What Are Hops in Beer?

Beer has been a beloved beverage for centuries, captivating our taste buds with its diverse flavors and aromas. At the heart of this centuries-old craft lies an essential ingredient: hops. These small, unassuming flowers have played a crucial role in the brewing process, leaving an indelible mark on the history and evolution of beer. But exactly what are hops in beer? And why did brewers begin using them in the first place? Let’s take a closer look at the history of hops in beer and why they matter for both taste and longevity. 

A Brief History of Hops in Beer

Although beer itself is thousands of years old, the use of hops is comparatively recent. The first recipes calling for the use of hops in the brewing process date back to the 9th century in Europe, where their cultivation and utilization spread rapidly. 

Initially, hops were prized for their preservative properties, which helped extend the shelf life of beer. Brewers discovered that adding hops to the brewing process inhibited bacterial growth and enhanced beer’s stability.

Before the widespread adoption of hops in beer, brewers employed a range of alternative ingredients to add bitterness, flavor, and aroma to their brews. These included a diverse array of herbs, spices, and botanicals, collectively referred to as “gruit.” Popular gruit ingredients included yarrow, mugwort, heather, sweet gale, and various combinations of spices such as coriander, cinnamon, and ginger. These botanicals not only contributed to the sensory profile of the beer but also served as preservatives.

Today, there are hundreds of strains of hops grown all over the world. Despite being relatively new to the beer game compared to its European counterparts, the US  has emerged as the leading producer of both bittering and aromatic/flavor varieties. Even countries with a rich brewing history import American hops to flavor their beer (looking at you, Belgium!). 

General Characteristics of Hops

Scientifically known as Humulus lupulus, hops belong to the Cannabaceae family and are native to regions such as Europe, Asia, and North America. The plant grows in abundant vines and has signature cone-shaped flowers in varying shades of green. It thrives in all sorts of climates, but prefers moderate temperatures and rich soil. This is perhaps why it grows so well in the Pacific Northwest, which is where nearly all of our American hops come from. 

The unique scent and flavor of hops is derived largely from its essential oil, lupulin. Lupulin imparts a complex fragrance with layers of pine, citrus, earthy resin, and fruit. The bitterness of hops is attributed to the presence of alpha acid. Hops with higher levels of alpha acid are often referred to as “bittering” hops or “alpha” hops (see below). 

A field of hops growing in Bavaria. 

Categories of Hops in Beer

Although there are hundreds of types to choose from, hops can generally be divided into three categories:

  1. Bittering/Alpha Hops

Bittering hops, also known as alpha hops (due to their higher alpha acid content), are primarily responsible for providing bitterness to beer. Brewers add them early in the boiling process to extract alpha acids, which give beer its characteristic bitterness. High-alpha hop varieties, such as Magnum and Chinook, are often employed in hop-forward beer styles like India Pale Ales (IPAs) and Double IPAs (DIPAs).

Diebolt’s Colorado Greenback Session IPA utilizes the bold bitterness of Chinook and Columbus hops, brightened with citrusy Cascade. 

  1. Aroma Hops

Aroma hops are renowned for their fragrant qualities and are added late in the brewing process to impart enticing aromas to the beer. These hops often possess lower alpha acid content but higher essential oil concentrations, resulting in floral, citrusy, or herbal aromas. Popular aroma hop varieties include Cascade, Centennial, and Amarillo, which are extensively used in American Pale Ales (APAs) and hoppy lagers.

  1. Flavor Hops

Flavor hops bridge the gap between bittering and aroma hops, providing both subtle bitterness and flavor to the beer. These hops are added during the middle stages of the brewing process, allowing their unique flavors to harmonize with the other ingredients. Flavor hops can contribute to a wide range of tastes, including earthiness, spiciness, or even tropical fruitiness. Notable flavor hop varieties include Willamette, Fuggle, and Tettnang.

So, Do the Kinds of Hops Used Really Matter?

Absolutely! The choice of hops has a profound impact on the final character of beer. Different hop varieties possess distinct profiles, encompassing bitterness levels, aromatic compounds, and flavor characteristics. By selecting specific hop combinations or focusing on single-hop brews, brewers can craft beers with unparalleled complexity, tailoring them to meet various palates and style preferences.

Moreover, the hops in beer serve as an artistic tool for brewers, allowing them to express their creativity and push the boundaries of flavor. With the vast array of hop cultivars available today, brewers can experiment with novel hop varieties, creating unique and memorable drinking experiences.

From their humble beginnings as preservatives to their pivotal role in enhancing aroma, bitterness, and flavor, hops have become a cornerstone of brewing tradition. So, the next time you enjoy a pint of craft beer, take a moment to appreciate the humble hop and the profound influence it has had on the world’s most beloved beverage. Cheers!

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