Hops, Part 2: Different Types of Hops and the Evolution of Beer

  • March 2nd, 2017
  • By Stephen Rich

As beer has evolved across the world over the past 7000 years, cultures and regions have developed their own specific brewing techniques, drinking rituals, and favourite ingredients that have all helped to define the beers we identify with those cultures or regions. Think about the Czech Republic, England, or Belgium — today, even the most modest beer lover would be able to pinpoint styles or flavours that they associate with these historic brewing regions.

The evolution of beer has been subject to countless influences, but few have shaped modern beer as much as hops have. In our last Brewers Blog on Hops, we explored how hops can be used in the brewing process. Today, we will overview some basic regional distinctions in beer that hops have contributed to and touch on the evolution of beer’s popularity in those historic brewing areas.

How Terroir Affects Hops

Like most culinary creations — yes, beer is certainly culinary as much as it is art and science — beer evolved from the basic availability of ingredients and the characteristics they gave to beer. Water, barley, hops, and yeast naturally found in Germany have different characteristics, as do the same ingredients found in North America, England, or New Zealand. Over hundreds of years the flavours and sensations present in a specific brewing region played a significant role in shaping the beers that are now iconic of those areas.

Hops grown in the USA are different than hops grown in the Czech Republic. The same is true of hops grown in England. Each hop growing region can produce numerous varieties of hops – some will thrive in one environment, and others will not. But even the same hop variety grown in one region can taste, smell, and have different properties than the same hop grown elsewhere. This phenomenon is known as terroir. Terroir is the idea that the local climate, soil, sun, wind, and rain conditions all affect the characteristics of plant life grown there.

Here, we will contrast three distinct brewing regions, their hops, and the beers that have made them famous.

Hops in the Czech Republic

Few peoples have ingrained beer into their lives and culture as the Czechs have. They could be credited with developing the world’s most popular beer style, and have had significant influence on brewing regions in Europe during beer’s early modernization to what we know now as beer. If you haven’t already muttered it to yourself, the beer style iconic in the Czech Republic is Pilsner, originating from the city of Pilsen in the Czech Republic.

Pilsner is a golden straw coloured lager that is clear, crisp, bitter, and supremely refreshing. Most of the beer sold in the entire world is some version of a Pilsner. Pilsner evolved in a time when beer had little consistency and malting and brewing techniques were just advanced enough to make this style possible. But what really drove Pilsners into the forefront of beer culture — and is still recognized as the signature characteristic of the true style — is its hops.

Czech hops are fresh, grassy, and sometimes herbal and floral. They can range in bitterness qualities, but are generally low to medium in both bitterness and aromatic properties. When Czech brewers started to create clear golden lagers, these hops harmoniously matched the characteristics of the malt, water, and yeast used. Czech Pilsners then quickly rose to power and have not given up their reign as the world’s most popular style.

The hops grown in Czech and the resulting beers have a fine and almost focused bitterness that is generally balanced with aromas of fresh cut grass, field flowers, and sometimes clean earth. Against the brisk and elegant malt sensations of a classic Pilsner, these hops shine to produce a supremely refreshing beer. This is the trademark of Czech hops, most notably, the Saaz hop – clean and elegant bitterness with grassy and herbal characteristics.

Hops in England

If you ask anyone which beer England is famous for, they may say Cask Ale – which is true. No country serves cask ale with the passion and expertise that British brewers and publicans do. But the real hero of English brewing is the IPA – and arguably, it is because of the rise of the hop.

England was slow to adopt the use of hops in daily brewing – previously balancing their beers with herbs, spices, or a concoction of other ingredients. As commercial pressures from hopped beers brewed in Czech and Germany gained popularity, English brewers were put under added pressure to compete. Bitters and IPAs came to the rescue.

The base style in this world of pale and bitter English brewing is the Bitter. It is a low ABV pale ale with hops to add bitterness and aroma. This seems basic now, but for the time it was novel. At the time, most beers were dark and focused on malt character such as Porter and Stout. When the English Bitter evolved, it offered a more refreshing, and potentially easier drinking beer.

From the Bitter evolved the slightly stronger Special Bitter, the stronger again Extra Special Bitter, then finally, the India Pale Ale. The key differentiator of all these beers is the use of hops and the resulting characteristics. English hops like Fuggels and Goldings are very different from Czech hops. They offer rounder, fruitier flavours, but can also have earthy or even wood-like sensations. English hops range in bittering characteristics and are generally medium in overall intensity levels.

In comparison to dark beers like Stout, IPAs are refreshingly bitter with apple, pear, and light earthy aromas. This was the beginning for Pale Ales in England, and thousands of brands and variations have evolved since — with many thanks to the English Hop.

Hops in America

America’s Craft Beer Revolution is well documented, and now hops are a namesake of American Beer History. As the Anchor and Sierra Nevada Breweries grew in California, and other breweries opened in Oregon, Colorado, Washington State, and further – there was no mistaking what would drive those breweries and their beers into the future: American Hops.

Some hops grew native to America, but many brewers in the US either grew up or trained in European brewing nations. These brewers began bringing their own native European hop varieties to America, hoping to recreate the glory of the old country’s beers. But alas, terroir would play a big role in shaping the hops that came off the vine. American hops are generally regarded for their high flavour intensity and dominant citrus sensations.

We couldn’t talk about American hops without mentioning Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. This is probably the beer that kick-started the craft brewing movement in the US, then across the globe. So, how did one beer change the state of American beer brewing? The answer is Cascade hops.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is heavily hopped with Cascade hops, which give the beer a grapefruit and orange zest aroma and pronounced bitterness. This came to the thirsty palette of Americans who were used to macro lagers with little to no flavour or bitterness. From there, the hop craze and evolution began.

Hops like Citra, Amarillo, Chinook, and Centennial could quickly be found in nearly any American brewery’s arsenal of hops. Most of these hops were used in Pale Ales or heavily hopped IPAs. These zesty and juicy hops sensations created the perfect combination for a nation tired of bland beer, and thirsty for something as eager and excited as they were.

The Regionality of Hops

By now, it is clear that hops grown in specific regions will have their own characteristics — this is allowing brewers and beer drinkers to easily associate hops from a specific region with specific flavour characteristics. If I am brewing a big piney and citrus IPA, I know I want to look for American Hops. If I am brewing a German or Czech Pils, I know I am going to hunt for the grassy and herbal sensations found in those native regions. Or if I wanted fruit filled hop aromas I could look to England or New Zealand. The specific regionality of hop terroir acts like a compass directing hop flavours to specific regions. It can be a fun thing to keep in mind next time you read about a beer with Ontario, BC, UK, or German hops.

Cheers!