What are hops?
Working in the craft beer industry, I run into a lot of people that really don’t know that much about the beer they are drinking. The main thing they know is that they love it which is great. Beyond that they really know very little about what goes into the beer they love. This short post will answer the main question I get asked all the time: What are hops?
Hops are flowers from the plant known as Humulus lupulus. This plant grows as long vines and is native to Europe, parts of Asia, and North America. The hop plant has risen to prominence in beer culture in the last 500 years or so. Before then, I imagine beer was nothing like we know it. It must have been quite sweet and maybe boozy. Due to the discovery of the usefulness of hops in beer, everything changed.
Hops, hops and more hops!
Hops perform three essential functions in beer. First, they add bitterness. Remember what I said a minute ago about beers made long ago probably being sweet? Hops balance out that sweetness with bitterness. The bitterness can be very pronounced or can be very subtle, but it is always there in beer. The way this bitterness is measured in beer is IBUs (International Bitterness Units). Basically, the higher the IBUs the more pronounce the bitterness. (There are other factors that change the way you perceive the bitterness in beer, too, but that might be for another post.)
The next thing hops add to beer is flavor. Flavors imparted by hops can be citrusy, piney, grassy, earthy, etc… If you’ve ever had an IPA, you know what hops taste like. In fact, one of the main ways to describe an IPA is hoppy. Different hop varieties and combinations give different flavors. This makes for many different and interesting beers from different parts of the country and the world.
The last thing hops add to beer is aroma. Part of the experience of beer is smelling it, so use a glass. Pouring the beer into a glass give the aromas a chance to release and develop as the beer warms. A lot of the same flavors from hops translate into the aromas, too. (For a list of hop varieties and descriptions click here.)
What are hops? They are the backbone of beer. An essential ingredient that makes beer beer!