Hops: Balancing out the bitterness

This article featured in the February issue of Australian Bartender magazine.

By Edward Washington

After last year’s Bartender of the Year Competition written exam we noticed that a few Aussie barkeeps were a bit light on in the geek factor when it comes knowledge on hops. It’s understandable as there’s a lot to get your collective heads around, but we thought we should put together a few study notes to get you started – this isn’t the lot though, so do some solo research.

Hops are the female flower clusters of a hop species Humulus lupulus (Common hop), a vigorous perennial herbaceous climbing plant that shoots in early October and is harvested around March. Hops should thrive in areas that would support wine grapes, but unlike wine grapes, hops can be stored for long periods once harvested. Hops grow in hop bines – not vines (which are microscopically different) – and hop farms use special climbing wires to grow them on. One advantage of giving the plant something simple to grow on is that it expends less energy (vigor) ‘hanging on’ to a surface and puts more energy into yield, size and ultimately quality.


Dry Hopping – A term used when adding hops to the wort after the boil is completed. Gives a lifted hop intensity without imparting overt bitterness.

Essentially hops are used to put the bitter in beer; their alpha-acids (found in the resin glands of the flowers) will help balance the sweet characteristics that result from the fermented malt – these acids convert to ‘iso-alpha acids’ once added to the process. As well as bitter characteristics hops add the floral and spicy notes you’ll find to varying degrees in beer. This comes from the different times at which they’re added during the boil, either at the beginning, middle or end. Adding hops also gives the beer a natural anti-bacterial property that helps prevent spoilage – hence IPAs historically having a higher hop level to preserve them for long voyagers.

Some noted, and noble, hops to know about

Learning varieties of hops can seem like an endless (and pointless) challenge. With names like Liberty, Columbus, Sterling, Horizon, Nugget, Fuggle, Warrior, Crystal, Chinook and Cluster all coined, you don’t need to commit them all to memory, but a few might help. Cascade – A very popular US variety with a moderate bitterness level and fragrant, flowery aromas. Amarillo – A good hop for flavour and aroma and effective for bittering as well. Nelson Sauvin, Newly developed in NZ, effective for bittering and aroma with intense fruity characters like Passionfruit. Pride of Ringwood – Used extensively in Aussie pales and lagers. Woody, earthy and often used only as a bittering agent.


Some of the ‘noble’ varieties listed below can only be produced in certain areas to take the name, and most of these are more noted for the aromas than their bittering characteristics – which can help explain the intense aroma you find on many European beers.

*Hallertau – Aroma style of hop with a mild spicy flavour and aroma.

*Saaz – Used extensively to flavours Czech lagers. Soft with aroma and bitterness.

*Spalt – Traditional hop from the Spalter region. Delicate spicey aromas.

*Tettnang – Produced in large numbers in Germany this is used by breweries throughout the world. A soft bitterness.

A few ‘hopped-up’ beers

Mountain Goat IPA – Cascade hops into the kettle, dry hopping with a big whack of Galaxy & more Cascade. Hops balanced by Ale malt, malted wheat and Crystal malt.

Moo Brew Pilsner – Noble hop balanced by delicate malt. Only uses German Spalt hops for aroma and lingering bitterness.

Murray’s Punch & Judy Ale – Rich dark Crystal malt flavour balanced out by strong NZ Riwaka and Motueka hops.

International Bitterness Units

The perceived bitterness of a beer is ultimately going to be subjective to the drinker, similar to a person’s view of what a ‘sweet’ wine is. However, for a quantitative guideline when comparing brews referring to International Bitterness Units can be useful to have in the back of your head.

One IBU equals about one milligram of iso-alpha acid/ litre of beer and as a rough guide; less than 20 IBUs and you’ll get little to no obvious hops presence (think some of the larger production commercial beers); 20-45 IBUs will have a milder presence and is a common range for beers (think Pilsners and American Pale Ales); 45 IBUs and up will have a pronounced character (think IPAs, Guinness etc). Australian beer with an IBU under 4 is not considered beer by law.

What’s important to remember is that with any beer balance is the key, a beer with a high hop level will not be adversely ‘hoppy’ if it’s balanced by high malt character (e.g stouts). It’s a similar principle to the way a wine can retain more residual sugar and not be noticeably sweet if it has higher acid levels.

Places to take note of…

Tasmania produces about 70 per cent of Australia’s hops for national and international distribution. Nelson, New Zealand was settled by English and German pioneers who enjoyed a brew and is now centre of NZ hop growing and home of the fabled Nelson Sauvin hop variety. Willamette Valley in Oregon, USA produces the popular Willamette hop that’s used by many craft breweries and Washington state produced 79 per cent of the USAs hop crop in 2011. Hallertau, Germany is famed for its hop production with the region being one of the world’s longest continual running hop producers. Germany also produces around a third of the world’s hops -about 80 per cent comes from Hallertu. China, which produced over 30 million tons of beer in 2010 is also a large producer of hop crops – and looks set for continued expansion.

Fact about hops

  • Hops will grow rapidly once they shoot – up top 7 metres in 70 days.
  • Hop plantings will be rotated around every 10-15 years according to US research.
  • Hop plants are male or female. The female flowers, called ‘cones’, and used in beer production.
  • Hop cones contain lupulin glands that store the alpha-acids, resins and essential oils.
  • Aroma hops are noted for a lower level of alpha-acids and are often added at the end of the boil.
  • A hop bine uses stout stems with stiff hairs to climb. A vine use tendrils, suckers etc for appendaging itself.
  • Hops can suffer from downy mildew, powdery mildew, insects, like the hop aphid and weeds – although the latter is mainly an issue when first growing.

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