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Identifying Hops Techniques

Saturday, October 10th, 2009

It’s the season to harvest, and if you’ve been diligent and foresighted, you have a nice crop of well-labeled hop plants, and have no need for this article.

However, if the labels you planted next to the vines have faded & run since you planted them, or if your hop harvest didn’t come from a garden, but from a fortunate find of a hop plant at the state park or growing over the fence from a neighbor, identifying what you’ve got is a bit more important to you.

Visually, one species of hop cone looks much like another, so just looking won’t help. Aroma can be a huge indicator of the hop type, so you should start with that. If your hops are dried (which they should be, after harvest!), they won’t have a lot of aroma initially. Take the cone between your palms of your hands, rub your hands together, and then cup them near your nose and inhale. The hop aroma should be strong enough to identify any significant aromatic markers, such as the citrus aroma of Cascade or Centennial hop.

Some folks claim that the only way to really identify a hop is to brew with it. While that might work, there’s an easier way to identify the flavors & bitterness of a hop without risking a batch of beer. Once you’ve crushed the hop between your hands and smelled the aroma, throw your teakettle on the stove & heat some water to boiling. Making hop tea is the next-best thing to brewing with it, so toss your crushed cone in a cup and add boiling water. Let it steep for about five minutes to fifteen minutes, and then smell the aroma again. It should be fainter, but still the same notes as you smelled before. Strain the hops out of your tea, and then take a sip of the tea, checking for both flavor and bitterness. Because it’s a small amount of hop, steeped for a short amount of time, bitterness will be minimal (relative to your beer), but a highly bitter hop will be noticeable.

One word of caution: do not chew on the hop directly. It’s tempting and a fun prank to play on novice brewers, but the intensity of the bitterness will drown out other flavors in the hop, making identification harder, not easier. You get better flavors and a better balance from making the ‘tea’, and your palate isn’t smothered afterward.

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