Knowledge Drop: Hops

As most people know, there are 4 ingredients in beer: water, malted grain, hops, and yeast. Obviously some beers add extras like fruit or coffee, but generally speaking, that’s what’s in beer. As part of this Knowledge Drop, I’m going to talk all about hops.

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I guess before we jump into their beer qualities, we should talk about what hops are. Hops are a flowering plant that are in the same family as hemp and marijuana, Cannabaceae. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that hops are anything like marijuana, though many people find that some varieties of hops do smell like marijuana.

Hops grow on what are essentially vines, causing them to climb up as they grow. They grow every spring and die every fall. Hop plants grow the male and females flowers on separate plants. In beer, we use the female cones.

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So, basically speaking, hops in beer are the female cones that grow on a certain plant’s vines (actually, bines) and they are seasonal.

So, what’s the big deal about hops? Well, there are tons of different varieties of hops. Beer Advocate lists almost three dozen different types of hops and that list grows every so often as breweries get more adventurous. Hops are just an ingredient in beer like salt or flour is in baking. The different types of hops are used for different purposes and for different styles of beer.

Each type of hop (and each crop from that type) will have a different alpha rating. This describes how acidic and bitter the hops will taste.

You may hear some big beer companies advertise that their beer is “triple-hopped” so it’s better. While it is true that their beer is triple-hopped (that is, hops are used three times during the brewing process), making this claim is like if a bakery said “We use two types of sugar in our cakes: granulated AND powdered!”. Sure, the claim is true since the cake has granulated sugar and the icing has powdered sugar, but that doesn’t make their cakes any different from 90% of every other cake ever made. Almost every beer on the market uses hops at least three times during the brewing process, many use them four, five, six, times, or continuously throughout the boil!

When you’re brewing the beer, after adding your malt and getting back up to a rolling boil, you’ll add the first batch of hops. These are what’s called the bittering hops. All beers have bittering hops to offset the syrupy-sweetness of the malt. They also act as an all-natural preservative to help extend the shelf life of the beer.

A little while later, you’ll add another round of hops called the flavoring hops. Depending on the beer style or the brewer’s choice, these might be the exact same type of hops as the bittering hops, or they can be a slightly different type with a lower alpha rating.

A lot of the flavor of beer comes from its aroma. This is why you should always pour your beer into a glass, whether it came in a bottle or a can. As a result of aroma being so important to the flavor of a beer, a third batch of hops is added at the very end of the boil, or often times immediately after the heat is cut from the pot (“flame out”). These hops are called the aroma hops. Because the oils in them are really sensitive, they can’t stay in the boil very long or else they won’t affect the aroma, so they’ll be added when there’s minimal heat. These hops will give your beer that floral, piney, or citrus smell, depending on the variety of hop used.

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In beers that are intended to be very hop-forward, like an India Pale Ale (IPA), hops will often be added to the wort (liquid of stuff before it becomes beer) after it’s in the fermenter. This process is called dry-hopping and will produce even more aroma, flavors, and bitterness. These hop-forward beers will also sometimes have more hops added during the boiling process, or some may even slowly add a few of hops throughout the entire 60 or 90 minute boil.

The types of hops used in a beer need to complement the other ingredients in the beer. For instance, if you’re brewing a hefewizen, a wheat beer that should be refreshing, you’d use hops that have more of a citrus flavor or banana flavor, like Cascade or Centennial. If you’re brewing a Christmas or Winter Beer, it’d make a lot of sense to use a more piney hop like Chinook.

The more hops used, generally speaking, the more bitter the beer will taste (not the bad bitter!). There is a unit of measurement designed to measure how bitter a beer is called the International Bitterness Unit (IBU). The higher the IBU, the more bitter and intense the flavor. The IBU is derived from knowing the alpha acid percentage of each hop used, and how much of each hop used.

However, just having a high IBU will not yield a very bitter beer. If your beer also has a high malt content, the two will balance out. This is why some IPAs that have a low or average IBU rating will still taste very hoppy — lots of hops, not as much malt and not as intense of flavor in the malts (hence their lighter color).

As with all the four main ingredients in beer, hops are extremely important and will either make or break a beer. It’s not always necessary to know the types of hops in the beer you’re drinking, but if you’re a fan of specific flavors from certain hops (say, you’re more into floral or citrusy flavors than piney or funky), it’d be worth it to be familiar with the hops you like and seek out similar beers. Most craft breweries’ websites will list the types of grain and hops used in their beers, and even give out the IBU for that specific beer. Craft breweries are proud of their recipes and will make their hand-chosen ingredients known.