Craft beers, meaning those unique custom brews made in limited quantities, have all but taken over the beer market in the short span of ten years. Well, not really as the total guesstimate is that craft beer sales constitute less than 20% of global market, but that’s still a significant jump in what critics regularly described as a “bland beer monopoly” by a few Goliath sized brewing conglomerates.

For the everyday consumer craft beers have reopened the door to a wide range of quality choices in the glass along with a revitalization of growing hops as an agricultural crop option. Known botanically as humulus lupulus the hop genus is a cousin of cannabis but without the hallucinogenic compounds giving rise to the popularity of the latter. A relative newcomer to the traditional malted barley, water and yeast ingredients in beer hops began replacing various herbs as a flavoring additive by European brewers in the mid 1400’s.

Hop flowers or cones added bitterness and citrus-like flavor to beer from oils and acids released during the brewing process. It was soon recognized that hop resins also added an antibiotic property that suppressed bacteria thereby extending what is now called the shelf life of the brew. With England’s rise to world prominence so too did its brewing prowess and the need for hops. By the 1700’s vast fields dotted the English countryside with rows of 8 to 10 meter poles with strings dangling from overhead connecting cables for hop tendrils to climb and bloom.

Mature hop fields required harvesting by hand picking then weeks of drying in specially built barns known as oast houses in which kilns provided the required heat. Wye College in Kent became the center for research in hop cultivation and development of new varieties stressing intensity of bitterness and aromas. By the late 1800’s mechanical harvesting put most of England’s hop farmers out of business as profitability required much larger operations.

Today hop farming is dominated by selected areas in Germany, U.S. and China although small farms continue producing to satisfy ongoing demand by home brewers. Hops are categorized in two primary types known as “bittering” and “aroma” in which there are a total of some 80 varieties. Bittering hops are added during the boiling of the principle ingredients while those in the aroma group are added for only a short period as the wort cools. Aroma hop flavors include grassy, spicy, floral and earthy among others with the intensity depending on the brewer’s taste. Bitterness is measured in IBU’s--International Bitterness Units. IBU’s are measured using a precise chemical process with a scale of 0 to 100. Mass produced beers like Leo or Chang measure about 10 IBU while those labeled India Pale Ale run between 40 to 60 with double IPA’s running from 60 to 100. Beers claiming higher than 100 IBU are stretching credibility.

Craft beers including the great hoppy IPA’s are available in abundance at Roadhouse, Craft and Tap Room among others in Bangkok. Note for great fun: the 20th annual Bangkok’s Best Restaurant Awards soiree is June 11th at the Shangri-La Hotel, Bangkok.

Written by: R. James Mullen