Humulus lupulus or ‘wolf of the woods’ to use its Latin name is known in English as the hop. Hops are herbaceous perennial climbing plants. The flowers contain oils which, depending on the variety bestows aroma, flavour, and/or bitterness to beer. Hops are also anti-bacterial so they act as a natural preservative.
Just as the grape gives specific characteristics to wine, so the hop does to beer. Depending on the variety aromas and flavours from hops include citrus, tropical fruit, herbal, grassy, fruity, floral, peppery, pine, spicy, and earthy. Where the hop is grown will also influence aroma and flavour. In the New World for instance hops are usually irrigated and regular sunshine intensifies the hop oils (myrcene) conferring punchy aromatics and flavours. Superstar varieties include Cascade, Galaxy and Nelson Sauvin from the USA, Australia and New Zealand respectively.
Britain’s maritime climate and soils have a distinct impact on hops. Rainfall throughout the year means that the need for irrigation is rare. The sun does not shine with the intensity it does in New World hop growing regions and so myrcene levels are not elevated. What this means is that British grown hops are more delicate but they are complex. This makes it possible to brew balanced session beers where the malt character is evident too. One reason why hundreds of tons of British hops are exported annually so brewers in the USA and other countries can brew quaffable beers. The major commercial hop growing areas are Herefordshire, Worcestershire & Kent but they do grow on a smaller scale in other counties. And they also grow wild in hedgerows and gardens too!
The British Hop Association works with leading hop breeders and hop merchants such as Dr Peter Darby and Charles Faram respectively to innovate and sustain the hop industry. Dr Darby leads the world in developing disease resistant hops – one of his successes is Boadicea, the first aphid resistant hop. There are 31 commercially grown varieties in the UK including the venerable Fuggle (the mother of Cascade and other varieties), Goldings, Target and newer hops such as Jester, Endeavour and Minstrel. Never let it be said that British hops do not have enticing aromas – tangerine, chocolate, blackcurrant, apricot, marmalade, mint, honey, and molasses. Or how about Olicana with mango, grapefruit, passionfruit aromatics.
Hops have some very useful and wide-ranging medicinal properties too – if you want to read more about them click here.