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Walking the hop line

With the rise of craft beer the popularity of the pungent hop has grown. Learn how the fickle Humulus lupulus came to dominate our beer industry

Photograph: Supplied

Craft beer is hitting peak hop. Lip-puckering, teeth-sucking Double IPAs and their ilke are crowding out mellower offerings as brewers one-up each other in IBUs (International Bitterness Units) to prove who is the hoppiest of them all. And beer lovers are voting with their dollars and buying up the heavily-hopped stuff as fast as breweries can bottle it.

But did you know it wasn’t until the 1950s that hops were farmed systematically? Editor of German craft beer magazine Hopfenhelden, Nina Anika Klotz, says that “people in the Hallertau, Bavaria started cultivating hops on a big scale. Until then, hops just grew.” Whether farmed or grown wild, hops have been crucial to brewing tasty, safe beer for centuries. Modern Times Beer assistant production manager (and former hop chemist for HopUnion) Rachel Hotchko says, “the first documentation of hops usage in brewing was in Germany around 736 AD, but other archaeological evidence suggests they were possibly utilised in areas in ancient Babylon, Greece and Rome for its herbal and medicinal properties. It was later determined that hops also provided a low level of increased microbiological stability, which meant the brews would last longer and ship farther.”

The fact that hops are great preservatives is ironic when you consider just how bad they are at self-preservation. Hops need conditions to be just right to flourish. They need ample light (but not the hardcore Australian heat of a Queensland summer), lots of water and good drainage, generous amounts of nitrogen and a specific soil pH. The sweet spot falls within the ‘hop line’, says Hotchko. That’s right. There is a specific latitude for growing hops successfully. It lies between the 35th and 55th parallels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Van Dieman Brewing director and brewer, Will Tatchell says that hops “grow best where there are cold winters to let the hop plant lay dormant for a period of time, followed by nice wet-ish springs and warm summers. That’s why Tasmania is such a great place for producing hops.”

Tatchell farms estate-grown hops for Van Dieman in Tasmania. “Hops are one of the most prolific growing plants I’ve ever seen, growing eight to ten inches overnight. But they can also be one of the most fickle crops.” So why is it that we’ve suddenly gone crazy for such hop-forward beers? Klotz puts it down to the trend for aroma hops in the US craft beer industry.The American craft beer market is famous for their full-bodied ales that require hops with higher levels of the oils that carry flavour and aroma. Hops are no longer just a bittering agent used for balance and preservation.

Tatchell says, “Historically the bittering component of the hops has been the major driver with growing varieties. Now that’s seen a big change, particularly with variety development. A lot of effort and energy has been put into establishing new varieties and trying to get better and bigger flavours, because that’s what the consumer is driving towards. The industry in Australia is shifting from that high bittering, low-flavour or low-aroma hop into much more aromatic flavour and aroma profile hops.”

Hotcko agrees, adding that “hops are now considered the ‘spice’ of beer. They add unique aromas and flavors to the brews.”

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