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Crazy for hops--Hopped coffee, soda and tea

Humulus lupulus, or hops, is making its way from beer to coffee, soda and tea.
C. Frye

Remember last fall when suddenly all sorts of things, from beer to hot sauce contained pumpkin? It seems that we may be going overboard again but this time the ingredient of choice is hops.

Hops, or Humulus Lupulus is an ancient plant. The name hops may come from the Anglo-Saxon "hoppen" meaning climber, which is what the hop plant likes to do. According to Beer Advocate, hops “are the flowering cone of a perennial vining plant and a cousin of the cannabis variety (sorry no THC in this stuff) that typically thrives in climates similar to the ones that grapes do. Hop plants are dioecious, meaning the males and females flower on separate plants -- and the female cones are used in the brewing process. Hops are the age old seasoning of the beer, the liquid gargoyles who ward-off spoilage from wild bacteria and bringers of balance to sweet malts. They also lend a hand in head retention, help to clear beer (acting as a natural filter) and please the palate by imparting their unique characters and flavors. Basically, hops put the "bitter" in beer.” According to Wikipedia, in 2012 there were about 80 hop varieties in commercial use throughout the world, with new varieties in development but "the first documented mention of a hop garden is in the will of Pepyn III, the father of Charlemagne. The first breeding of different hop varieties took place at Wye College in Kent, England by Prof. E.F. Salmon in 1919 when he bred the varieties Brewer's Gold and Bullion."

So, if you’re not a beer drinker, hops are what gives an IPA its distinctive hoppy aroma and taste. Although it probably all started with one original wild variety, today there are many different varieties of hops. Each imparts its own flavor—some are grassy, some citrusy, some piney. In this way, hops are similar to different types of coffee. The brewing process itself can be responsible for drastically changing the flavors of both ingredients.

The first time I heard of coffee infused with hops--yes, you read that right, hops as in one of the four main ingredients in beer--I was at Corvus Coffee in Denver, CO in the summer of 2013. At the time, Corvus was getting ready to sell their cold brew concoction by the bottle. I couldn't sample it, but I was intrigued. After its release, this coffee shop has had a good response to their hopped coffee, which was well received at the recent South Denver Beer Festival. At the time of this writing Corvus' Hopped Coffee is only for sale at their cafe and doing well. According to Denver Westworld, "the first week it was available this month [June 2014], Corvus sold over 500 bottles."

Since my introduction to the concept of hopped coffee, I've noticed it catching on, especially with beer home brewers. For those who wake up to a stiff cup of java and look forward to spending their free time over a brew kettle making their next batch of beer, this is a natural combination. Coffee has certainly been added to beer to make coffee stouts and porters for years. Recent commercial examples include Founder's Breakfast Stout, Troeg's JavaHead Stout, Cigar City's Cubano-Style Espresso Stout, just to name a few. For all of these, the coffee is in the background and adds to the beer experience. But the difference with hopped coffee is the addition of one basic, highly recognizable beer ingredient to coffee, which is the star of a non-alcoholic beverage. It's a matter of proportions.

Corvus is not the only cafe brewing coffee and hops together but they were perhaps at the forefront of what is becoming a popular trend. Oddly Correct, a Kansas City, MO coffee shop, has been making Hop! Toddy. This coffee beverage with hops addition is brewed using the Toddy system, which is a cold brewed process. The hopped coffee craze has crept East with shops like The Point Coffee Shop in Rehoboth Beach, DE, making an infused hop coffee available in bags in their cafe.

Others have come along to try making hopped coffee at home. Home methods vary, but some use a tea ball to hold whole leaf hops and others place crushed pellets right into an espresso maker's portafilter. According to Homebrewjunkie.com, "Pellet hops are just pulverized whole leaf hops that look like rabbit food and there are some differences between them. Since pellet hops are pulverized and crushed up during processing, this also crushes up the lupilin glands in the hops." This enables brewers to get more bitterness out of the hops. Before choosing leaf or pellet hops to toss in your morning cup, be aware that when pellet hops dissolve they leave behind a greenish gunk that must be filtered out of coffee. When pellet hops are used in beer making they either are added to the boil in a mesh filter bag that's removed before the wort ferments, or they spend the fermentation phase at the bottom of the fermenter and are discarded during kegging or bottling. If you're interested in experimenting with hops in your java, keep your hops in an airtight container so they retain their flavor and, whether leaf or pellet, refrigerate them. If you are a dog owner, please exercise extreme caution as hops are very dangerous to dogs and can cause malignant hypothermia (a condition in which a dog's body temperature can quickly rise to 108°F and cause organ failure). The hops cone in any form--from the plant, from the discarded brew day materials, or from a packet of hops--is a temptation and danger to all canines. The American Homebrewers Association's public service announcement on this topic is a must-read for any dog owner.

Coffee is not the only non-alcoholic beverage to suddenly include hops. Proper Soda of Grand Rapids, MI, started producing Hop Soda in 2013. Stephen Curtis, founder of Proper Soda and no stranger to coffee brewing for cafes, explains on his crowd funding page that “While exploring ways to expand into the RTD beverage market, I noticed a gap in the craft soda market. Taking interesting ingredients and transforming them into sodas that look and taste good has been an unserved market. A soda made from Hops is our inaugural product, and the benchmark for what is to come.” According to Philly Beerscene, Proper Soda "is filling the void of beer-flavored beverages that you can drink at any time of the day. The first release in their line of handcrafted, gourmet (if you will), sodas is Hop Soda. Naturally flavored with real hops and sugar, this carbonated beverage tastes of a lemon-lime based soda with the hoppy characteristic you look for in your favorite IPA or pale ale. Their goal was to provide an option for situations like when you’re on a lunch break from work and you really want that beer flavor to complement your food, but don’t want to risk the chance of returning to work after drinking a real beer or just don’t want that sleep coma that a single beer tends to induce. Drinking a hoppy-flavored soda is intended to fill the craving, while leaving you without a buzz and ready to continue to accomplish things." At this time Hop Soda is only available from Western Michigan retail outlets but the company has since launched a Kickstarter campaign where contributors can help determine the next flavor, which will either be coffee (here we go again) or hibiscus.

So, how about hops tea? Why not! According to Seedaholic, an English flower and vegetable seed catalog, hops may have medicinal benefits. For all of you guys out there who just thought this was a miracle cure for whatever ails (ales?) you, think again. Many of the benefits touted are for women only. Seedaholic says, "It is thought that hops tea can alleviate anxiety, help insomnia, bladder infections and constipation. Hops are now recognized for their strong estrogenic activity and are being included in some herbal preparations for women to increase breast milk and for 'breast enhancement.'" This resource provides the following hops tea recipe:

  • To make a tea, pour 150 ml of boiling water over 1 to 2 teaspoons (0.5 gm) of cut or powdered strobile [i.e., cone].
  • Steep for 10 to 15 minutes, strain.
  • Drink 2 or 3 times a day and before going to bed.

What could be next? Are these tasty? Will we tire of hops additions to all sorts of things and this trend will go the way of the pet rock and Rubik’s cube? I doubt it. There are so many types of hops and the variety of hop flavors can vary to such a degree that unless we start getting really silly (hops-infused soup? hops smoothies? hop pudding? hops-flavored toothpaste?), there's plenty of room for customizing your beverage and ways to make the flavor of hops available. That said, it may just turn out that beer is the best way to highlight everything about hops that we love and enjoy.