Years ago I first read the term “hopsack” to describe a fresh hoppy character in beer. I’m fairly certain it was in the writing of the Briton Michael Jackson (1942-2007), who may well have originated the term. If so it is one of his countless, striking contributions to the vocabulary of beer appreciation.
Off and on others have used the term, an example appears in The Beer Book: Your Drinking Guide to Over 1700 Beers. The book is multi-authored so I am not sure who wrote this particular entry, but of Tuatara pilsener from New Zealand it is stated, “fresh, hessian-like, hopsack character”.
Now, the term hessian is interesting here, it is one of the British terms for burlap. A scholarly note in Wikipedia fills us in on hessian history, see here. Sisal or jute is usually the base of it, of course vegetative in origin.
So an earthy, vegetable-like smell and taste, I think most know it from burlap bags in our daily life. Jute is one of the strongest natural fibres known, and fully bio-degradable. A benefaction of nature, jute looks ready for revival as plastic packaging is de-emphasized over time.
When Jackson wrote “hopsack”, I assumed it was just a figure for fresh hop aroma, one of his pleasing, allusive terms. He may actually have meant the hops were intermingled with a jute-like smell. Clearly the author of the taste note on Tuatara pilsner intended that.
Hops, once dried in a kiln, for centuries were pressed into long, tubular “pockets” made from sisal or jute. A 1913 study by W.A. Graham Clark, Linen, Jute and Hemp Industries in the United Kingdom, stated the pockets (for bag or sack; think poke) were of un-hemmed 24-ounce (or heavier) cloth sewed with “hemp twine”. Incidentally it seems Italian hemp twine was considered choice for this purpose.
According to Chris Boulton’s (2013) Encyclopedia of Brewing, traditional hop pockets are still used to process English whole hops.
Certainly coffee beans and many other commodities are still shipped in jute bags, we all have an idea of them from displays in specialty coffee shops.
Of the myriad factors that affect beer flavour, has anyone ever investigated methodically whether the taste of jute can get into the beer? Probably not, yet, as we will see, in a past time brewers seemed aware the sacks could affect the taste.
In terms of today, most hops are processed into pellets and oils. These use a different packaging, so the sack factor is moot. Heavy duty foil is often used, with sophisticated nitrogen flushing and oxygen barriers to preserve maximum freshness.
Hop sacks from natural fibres like jute and sisal, not to mention whole-flower hops, hark back to an earlier time, a craft era if you will but in a sense different from today.
A short but informative piece in 1939 on hop usage in the U.K. appeared in the Mudgee Guardian and North-Western Representative (New South Wales). It stated of hop pockets:
They are extremely susceptible to any alien smell and are themselves liable to impart their aroma to other goods.
Did the writer mean the hops themselves were so susceptible and liable, or the jute material they were packed in was? Not clear, but I’d think perhaps both were meant. Jute can have a strong, characteristic smell. In a former time, any odours this imparted to the beer were just part of the deal, part of the long string of traditional processes that led to a distinctive, mostly natural product called beer.
The same could be true of some coffee we drink. In the case of this beverage, agricultural engineers have studied how different bulk packagings affect coffee beans. A recent article in the Perfect Daily Grind reported on a sophisticated study that examined the impact of different materials.
In part, it considered the effects of oxidation as jute bags are permeable, but presumably the analysis included any migration of compounds from the jute to the coffee. (This kind of detail is not apparent from the news report).
The conclusion was: for the first six months of storage no meaningful differences were detected. For coffee stored in jute between six and 18 months, analytical differences were noted vs. the beans in modern, impermeable packaging. I don’t regard it as fanciful that hop pocket jute could impact beer similarly. This might result not just from oxidation, a well-known risk of hop storage, but from the standpoint of imparting a flavour.
Whether or not the hops in Tuatara pilsner had been stored in hop pockets, the aroma struck one reviewer as hessian-like. If need be those words function as true simile, in other words. Either way it doesn’t matter: the writer gave us an accurate impression of the flavour.
For a continuation of this post, see the next post immediately following.
Note re image: image above, in the public domain, was sourced from this Wikipedia Commons entry.