Hops are the female flowers (also called seed cones or strobiles) of the hop plant, Humulus lupulus. They are used primarily as a flavoring and stability agent in beer, to which they impart a bitter, tangy flavor, though hops are also used for various purposes in other beverages and herbal medicine.
In the Middle Ages beers tended to be of a very low alcohol content and were commonly consumed as a safer alternative to untreated water. Each village tended to have one or more small breweries with a barley field and a hop garden in close vicinity. Early documents include mention of a hop garden in the will of Charlemagne's father, Pepin III. However, the first documented use of hops in beer as a flavoring agent is from the 11th century. Before this period, brewers used a wide variety of bitter herbs and flowers, including dandelion, burdock root, marigold, horehound (the German name for horehound means "mountain hops"), ground ivy, and heather.
Hops are used extensively in brewing for their antibacterial effect that favors the activity of brewer's yeast over less desirable microorganisms and for many purported benefits, including balancing the sweetness of the malt with bitterness, contributing a variety of desirable flavors and aromas. Historically, traditional herb combinations for beers were believed to have been abandoned when beers made with hops were noticed to be less prone to spoilage.
The hop plant is a vigorous, climbing, herbaceous perennial, usually trained to grow up strings in a field called a hopfield, hop garden (nomenclature in the South of England), or hop yard (in the West Country and U.S.) when grown commercially. Many different varieties of hops are grown by farmers around the world, with different types being used for particular styles of beer.
Alpha-Hop Soup: Figuring Bitterness (IBUs, AAUs and HBUs)
Author: John Oliver Issue: January 1999, BYO MAGAZINE
It wasn’t too many years ago when most recipes that referred to adding hops usually only mentioned the variety of hops used, the amount, and not much else. This system worked relatively well at a time when hops were available in a few limited varieties and the freshness and quality were often questionable. But as the hobby evolved and became more sophisticated, a better, more precise way to calculate potential bitterness in a homebrew recipe was needed.
One of the simplest ways to more accurately determine bitterness levels and hop usage centers on the International Bitterness Unit (IBU). An IBU can technically be defined as one milligram of iso-alpha acid per liter of beer, which also equals one part per million (ppm)... READ MORE
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For insight on how a commercial brewery makes hops selections...
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Drakes Goes To Yakima, Alex's Hops Selection
EXCELLENT hops & grain selections guide:
Comparing and Selecting Hops & Grains