope you enjoyed it and that it helped to confuse you even further.


Dann Paquette


Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project

Somerville, MA