By Cold, Hard Football Facts sud stud Lew Bryson
It's amazing how little most people know about what they stick in their body.
A lot of young athletes know little about steroids, for example. And you probably don't know much about hops.
You hear about hops all the time and, if you drink beer as much as we do, you probably ingest hops more often than vitamins or vegetables.  
Maybe you should know a bit more about one of your dietary staples.
Like I said, I went to Anheuser-Busch's Elk Mountain hop farm in Idaho in August for the hop harvest and got up close and personal with your favorite climbing vine.
Now, harvests in wine country are a big deal: The "crush" is a time for festivals, extravagant parties and celebrity foolishness. The feverish work entailed in picking the grapes at their peak is followed by equally fevered partying once it's done.
Not so with hops – unless you're in Bavaria, where hop culture and festivals can still be a big deal. The American hop harvest is just three or four weeks of non-stop work, with no tourists, no parties and no celebs in pretty clothes with sloppy red wine stains. The hop harvest is not glamorous, but it's just as essential to a great drink. Let's give 'em a little love.
Most beer drinkers don't even know what hops look like. Here's a picture. The green cones are the hops, the actual part that's put in your beer. They're called cones, or flowers, even though the really picky botanists insist that they aren't really flowers; they call them strobiles. Whatever you call them (and we're going to call them flowers), this is where the action is.
The flowers are built like pine cones – leafy, green pine cones that range from cute little ones about the size of a thimble to big suckers the size of a full-grown banana slug. Riffle back the leaves, or bracts, and you'll see that at the base of the bract there are a collection of small, yellow spheres. That is what it's all about: the lupulin glands.
Why beer gets skunked
The lupulin glands are little sacs of bitter and aromatic acids and oils. We got a lecture on this from A-B's hops research scientist, Dr. Val Peacock. He is a walking, brimming repository of some of the Coldest, Hardest Beer Facts you'll ever run into; if he can't prove it in the laboratory, he won't say it. He gave us the kind of talk he gives to second-grade students, and we took down the small words.
The principle bittering component of hops, the most important thing in those little sacs, are the alpha acids. These are the things that make your IPA spank your tongue, that keep your Bud on the edge of that appetizing crispness, and that stay out of the way in a good Oktoberfest. Alpha acids are the muscle in the hop, and a brewmaster will add hops to a beer at different points in the brewing process to make the best use of them.
Alpha acids are the part of beer that is susceptible to being sun-struck, or skunked. If beer is exposed to sunlight, or to fluorescent light, for as little as 30 seconds, the acids will convert to compound (called mercaptan) that Dr. Peacock said is "one of the most active flavor compounds known." Wikipedia describes mercaptan as "one of the main chemicals responsible for bad breath and the smell in flatulence." Sweet. Word to the wise: Keep your beer out of the sun!
The glands also contain beta acids, which are not as significant as alphas in bittering, and not as soluble in beer as the alphas. "So why do we care about them?" Dr. Peacock asked. Turns out that when the betas break down with age, their nastiness does come out in the beer, so they're kind of like a freshness timer.
A way to grade your ex-wife: Bittering Units
Alphas and betas together contribute to the number of Bittering Units in a beer. I explained this earlier; Dr. Peacock explained it as a non-subjective measure of bitterness, a measure of "all the hop stuff."
But hops are not just about bittering, thank God. They're about aroma, too. That's where those oils come in. The oils provide the aroma of the hop, an aroma that varies from one hop variety to the next: grassy, earthy, citrus, pine, floral and so on. Hops are just like grapes – they vary from place to place, year to year depending on weather, and variety to variety. Different hop varieties have cool names, like Willamette from the Pacific Northwest, Saaz from the Czech Republic, Fuggles from England and Hallertau from Germany. There are countless other varieties, too.
Since all hops are different, even within the same variety and location depending upon the weather that season, the brewmaster has to do the math to keep bitterness constant from batch to batch.
Field research
Enough of the technical talk – what's it like out in the hop fields? Green, mostly. That's the new, skinny me (more on that later) getting up close and personal with some hops.
Hops grow on vines ("bines," technically, but...I just said enough tech talk, so I'll shut up) that grow 20 feet or more, trained up strings or poles. They're typically grown in 25-acre hopyards and are strung with wires braced by big telephone poles. The workers tie twines to the wires for the hops to grow on (an arduous job when you consider the tens of thousands of knots in each hopyard), and they grow like crazy, sometimes as much as a foot in a day.
When the hops are ready for harvest, in August and September, the hopyards are lush and green, just bursting with leaves and flowers. It's the kind of thing that puts a busload of beer geeks into a frenzy, and we were fingering the hops (in a manly research kind of way, not in a 16-year-old horny boy kind of way), crushing them and rubbing them between our hands to get the fresh aroma, putting wreaths of them on our heads and generally acting like cats in the 'nip. The A-B brewers looked on in benevolent tolerance ... we knew damned well that they did the same kind of thing when we weren't around, because we'd seen pictures of them doing it.
After the hop vines are harvested – something A-B does with five big hop combines – they are processed through a plant that strips the hops off the vines with a flailing green violence that leaves the hops in surprisingly good shape. The flowers are then sent up to the kiln area, where a semi-load of propane a day, blowing through burners that sound and look like jet engines, blow about 9 million BTU through the flowers. It takes the flowers from 80% moisture to about 10% in five hours, after which they are cooled and squeezed into 200-pound bales about the size of a refrigerator. That's a big bale of hops being pressed together right there.
We stripped off hops in the fields and stuffed them in Ziplocs; we wound vines of hops around our heads and shoulders. I even stuck hops in the vent holes of my cap. Then we got on the bus and drove back to Couer d'Alene. I was feeling bad about the whole lack of celebration, one-upped by the winos, as it were. Quick conspiracy: We approached the A-B guys. "Hey," we said, "how about you let us off at this bar we found yesterday, Capone's? It's right on the way to the hotel."
They not only let us off, some of the A-B guys got off with us. We walked in the place, covered in hops, and the regulars we'd met yesterday laughed and asked what we were doing back. "We're here to make your IPA even better," I told them, and started plucking, squeezing and dropping fresh hops right in their beers.
Better than the wine "crush," I can tell you that now, even if we didn't have B-list starlets. Crushing a fresh hop releases the wild hop aromas and makes that inch above an IPA a free-fire zone for your nose. Tommy Capone was dropping hops all over the joint, the A-B guys were getting more attention than they probably get in most beer bars any other day, and we were putting away the high-alpha ales like there was no tomorrow.
It all reminded me of something someone said back in 1997 on my first hop harvest trip:
"I don't know what it is about hops. When a truck of apples goes by, no one even looks up. But when a truck full of hops goes by, everyone looks up and says, 'Hey, look, hops!'"
They're something special, a pretty cool weed (yes, they are related to hemp...) that doesn't really have any use at all, except in making beer. Which is pretty damned useful, to my way of thinking.
Cheers, hops.