Friday, October 19, 2007

Hey, Barkeep!

We all have stupid questions. Even the beer wizards here at MBR. As one of us admitted last month, “I wasn't the full-blooded, regional craft beer snob that you see before you today.”

What rarely is admitted is one person’s stupid question is often a lot of people’s stupid question. So we are introducing a new segment, something we like to call Hey, Barkeep! On the third Friday of every month, we will be answering some of the questions of the Beer Challenged.

We want all of you to reach the “full-blooded, regional craft beer snob” level like us! We will be gathering questions from you at bars, festivals, and, of course, e-mail and answering them at So come on and send us your burning questions that you have been wanting to ask but just can’t without risking the “You’re kidding, right?” look from the real live bartender.

We promise to be gentle. Or at least funny. OK, we will try to be one or the other, but we definitely promise to answer them on Hey, Barkeep!

Our first question: Who are these Fuggles people and what does Harry Potter have to do with my beer?

Muggle. Fuggle.

Fuggle is a hop variety from England. There are a few primary hop-growing regions in the world: Germany, England, and the Yakima Valley in Washington state (there are others, but these are the primary ones). Fuggles are grown in England and in the United States. The UK version was first propagated in the early 1900s and used in traditional ales and bitters there. It is a hop still very much associated with English style ales, porters and stouts.

Hops serve two primary purpose: bittering and aroma. Before the advent of refrigeration, hops were also used for their preservative power. In fact, the India Pale Ale's signature bitterness was derived from the need to preserve the pale ale on the trip from England to India. Since the advent of refrigeration, the use of hops as a preservative have fallen off.

Today, hops are far more prevalent than they were. What would have been considered a bitter IPA during the British occupation of India in the mid-to-late 1800s, would now be considered a typical American pale ale. Bitterness, once an undesired, or at least subdued and understated, quality in beer, is now one of the predominant features of any number of styles, including most modern "American" and "Imperial" styles of beer. There are dozens of different varieties of hops. Each imparts different bitterness and aroma. For example, the Cascade hop gives many American beers a citrus-y, orange-like bitterness and aroma.

Hop bitterness is primarily measured by its content of alpha acids. In general, the greater the contentration of these acids, the more bitterness the hop can impart. Alpha acid can be as low as 3-4% and as high as 16-17%. Of course, the actual bitterness imparted is also related to how long the hop is boiled. There are any number of times during the brewing process that hops can be introduced. They can be introduced during the mash (wet-hopping); this is not common, but provides a very subtle bitterness that can sometimes be confused with roastiness or a alcohol-like sharpness. In fact, this was prevalent when hops were used entirely for their preservative powers; but has fallen out of favor, for the most part, because the bittering and aroma power of the hops is destroyed.

More commonly, the wort (liquid produced from steeped grains) is boiled after it is mashed and the hops are introduced during this boil. A boil typically lasts for 60 minutes; much longer and the wort starts lightening in strength and caramelizing. Hops introduced at the 60 minute mark fully impart their bitterness. Hops can also be introduced at any point thereafter, and the trade-off is generally between bitterness and aroma. The shorter the boil, the more aroma; the longer the boil, the more bitterness. Hops can also be introduced during the primary or more likely a secondary fermentation; this is called dry-hopping and it is entirely for aroma purposes. A hop's aroma is frequently associated with its beta acid number; the higher the beta, the more aroma the hop imparts. Beta-acid typically ranges from 2-9%.

The Fuggle is an "old-skool" hop. It has a mild, grassy, floral aroma. It's powers come mostly in the late part of the flavor profile, so it is very much considered a finishing hop. It's alpha-acid is typically in the 4-5.5% range making it on the low-end of the bitterness scale. It's beta-acid is typically around 2-3%. Thus, this hop is both mild bitterness and moderate aroma. It is considered a subtle hop these days, so it is used more for it's "old-skool-ness" than for its bittering or aroma powers. It is typically combined with other hops and adds complexity to the hop profile. If you can detect a floral, chamomile-like flavor in the aftertaste of your beer this may be from the use of Fuggles hops.

These low-alpha-acid hops have fallen out of favor among brewers in general and American craft brewers specifically. The past few seasons have been particularly bad for hops, and it is predicted that the scarcity of hops (and barley) will cause beer prices to increase. To combat this scarcity, hop growers (and users) are becoming more sophisticated in their usage and choosing to use small portions of high-alpha-acid hops instead of a large quantity of low-alpha-acid hops. These high-alpha-acid hops have also been bred to have varying levels of beta-acids and aroma profiles.

Since the Fuggle has low bitterness and a mild aroma, it's use is somewhat unnecessary. As the hop shortage gets worse, its use is likely to diminish further.

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