Hops are a hot issue, and with good reason. They make up an essential part of brewing beer, and so they deserve the attention they get. But what concerns me are some recent changes in the way brewers use hops.
Ask any brewer and he or she will tell you that hopping the beer is one of the trickiest parts of brewing. If hops are added too soon to the boil, only bitterness will result, and no aroma. If added too late, you only get aroma from the essential oils, but no bitterness. Usually brewers add hops at several different times in order to extract all the right flavors.
In the last couple years the brewing industry has seen a veritable revolution in how hops are used. No longer do many brewers rely on quickly degrading bales of dried hops that require careful attention to detail. Due to volatile components, hops can cause difficulty in achieving precise levels of acidity and aroma. So what has changed? Brewers are beginning to use extracts from hops, which can be more easily measured and have a longer shelf life.
Let's take a quick look at what the giant Yakima wholesaler, Hopstein, offers to brewers. They offer dozens of hop products for each variety of hops. Not only do hops come in dried bales, but also lupulin powders, hop pellets (both the T-90 and the more concentrated T-45 pellets), aroma extracts, alpha acid extracts, tetra acid extracts, Salvo extracts, and the list goes on and on.
Why does this matter? Because most of the beer you now drink has a complex variety of ingredients coming from hop factories, whereas before it was simply hops and the 3 other basic ingredients (barley, yeast and water). Beer used to be the product of an artist, today it is becoming the product of chemists.
When a brewer wanted an IPA with high bitterness, he needed to perform a long boil in the kettle with a huge quantity of hops. He also needed to know when to pull out the hops before they impart harsh, astringent flavors. It took skill to make a nice flavored beer AND with high bitterness. However, nowadays you can dump in some oil extract from Hopsteiner, such as AlphaExtract, that gives you whatever level of bitterness you want -- boiling not even required.
Do you want delicate aromas in your beer? It used to mean carefully adding the hops at the end of the boil in order to preserve the aromas. Now you can dump in a shot of AromaExtract into the cold brew, from any variety of hops that Hopsteiner sells. If you know how to use a measuring cup, no other skills are necessary.
But what about dry hopping, that trendy new style of imparting subtle aromas to beer? No problem. Hopsteiner has DryHopExtract too! So technically, a beer that markets itself as "dry hopped" may actually just mean another oil additive in your beer.
"But," you may object, "the foamy head on a beer is hard to create without being an artisan brewer." Actually, its very easy today. There are several options for brewers. Tetra-IsoExtract from Hopsteiner makes wonderful foam, and there are many powder additives too. Drifoam product from Lalleman Brewing is "a powder form of propylene glycol alginate designed to give a trouble free method of enhancing and protecting beer foam." No skill required.
It gets even better. Because you need to make money, you can dump in adjuncts such as corn and sugar into your wort, since barley is expensive. But everyone knows that adjuncts ruin the mouthfeel, and create a thin beer that is no fun to drink. No problem. Hopsteiner again to the rescue! Polyphenol Aroma Pellets add mouthfeel back to your beer, and flavor too! They even mimic the yeasty bi-product flavors called polyphenols. You can even add "wet hops" (i.e., freshly picked) with the product WetHOP, developed and patented by Martin Schmailzl, Hopfen-Kontoras.
Since money is the number one concern for many brewers, Hopsteiner advertises their products by showing how they improve profit margins by longer shelf life, less storage space, and consistent results. Their motto is "Turn every pour into Profit." That pretty well sums up the ethos of some brewers.
All this makes me appreciate Göller Brewery even more. While Göller also believes in using technology to improve their brews, there is one big difference: Göller aims to enhance their beer's quality, not to make bigger profits.
The difference is basically that Göller Brewery uses modern technology to make process improvements, but never to manipulate ingredients. Being very traditional minded, the Göller family continues to use the ancient recipes handed down by their ancestors. They use pure barley from local fields, fresh hops from Hallertau, fresh water, and house yeast. Even though it's expensive, they won't cut back on the lengthly laggering times for all their beers.
Finally, it is important to remember that not every aspect of flavor can be reduced to scientific formulas. It's true that most bitterness comes from alpha acids in hops, but not all of it. There are thousands of factors that contribute to a beer's flavor, even though the these factories pretend there are only a few. You cannot replace the full flavor of a submerged hop plant by an extract that removes the "non-essential elements" of hops, as Hopsteiner claims. In so doing, you destroy "terroir" in beer, that intangible element that cannot be replicated.
In an article by Beer Maverick about extracts, they admit that "Some delicate aromatic compounds are lost during the pelletization process. Whole cone hops retain more of their essential oils due to the fact they haven’t been processed resulting in a greater aroma and flavor impact in the final beer." Also concerning the use of true wet hops: "The use of an ingredient that is unprocessed will result in using 100% of the aromatics and oils within that hop. Wet hops provide a slightly different and “fresher” flavor to beer." Yes indeed, there is no replacement for unprocessed ingredients.
This is why we look for Slow Beer breweries like Göller. They make better beer, pure and simple.