What Are Hops?
Mar 15, 2017
Today’s craft beer scene is all about big, hoppy beers. While it may seem like hops are the main ingredient in craft beer, they are actually one of four essential ingredients, along with barley, yeast and water. However, in many American style beers, they tend to steal the spotlight.
So, what are hops? Hops are the cone-like flowers of the hop plant known as Humulus lupulus. They contain resin, acids and essential oils that impart bitterness, flavor and stability to a finished beer. Hops grow all over the world, including Continental Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and right here in the United States. Each country imparts a unique flavor to the hops based on its terroir. This is why hop flavors can range from floral and spicy to mango and grapefruit.
When it comes to brewing, hops come in four different forms: whole leaf hops, wet hops, pellet hops, and hop extract. Each form has its own benefits in regards to flavor contribution and storage capabilities. It’s really the brewer’s preference which form is used during the brewing process. However, the most commonly used form of hops in commercial brewing is in pellet form.
Now that you know what hops are, when are they used? Hops are primarily used during the boiling process. Hops added at the beginning of the boil contribute to the beer’s bitterness. The later you add hops to the boil, the more they will contribute to the flavor and aroma of a beer (since aromatic oils are destroyed in a long boiling process). Hops can also be added to the fermenter while the beer ages. This is called dry hopping. Another popular brewing method is called fresh hopping, which uses wet hops straight from the field directly to the kettle. Depending on what type of style you’re aiming for, the choice and timing of the hops will vary drastically.
Every beer is brewed with hops, but their usage and quantity depend on the style of beer. For example, a Bohemian Pilsener requires the spicy notes from the noble Saaz hop, while an American IPA requires an abundance of citrus and piney flavors and aromas.
Beyond knowing your basic beer styles, a good way to know how hops have been used in a particular beer is by checking the IBU or International Bittering Units. Most beers will display the IBU, which measures the iso-alpha acids in a beer. Just keep in mind that perceived bitterness is different than actual bitterness, but that’s a topic for another day. Cheers!