I unabashedly love hops, all hops. After all, hops were the driving factor in the craft beer revolution. They brought flavor, bitterness and aroma to what was boring macro beer. Yes, I know, malt is important too, but we don't call people malt heads; hops make beer delicious. Whether it's the mild flavor and aromas of the noble hops (Saaz, I adore you), the subtle complexity and delicacy of the British varieties (Fuggle, my friend), or the in-your-face intensity of the New World cultivars (Simcoe and Citra, I'm talking about you), hops make me happy. My home brewing friends and I often joke about creating hop-based air fresheners, I've seen hop-flavored lip balms, and Charlie Papazian introduced all of us to hop pillows in "The Complete Joy of Home Brewing." But until last week, I had never heard of hop candy.
I'm sure some of you have seen this delicious treat, but it was new to me.
Swag Brewery, where I got mine, have three varieties of hop candy: Cascade, Saaz, as well as the East Kent Golding Variety that I tried (I'm really a sucker for English hops). They also have an interesting line of beer-based soaps.
Anyone who has ever chewed on a dried hop cone or sucked on a hop pellet will find the flavor instantly familiar, but rather than being unbearably bitter as raw hops generally are. These candies are actually intensely sweet with all the floral and earthy notes of the hops, without the mouth-puckering bitterness. If I have any complaints about these candies it is exactly that, the lack of bitterness that comes through.
My science geek guess is this lack of bitterness is a result of using hop oils rather real hops and I'm guessing that sugar, which reaches the soft crack stage for candy at 290˚ f wouldn't boil long enough to isomerize the alpha acids in the hops even if one used real hops. Also, the sugar content of the sugar syrup that forms the base of hard candy is far too dense for efficient hop utilization leaving little room for isomerized alpha acids.
Despite their lack of bitterness I found the candy quite delicious. The flavors are reminiscent of shoving one's face into a bag of fresh hops (Come on, I know I'm not the only one that does this). The East Kent Golding characteristics, yummy fresh floral notes, honey and thyme, shine through and are followed by the sugary sweet hard candy base and an aftertaste of having chewed on a hop pellet making for a very pleasant experience. Wow, look at me waxing poetic about candy.
However, the home brewer in me, screamed 'You can make this yourself!' And a quick Google search revealed I wasn't alone. Others have attempted to make their own hop candy, some opting to make a hop tea to flavor the candy, others using hop extracts for flavoring.
I wanted to get a bit of hop bitterness into the candy so I went with the tea method adding the additional step of boiling some hops in fresh water. I ended up boiling .25 oz of Cascade pellets (6.4% AA) in 1 cup of water for about 15 minutes (hoping this limited boil in water combined with the time in candy solution creates some bitterness). After straining I had 1/3 of a cup of boiled solution. I steeped another .25 oz of pellets in a french press in 2 cups of boiling water (aroma and flavor) while the other hops boiled. I strained and combined the two teas and used the resultant 1 cup of "hop tea" to replace the 1 cup water called for in traditional hard candy recipes.
My recipe was:
1 cup "Hop Tea" (from above)
3 c granulated sugar
3/4 c light brown sugar (trying to give it an ESB color/flavor)
1 1/4 c light Karo syrup
.25 oz hop pellets for additional flavor and a bit of color (might be unnecessary)
Combine all ingredients into a heavy bottom saucepan stirring until the sugar is completely dissolved. Then cook without stirring over medium heat until a candy thermometer reaches 290˚ f - 300˚ f (35 to 40 minutes be patient but watch the pot; mine crept up above 300 and may have caramelized a bit). Like home brewing, be vigilant about boil overs. Don't ask how I know, but cleaning hop candy from the stove isn't a lot of fun. Pour onto a greased cookie sheet or onto a silicon mat or silicon candy molds. If you're so inclined, dust lightly with powdered sugar, cool, break up and enjoy.
The resulting candy is definitely more bitter than the commercial variety and that bitterness remains with you for a bit, but it's equally sweet. In fact it, the finished product tastes a lot like a heavily hopped IPA wort and has the added benefit of looking like broken beer bottles. If I were to make this again, I might use light liquid malt extract instead of the corn syrup to replicate the malt sweetness of an IPA. Overall though, I'm pleasantly surprised at how good this candy is, sweet, bitter and delicious. Both versions mine and Swag Brewery's are worth a try.