Little did our beer-drinking ancestors know that the divine Humulus lupulus plant, more commonly known as hops, would have such a profound impact on our beloved amber nectar and the brewing business as we know it today.
For centuries, hops were used for anything but in the brewing process. Folk medicines incorporated the use of hops in the treatment of insomnia and anxiety. For example, the lady of the house would make a sachet of hops to put under the pillow of a restless loved one, thus promoting a good night’s sleep. Hops were also commonly used for the production of cloth and paper. It has even been documented by Pliny the Elder in the first century A.D. that hops were consumed in a sort of salad, although I cannot fathom what that might have tasted like.
Although the exact date for the first historical use of hops as an aromatic or flavoring agent is still up for debate, I am forever indebted to the first brewer who decided to pick a few flowers from the female hop plant and make the decision to incorporate it into their brew. That idea, as rash as it may have been for sometime between the 9th and 12th centuries, may have been inspired by adding something other than what was readily available out in the meadow nearest the brewpot–usually dandelions, heather, or some other outrageously bitter-tasting plant growing within walking distance of where the brewing was being done.
Brewers soon discovered the preservative qualities that the hops had on their beer, and not just the more palatable difference that hops added to the concoction instead of the overpowering bitterness of what they pulled up out of the lawn, so to speak.
We owe our thanks to the British for introducing IPAs, or India Pale Ale, to the beer loving world. Bow Brewery’s October beer (a British Pale Ale with a liberal amounts of hops, like Goldings or Fuggles) was a favorite of the East India Trading Company, and with an intended aging of 2 years, thus survived the months to year long voyage to India by ship. Other breweries followed suit later on, shipping their version of the October beer off to the east and making a serious profit of the venture. This style has seen a surge in popularity in recent years, and breweries all over the world are “hopped up” over creating the ultimate hoppy brew.
Over the past few years, IPAs have become wildly popular and a very common sight at beer festivals everywhere in the United States. It seems everyone wants to share their incarnation of this favorite beer, even to the extreme. Some breweries (especially on the west coast of the U.S.) have even specialized in producing heavily hopped ales. Most domestically produced IPAs use American hops like Simcoe, Cascade, Columbus, Warrior, Nugget, Amarillo, Chinook, Centennial, or Summit. The tastes of these hops are woody and citrusy, as opposed to the sweet and earthy flavor of their British counterparts. The latest trend in brewing includes a new style, called the Double or Imperial IPA. This means there are more hops and malt used in the brewing process, and this means a higher ABV of 7% or more.
Some Belgian breweries took notice of the growing trend of IPA love in the US, and the result was a marriage of a traditional Tripel with a heavy hand of hops–in many cases, the brewers are using American hops. The ABV tends to be a bit on the high side, ranging from 6-12%, mainly due to the bottle conditioning. That cloudy look and creamy head prevalent in the Tripel provide the perfect balance of flavor with the crisp dryness that is distinctly Belgian. Some examples of Belgian IPAs available here in the U.S. are: Piraat, Poperings Hommel Ale, Troubadour Magma, and also in a limited release this year, Troubadour Magma Special Edition Cascade Hop. (I recently had the pleasure of sampling a bottle of my own of the Special Edition…you better hurry and locate a bottle of it for yourself before it disappears of the shelves forever!)
Although the differences of interpretation between three countries on this style are not so far apart, my belief is that the Belgians have perfected it. Why? Well, Piraat is considered one of the best Belgian Ales by more than one authority. Poperings Hommel Ale has been revered in GQ. Troubadour Magma won big at Zythos. And Troubadour Magma Special Edition Cascade Hop was so special, I called 10 different beer stores to see if they had it in stock! Whatever your choice, make sure it is Belgian:)