More and more beer drinkers say that hops are tops. Hops are a key ingredient that gives beer its bitterness. And virtually all the United States crop comes from here in the northwest.
Beer makers and hops experts are gathering Thursday and Friday in Oregon to discuss the flowering vine. Correspondent Chris Lehman has more.
Tom Shellhammer knows his hops. You might expect him to, with a title like Professor of Fermentation Sciences. He can spot a technical defect in a beer before his lips touch the glass. But that doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy a tall cold one.
|The hops research lab at Oregon State University includes a small on-site brewery.|
Tom Shellhammer: “Certainly when I’m in a bar I’m not this analytical about it. The beer drinking experience is as much about the social interactions as it is about the taste.”
That being said, when beer makers want to learn about hops, they turn to Shellhammer. The Oregon State University researcher runs one of the few labs in the country devoted to the plant that gives beer much of its flavor. It’s the kind of place where students sample beer — with their noses.
Tom Shellhammer: “Just sitting here smelling these beers, without even putting them in your mouth, will get you 90 percent of the way as to the differences. And then of course, once your drink these beers, then you get a sense on how much sweetness there might be, certainly how much bitterness there might be, how much aftertaste there would be, but a lot in terms of hops is found right up front here in just the smelling.”
Shellhammer sets up a row of beers in front of me. The aromas are all over the map, everything from butter to pine trees. It’s the last one in the batch that catches my attention. It smells like a skunk.
Chris Lehman: “Wow. That’s pretty vile.”
Tom Shellhammer: “The interesting thing is that this compound comes from hops. And it’s a reaction of hops with U-V light, or sunlight. So if you take an American lager beer and you put it in a glass, and you sit out in the backyard playing volleyball or whatever, the sunlight will to begin create this aroma.”
Shellhammer does more than study hops. He runs a small brewery on campus. His product impressed some of the beer producers in town for the hops conference.
Chris Lehman: “What do you think?”
Bill Ladish: “It’s a nice clean glass of beer. Which is difficult to do on a small scale, so I’m impressed.”
That’s Bill Ladish of the Master Brewers Association of America. He and about 140 other beer experts are in Corvallis for the hops symposium. They’re discussing the science of hops as well as market trends.
Demand for bitter beer is on the rise, even though — as Larry Sidor puts it — it’s an acquired taste. Sidor is the brewmaster at Deschutes Brewery in Bend:
Larry Sidor: “Bitterness is a very important part of the balance of the beer. If you’re too bitter it leaves a lingering taste you won’t care for. If it’s not enough, then it will have a very sweet, cloying aftertaste that your won’t like either.”
Nearly a third of the world’s hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest. Prices are on the rebound after an oversupply in the mid-90’s. And while rising prices have hops growers pleased, Tom Shellhammer says it shouldn’t have a huge impact on the cost of your favorite microbrew. That’s because when it comes to hops, a little goes a long way.
Tom Shellhammer: “Hops are very powerful, strong, pungent products. So you add very, very small amounts to beer. So the increase in price to hops is not going to reflect itself in a direct increase in price of beer.”
Shellhammer says your beer could cost more for another reason. The price of a key ingredient — barley — is expected to rise along with other grains. The culprit? The growing demand for corn-based ethanol.