“He was a wise man who invented beer.” — Plato

So, let’s talk about hops.

Hops is the stuff of beer - teh not-so-secret ingredient.  But what exactly are hops, and when is a beer “Hoppy”?

Hops are a fruit that has been grown for years, (LOTS of years), specifically for use in brewing beer. Writing that hops are fruits will already raise some debate. Some will call it a vegetable. Others will insist hops is simply the flower of a plant.

The part of the hops plant used in brewing is indeed the flower, and this flower adds a lot of scent and flavor to beers - whether they be lagers or ales.

The plant was cultivated back in the eighth century (Common Era) in northern Europe, and were grown to add a bit of kick to beer and ale, which without the addition of hops were a bit too sweet for many people’s taste, (and which could go bad rather quickly without refrigeration.)

Hops have a mild anticeptic quality that helps preserving the flavor of beer and extend it’s longevity.

The malt and various ingredients used in beer needed, even back in the day, to be tempered a little bit. Malt brews were just too sweet and cloying, (and ‘turned’ too quickly.)  Early brewers used all kind of herbs and vegetables including dandelions and some types of heather to add a touch of muscle.

(There are, by the way, still some heather beers out there that are very interesting.)

The only use for hops - at least the only general use - is in brewing. There is very limited use of the hops flower in some herbal teas, but beer is the real beneficiary of this unique blossom.

Hops flowers are harvested from a tall climbing vine-like plant - a perennial. It grows high in what is often called a “hops garden”  and is supported by guide-lines to a quite a height. Special machinery is needed to harvest the fragrant, somewhat pungent flowers - or florettes.

There are different types of hops. Brewers generally settle on a favorite and stick with it for generations giving their own brew distinctive aromas and flavor.

At one time in history, beer was considered different from ale and was a brew created with malt but ‘bittered’ with hops. Today both lagers and ales include hops

The first hops grown in what is now the United States were planted in the early 17th century.

There are two main types of hops used in brewing - bittering hops and aroma hops.

Here we could get into some serious chemistry, but let’s just move on ...

Suffice it to say that bittering hops add a ‘bite’ to any brew, and aroma hops add a very distinctive scent to a gently poured glass of suds.

The mix is what makes one beer different from the next, and sets one ale apart from others.

More hops, or specifically strong flowers make a beer or ale much more aromatic, and ‘hoppy’ in flavor.

And here’s the crunch. Hops, (not at all unlike cilantro or asparagus), are either loved or hated. There usually aren’t too many people who ‘kind of’ appreciate a ‘hoppy’ brew.

When hops are prominent and really ‘out there’ in a beer or ale, those drinks either have their fans or not.

All ‘corporate’ brews use hops, but most keep the distinctive flavors and aromas subtle and well tucked away in the background.

It is simply easier to market beer and ale to the wider American market when the ingredients that make a brewed beverage kick are less than distinctive.

‘Hoppy’ beers and ales have a real following, (witness the Hopslam success.)

On the other hand, many fans of beer appreciate the somewhat sweeter taste of a brew that comes out when milder hops or less assertive amounts of the same are used.

I’d suggest you try the whole range and don’t be scared off by initially ‘hoppy’ offerings.

There are a lot of interesting varieties of ‘hoppy’ and ‘malty’ beers and ales out there.

Trying them out can be a most entertaining adventure.

Here are a few suggestions from the shelves of local merchants.

Singapore IPA

Saugatuck Brewing Company

Saugatuck

While pouring a glass of Singapore IPA, you find a brew with a deep gold color reminiscent of a fine piece of amber.

The head forms almost frantically in a burst of off-white fluff that holds its own for quite a while - a long while actually.

This IPA is hazy, almost opaque but still letting enough light through to show its color.

Like IPAs in general, the hop level in Singapore is very evident from the first sniff. There is a soft hint of yeast in the background - but in a most pleasant way. There are also hints of a citrus quality - not lemony, but more like orange zest.

Singapore is “hoppy” by every and any definition of the word. Assertive, certainly. But not aggressive at all.

The flavor is intense. Very intense. But not put-offish.

The taste of this IPA is distinct from the first swish and stays around in a most agreeable fashion.

The hops ‘finish’ is gradual, slow, and the flavor finally leaves one’s mouth like an old friend - casually without being abrupt.

In the mouth, Singapore is tingly with an almost warming quality. The flavor, body, and scent are ‘there’ from the get-go.

It is hoppy at the start and hoppy at the end.

Singapore IPA is an exciting yet gentle way to ease into the world of “hoppy” beers. It will be a great way to encourage those interested in learning more about craft brews to move forward in their discovery process.

Simply put, I like this brew, (and I tend to appreciate more creamy ales.)

Arcadia Nut Brown Brown Ale

Arcadia Brewing Company

Battle Creek

Arcadia’s Nut Brown Brown Ale pours exactly as its name suggests - a nice chestnut brown. Rich in color and quite dignified.

There is a good amount of head when poured that is retained for a surprising amount of time.

This is a thick-ish brew. Cloudy, but not dull.

Nut Brown has the heartwarming appearance of a nice hefty ale in the best traditions of the same.

Upon pouring, there is a rich malty scent, a little grainy in the best of ways. There may be a hint of hops in the first smell, but only to someone who is really searching.

Nut Brown is a bit earthy, and once again this is noted in the most complimentary way. There is a certain quality of kicking over leaves in the woods. I heartily suggest you breath deep on this one.

Taking your first sip, there is a good blast of caramely malts which actually gives the brew’s flavor as earthy a quality as it smells. It is has a woodsy character to it all the way around,

The flavor is bold but at the same time the combination of tastes is subtle although that may seem a  bit contradictory.

Taste hits early, evolves, breaks into familiar elements well, and lingers comfortably long.

Arcadia Nut Brown takes a sparkling trip around the mouth and is both settled and quite frisky.

I like this ale A LOT.

It is one of those ales that you feel comfortable with in front of the fireplace on a cold winter’s eve.

I’ll need to try it in summer as well!