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A Beginner’s Guide to Hops

Hops are the green, cone-shaped flowers of the female hop plant, also known by its scientific name Humulus lupulus. (Have fun with that one after a few beers.) Hops are chock full of alpha acids, which are the primary bittering agent brewers use to balance the sweetness in the beer imparted by grain during the brewing process. Hops are also a concentrated source of the essential oils that lend many beers their signature, intoxicating flavors, and aromas. And before modern refrigeration, hops served as an important beer preservative.

How Are Hops Used In Beer?

Brewers use hops in beer to varying degrees. In some styles, like the omnipresent IPA, hops take center stage. In other styles, like stouts, hops typically play a less obvious role; they add backbone and depth, but the beer’s flavor and aroma are mostly defined by the grain bill.

Mug with beer, hops and malt. Isolated on a white background. Watercolor illustration.

Coaxing particular characteristics out of hops takes skill and experience. Brewers manipulate which varieties of hops they use and for how long they’re boiled to achieve particular effects.

Types of Hops

Just as there are dozens of varietals of grapes used for winemaking, there are a ton of different kinds of hops available to brewers. And just like wine grapes, hops of different strains and from different growing regions bring to the table (or should I say kettle?) different flavors, aromas, and bittering capabilities.

For starters, hop strains differ in terms of their alpha acid and essential oil levels. Hops with high amounts of alpha acids are especially useful for adding sharp, angular bitterness to a finished beer. Hops with loads of essential oils contribute the most in terms of flavor and aroma. Some strains have sufficient levels of both to be appropriate for all three applications.

In general, hops strains are categorized by their geography of origin. The three most prominent categories are Noble hops, which come from Germany and the Czech Republic; American hops from the United States; and English hops, from–your guessed it–England. Within each category, there are many hop strains to choose from.

Noble Hops

Of the three categories, Noble hops, which include strains like Saaz and Tettnanger, are considered the most classic. They are what lend traditional German and Czech pilsners and lagers their characteristic flavor profiles. Noble hops tend to be particularly rich in the high-aroma essential oil humulene and have low alpha acid levels.

American Hops

American hops, including heavy hitters like Cascade and Centennial, tend to be bold, bright, and highly aromatic. In general, they have higher amounts of the essential oil myrcene, which gives them their characteristic citrus and pine notes.

English Hops

In contrast, English hops (Fuggle is an example) have lower levels of myrcene. This allows the more subtle aromas of other essential oils to shine through. The profiles of English hops, therefore, tend to be more delicate and mild. Notes of earth, molasses, herbs, spice, and wood are common. English hops constitute only a small percentage of hops grown worldwide but are imperative to traditional British ales.

Kegs to Keep it Cold

The beer world is lush and lustrous. Don’t be daunted by all the variety; you don’t need to drink it all in one session. Keep your brews cold in a KegCold keg for long-term enjoyment for yourself or a large gathering.

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