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September 27, 2023
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What Are Hops? Brewing 101

Hops are truly the heart and soul of so many beer recipes. But, what are hops? And what’s their role in the homebrewing process? They're cone-shaped flowers that flavor our beer and keep it fresh, so every sip is as crisp and tasty as the brewer intended. Read on to learn about the history of hops, different hop varieties, and how hops are used to make beer at home.

the hop flower

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The Basics of Hops

A hop is the flower of the Humulus lupulus plant. They look like little green pine cones, and the plant can grow up to 12 inches per week in the right environment. Their vibrant green buds look a bit like the cannabis plant, and there's a reason for that. Both belong to the Cannabaceae family. While cannabis has its own set of uses and controversies, hops have a singular purpose: brewing beer. 

The properties of hops make them uniquely suited for making beer, since they offer so many benefits. They add bitterness, but can also contribute flavors like citrus, woody, floral, or fruity. The bitterness helps balance out malt’s sweetness and gives beer a complexity it wouldn’t have otherwise. They also act as a natural beer preservative. They have antimicrobial properties that ward off spoilage and give beers a longer shelf life. A peer reviewed study found, "hops are considered primarily as a flavor ingredient for beer, with the added benefit of having antimicrobial effects." These factors make hops vital to the brewing process.

It’s worth noting that hops are not the only preservative in beer. Other factors, like alcohol content and pH, also play a role in beer preservation.

History and Origin of Hops

The history of hops is as rich as the beverage they help create. Their use in brewing dates back to ancient times, with the first documented instance in the 9th century. Interestingly, before the widespread adoption of hops, brewers relied on "gruit", a blend of various bitter herbs and flowers.

The first recorded hop farming was in what’s now present day Germany. Britain was initially resistant to the idea of hopped beer, but started importing hops from Holland in the 1400s.

This shift in brewing preferences was solidified when Dutch farmers introduced hop cultivation to England in 1524. Across the Atlantic, the United States embraced hop cultivation by 1629, with states like New York, California, Oregon, and Washington becoming significant producers.

Different Types of Hops

Different hop varieties exist worldwide because of varying climatic conditions, soil compositions, and regional brewing traditions. These environmental and cultural factors, combined with selective breeding and economic demands, have led to hops that best suit each region's unique preferences. As a result, hops from different regions have distinct flavor profiles. Variations range from floral, citrusy, and piney to earthy, spicy, and fruity. Here’s a few different types of hops from around the world.

American Hops:

  • Cascade: Has a floral, citrus-like quality with a hint of grapefruit.
  • Centennial: Often called a 'Super Cascade' because of its strong citrus aroma.
  • Chinook: Known for its piney and slightly spicy characteristics.
  • Citra: Gives citrus (grapefruit) and tropical fruit characters to beer.
  • Simcoe: Offers a blend of scents, including passion fruit, pine, earthy, and citrus.

British Hops:

  • Admiral: A high-alpha hop mainly used for bittering.

European Hops:

  • Saaz: A traditional hop from the Czech Republic known for its delicate bitterness and aroma.
  • Tettnanger: A German hop variety with a mild and slightly spicy profile.

New World Hops:

  • Nelson Sauvin: From New Zealand, it's known for its unique aroma that resembles white wine or fresh crushed gooseberries.
  • Galaxy: An Australian hop famous for its distinct passionfruit character.

Noble Hops 

These are traditional European hop varieties known for their specific aroma profiles and low bitterness. They include:

  • Hallertauer Mittelfrüh: From Germany.
  • Tettnang: From the Tettnang region in Germany.
  • Spalt: From the Spalt region in Germany.
  • Saaz: From the Czech Republic.

Using Hops In Your Homebrew

Hops can transform your homebrew from good to exceptional. Here's a guide to using hops in your homebrew.

Choose the Right Hop Variety

Your choice of hop variety sets the stage. Each type offers unique bitterness levels and flavor profiles. Research and decide whether you want the piney touch of Chinook, the citrusy notes of Citra, or maybe the floral essence of Saaz.

Measure The Hop Quantity

Measure your hops precisely, either in ounces or grams. The amount you use impacts the beer's bitterness, flavor, and aroma. Always refer to your recipe, but don't be afraid to experiment as you gain experience. Make sure you have the proper brewing equipment before you start.

Time The Hop Additions

Hop impact is determined by when you add them to your homebrew. 

  • Bittering Hops: Add early in the boil (usually 45-60 minutes) to extract bitterness.
  • Flavoring Hops: Add in the last 15-20 minutes to infuse specific hop flavors.
  • Aroma Hops: Toss these in during the final minutes or after the boil is over.

Dry Hopping for Aroma

For an aromatic punch, consider dry hopping. Add hops directly to the fermenter after primary fermentation. This enhances the aroma without adding bitterness, so it’s perfect for styles like IPAs

Cooling and Settling The Hops 

After boiling, cool your wort swiftly. As it cools, hop particles settle, and your beer stays clear. When transferring to your fermentation vessel, try to leave most of the hop residue behind.

Storing Hops: 

Store any unused portions of your hops in a vacuum-sealed bag in the freezer. This keeps your hops as fresh and flavorful as possible. When stored correctly, hops can last for years.

What Do Hops Taste Like?

Hops are known for their bitterness, but they have so many other aspects. Depending on the variety and brewing process, hops can introduce a variety of different flavors to beer. It's both an art and a science. We’ve listed the main taste profiles found in hops below:

  • Bitterness: The most prominent flavor from hops, resulting from alpha acids that transform during the brewing process.
  • Floral: Some hops give a light, flowery note.
  • Fruity: Beers can have hints of fruits like berries, apricot, peach, or even tropical fruits like mango and passion fruit.
  • Citrus: Many hops have strong citrus notes. They can range from lemon and lime to grapefruit.
  • Piney/Resinous: Some hops have a resinous or piney flavor, like the smell of fresh pine forests or sap.
  • Earthy: Some hops have a grounded, soil-like taste. 
  • Spicy/Peppery: Certain hops introduce a spicy kick, tasting like black pepper or fresh herbs.

Final Thoughts

Hops are the unsung heroes behind every pint of beer. Their influence on beer's flavor, aroma, and preservation shows just how important they are to brewing. Beyond the technicalities, understanding hops offers a deeper appreciation for the art and science of brewing. The next time you brew a batch of beer, remember the journey of hops – from ancient fields to your glass – and recognize the depth they bring to each sip.

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