Hops: Alberta’s Newest Agribusiness by DAVID NUTTALL
Even the most casual beer drinker probably knows its four main ingredients are malt, hops, water, and yeast. In last year’s harvest issue, we explored Alberta’s importance in malt production, not only for local beers, but for breweries all over the world. But what about hops? This is one of Alberta’s newest crops, and growers are still learning what its potential can become. Just because people have heard of hops doesn’t mean they know exactly what they are - the female flower of the Humulus lupulus plant, a relative to cannabis and hemp. It looks somewhat like a tiny pine cone, and within its lupulin glands are the resins and oils that provide the main properties of the hop. The alpha acids of the resin, expressed in percentage weight, contain the characteristics of bitterness, flavour, and aroma unique to each variety. These components provide the bitter balance to the sugars from the malt.
It took brewers almost 7,000 years to figure out how to use hops in brewing; because the plant is so bitter it couldn’t be eaten or used in cooking. It is also poisonous to many animals, including dogs and cats, so it was generally ignored until around 700 AD in the Hallertau region of what is now Bavaria, when brewers figured out how to use it. From there, hop planting expanded through Europe and later arrived in North America. By the mid-1800s, hop farms were being planted in Oregon and Washington, and to this day Germany and the United States lead the world in hop production. The plant itself is a vine that can grow as much as twenty feet in one season in the right climate, and because they can topple over, the vines are often attached to trellises, strings, or poles for support.
22 Alberta's freshest food & beverage magazine - September 2019
The harvest is late summer, and the flowers are picked and taken to an oast or hop house for drying. When ready, they are either kept as whole hops, pressed into bales, compressed into plugs or pellets, or condensed into extract; all forms are used by breweries.
The plant… can grow as much as 20 feet in one season Cross breeding became common in the 1800s to isolate various qualities within the hops. This has accelerated since the 1970s with programs at Washington State and Oregon State Universities (among others) leading the way by introducing new hop varieties that have become the calling card of the American craft beer explosion.