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On the Road to Berlin: Exploding Hops

Did you know that hops, the plant responsible for the bitter flavors in beer, can spontaneously combust? The reason why might blow your mind


This was an interesting week in the life of this particular aspiring Brewmaster! My lectures dove further into the topics of water chemistry, the barley malting process, brewing technology, and more. But, the most interesting thing we covered this week were spontaneously combusting hops.


Hops are are part of every beer we drink. They are responsible for that signature, slightly bitter taste of beer that balances out the sweetness of barley in our beer. Hops are flowering vine plant that can grow up to 11 feet tall. We have different types (strains) hops that we can use to either add bitterness or flavor to beer, depending on when we add them to the brew. Styles like IPA provide more of a showcase for hops and allow brewers to flex their creative muscles by using different strains to achieve unique flavor profiles.


Here is a picture of hops on the vine:




Photo Credit: forbes.com

When we harvest hops, one of the first things we must do is cure them. We want to reduce the water content in the hops in order to store them for processing and transport to breweries across the world, so that brewers might use them to make all kinds of delicious beer. But there is an interesting phenomenon that occurs when we don’t dry the hop cones out enough. They can spontaneously combust!


You see, as hops sit in storage, acids inside of the hop cone break down. Drying the hop cones out stabilizes them, but if they are left with too much H2O, the molecules will react to create combustion (fire). The leaves, which dry out much easier than the cone, are primed for that accelerated energy caused by the enzymes and can catch flame. This very thing has happened at many hops storage facilities over the years and has led to large, quickly spreading fires. Due to this interesting chemical interaction, an excess of water actually causes massive hops fires. If your mind is now blown, you and I are in the same boat.


A hops storage facility lit aflame by spontaneous hops combustion:




Photo Credit: Fireengineering.com



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