In my early beer-drinking days, the aroma of pine and citrus in my beer triggered a battle within my brain. I could hear those little guys fighting it out — one telling me that there was something wrong with wanting to drink a beer that smelled like pine needles; the other encouraging me to take a leap of faith. The initial bitterness made me wince. Was this okay to drink or was it poison?
In my research, I learned what anthropologists had discovered about man’s early development. Women were the gatherers of herbs, roots, seeds and grain while men were the hunters who organized hunting parties in search of wild game.
Through sometimes painful experience, the women gatherers found that bitter flowers, roots, and herbs were associated with sickness and death. As a result, woman is, by nature, genetically predisposed to reject all things bitter … like hops.
But despite my natural tendencies to avoid the bitter bite of death, I found myself crossing into that world known as hop-hedonism. During a tour of Victory Brewing Company in Downingtown Pennsylvania, Bill Covaleski took me into a storage area where fresh hop cones were scattered about. I felt like a cat unleashed in a field of catnip. Perhaps it was the Beer Fox in me, but if I could have rolled in those hops, I would have. Quenching my thirst at the end of the tour opened up a new world. Hop Devil Ale had become larger than life, beating in ecstatic rhythm, while the euphoric experience of the hop-room pulsed in my brain. I was hooked.
Good for me, because research scientists have recently found that hops possess a phenolic compound, called xanthohumol, that may be beneficial to one’s health. Hops are among the key ingredients in beer. There are exceptions: historic styles, based on antique recipes, may substitute hops with Old-World herbs (gruit), spruce tips, or the like. According to the German Beer Purity Law, however, beer is not beer without hops.
Not all beers carry the same level of hoppiness. Industrial lagers (Bud-Miller-Coors-Corona and the like) are brewed with very low hop levels by comparison to the India Pale Ales, Imperial India Pale Ales and some Stouts in the craft beer community. These styles of craft beer may have more power than ever imagined, due to their high levels of beneficial xanthohumol.
A Primer on Hops
The hop plant, Humulus lupulus, is a dioecious plant; that is, some plants are male, while others are female. Only female plants produce hop cones which grow in clusters called inflorescences. These inflorescences are loaded with natural products (polyphenolic compounds and other good stuff) that preserve beer and impart aroma and flavor. These products also contribute to foam stability and act as a preservative in beer.
Little sacs can be found at the base of each hop cone. This is where the lupulin glands live – glands filled with a-acids and ß-acids, which are bittering acids and oils, as well as a yellow compound called xanthohumol. This yellow compound is also found on the underside of hop leaves and may increase, in some cultivars, during periods of drought when the plants are stressed. Research scientists are examining the possibility of using the waste material from hops plants (the leaves) to capture this xanthohumol for the treatment of a variety of medical conditions.
Xanthohumol is a superhero in the world of anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory agents. In recent studies conducted at the German Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg, xanthohumol displayed “broad spectrum anti-cancer activity” by “inhibiting the initiation, promotion and progression of malignant tumors.” It can even cause “cell suicide” in certain types of cancer: leukemia, prostate cancer and hepatoma. These anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds may also be beneficial in treating macular degeneration, uveitis and diabetes.
What Beers Should I Drink?
At beeradvocate.com, hoppy beers are among the most coveted styles in the country. In its list of the Top 250 beers rated by its users, BeerAdvocate lists Double or Triple IPAs in the top three spots:
• Heady Topper by The Alchemist in Vermont, clocking in with 120 IBUs and 8% alcohol by volume
• Pliny the Younger by Russian River Brewing Company in California, a triple IPA with over 100 IBUs and 11% ABV
•Pliny the Elder by Russian River Brewing Company in California, a DIPA with 100 IBUs and 8% ABV
Others in the top 20 include Zombie Dust from Three Floyds Brewing in Indiana with 60 IBUs; Bell’s Hopslam Ale from Michigan with 70 IBUs; Citra DIPA from Kern River Brewing in California with 75 IBUs; and Abrasive Ale from Surly Brewing in Minnesota with 120 IBUs. High hop levels are also found in some stouts, such as Parabola Russian Imperial Stout by Firestone Walker in California, with 82 IBUs, and in barley wines such as Insanity and Blithering Idiot by Weyerbacher in Pennsylvania with IBU levels that are off-the-charts.
IBU stands for International Bittering Unit, the scale used to measure hop bitterness in beer. Beers having above 50 IBUs are the “hop bombs,” those over-the-top styles most sought out by hops enthusiasts. These are the ones to target for the greatest anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory benefit.
You may also the experience somniferous effects of hops while you’re at it. Although evidence is inconclusive in current studies, health care professionals in Germany use hops to treat restlessness, anxiety disorders and insomnia. A hoppy IPA before bed may be just what the doctor ordered.