Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Book Review: For The Love of Hops - The Practical Guide to Aroma, Bitterness and the Culture of Hops

A few weeks ago I came across an old Chapters gift card I got for xmas 3 or 4 years ago, and much to my delight it had a balance remaining on it! What was I to do with my new-found wealth? Buy brewing books, of course!  This is the first of two book reviews that should appear this month.

For the Love of Hops.
Hop History: 5/5
Modern Hop Development: 5/5
Bitterness Chemistry: 3/5
Aroma Chemistry: 5/5
Commercial Use: 5/5
Homebrew Use: 2/5
Recipes: 3/5
Overall: 4.0/5

Despite being sold in the homebrewing section of the book store, this book doesn't really belong there. Advice specific to homebrewers is found in a handful of side-boxes scattered throughout the book, but by-and-large this book is orientated at professional brewers. In fact, had I known in advance what this book was about in advance I probably would not have bought it.

And that would have been a mistake - this book is a must-read for any brewer interested in any aspect of hops. While the book is written largely from the perspective of craft brewers, the information in it is of great interest & use to the home-brewer. Full review below the fold.

History of Hops:
The book starts with, and frequently returns to, the history of hops in beer. I found this part the most interesting of the book - how hops vs. gruit were taxed & distributed in Germany, for example, was interesting - and led to some new terms that could make for interesting beer names. It turns out that the first users of hops are lost to time - indeed, hop use may have been adopted independently several times before becoming the standard in European brewing.  As the book moves forward through history we learn of the development of hops from a wild rare herb that grew on trees, to the first plantations, through to the development of the various 'classical' hops - Goldings, Fuggels, Tettnanger, Saaz, Hallertauer, etc.

Modern Hop Development:
From the history of hops & hop development, the book moves into discussions of modern hop breeding programs. I was amazed at how these work, and how involved the process is. Aspects I, as a homebrewer, never considered (yield, mildew resistance, etc) are the first key features breeders look for - only after these characteristics are satisfied does a breeder even look at aspects like bittering potential & aroma. The author uses two examples - Cascade & Citra - to highlight the process.  These two examples then serve as a common theme throughout the rest of the book.

Bittering Chemistry:
This is the single greatest weakness in an otherwise excellent book. While the topic of alpha acids and bittering is covered, the details on their chemistry and how their potential is optimized is trivially covered. In fact, the author mentions a few times that the bittering chemistry & use is well known, but doesn't explain it. Much of the discussion of bittering involves the use of purified alpha acids in commercial brewing; there isn't much discussion given on bittering derived from hops, or their best use in the brewery.

Aroma Chemistry:
In stark contrast to bittering chemistry, aroma chemistry is covered in great depth. What kinds of compounds create aromas, how their chemistry changes in the boil, how yeast change them, and how we taste them are covered in great depth. Long story short, its complicated and we're only just beginning to understand how it works. Fascinating is how I'd describe this section of the book.

Commercial Use:
While I'm not a commercial brewer, I believe this book would be of great use to professional brewers. Among the topics covered are how to test hops when buying lots, how to ID good wholesalers, etc.

Homebrewer Use:
While the book was fascinating, the extent to which a homebrewer could use the information to improve their brewing is limited. There are a few side-bars describing homebrewer-usable facts. Likewise, some of the information is as applicable to homebrewer as it is to other forms of brewing. But if you're expecting a how-to manual on how to use hops in the hombrewing environment, you will be disappointed.

The book provides a series of recipes, from commercial breweries, which were selected to highlight the characteristics of various hops. I would state strongly that I have not tried any recipes, so my review of this section is based solely on my comparison of these with other recipes I have used. The recipes themselves appear to have simple (and often loosely defined) grain bills and mash schedules, as well as basic hop additions. I wouldn't expect overly complex beers, but the recipes do appear to be designed to let the hop characteristics be the dominate aspect of the resulting beers.

Overall I really enjoyed this book. Aside from the relatively poor coverage of bitterness, the only other flaw was a lack of overall structure - the author jumped back and forth between concepts - i.e. in one page offering advice on picking hops, then going back to the developmental history of a hop, then going onto describing the effect of drying on aroma development. Despite that, this was an exciting and enjoyable read - and I will no longer take hops for granted...

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