What Are Hops?

We have all seen breweries advertise their beer using the terms hoppy, double hopped, dry-hopped, etc. So much so that the word hops has for the most part become synonymous with the craft beer world, but what are hops really, why are they used in the beer-making process and what are the different ways they can affect your beer? In this post, we are going to dive into these topics and more and by the end of this post, you will have a good understanding of what hops are and how essential they are to your beer.

What Are Hops?

Hops are actually a flower of the Humulus Lupulus plant. They are green in color and are shaped like a cone. The Humulus Lupulus plant is a climbing perennial. Being a perennial simply means that it continues to live from one year to the next, it will grow and produce its flowers over the spring and summer and die back down in the fall and winter and start the process again in the spring.

Since hops are a climbing plant they are typically grown on a tall trellis, it is not uncommon to see hop plants that grow as tall as 18 feet or more.

There are many types of beer hops and they are grown in many places around the world. Depending on where they are grown determines the strain of the hop. Some strains require more concentrated sunshine and longer growing seasons. However overall most hop plants thrive the best in moderate climates that provide a generous amount of sunshine, suitable precipitation, and milder heat. You will find them growing around the world in the northern and southern hemispheres along similar latitudes on the globe.

What Are Hops in Beer 
hops on a vine next to the words what are hops.
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When it comes to hops and beer, brewers are interested in the hop cones and specifically what is inside them. Within a hop cone are found what are called lupulin. Which are sticky yellow pod-looking glands. These glands contain alpha acids and essential oils.

The alpha acids are what brewers use to increase the bitterness of the beer in order to counter or balance out the sweetness in the beer from the malts (grains) used when brewing it. The essential oils are used to help provide the beer its distinct aroma and flavor.

Hops used to add bitterness to the beer are referred to as bittering hops and are added early on in the boil which allows them to become water-soluble and release their bittering agents into the boiling wort.

Whereas hops that are used for aroma and flavor are added towards the end of the boil, during cooling, and also during and after fermentation. They are added at these time intervals versus during the boil because the essential oils within them are volatile and will be boiled off if exposed to the boiling wort for too long.

The same can happen during active fermentation when the CO2 is released from the fermenter some of the aroma and flavor from the essential oils can escape, this is why when you are drying hopping it is often recommended to wait until 3 days into fermentation when the majority of the active fermentation has slowed down to add your first dry hop addition.

When it comes to hops and beer, especially with the modern-day explosion of the popularity of craft beer, hops provide countless options when it comes to the flavor and aroma of the beer, pretty much any flavor you can dream of can be infused into a beer with the right combination of hops.

Natural Preservative

Along with adding bitterness, flavor, and aroma, one of the original uses and surprising discoveries of hops in the 1700s by the British was that they act as a natural preservative. The acids in the hops prevent bacteria from ruining the beer as well as preventing the development of off flavors.

Hops are in fact responsible for the birth of the world’s favorite beer, the IPA or India Pale Ale. The British discovered the preservative quality of hops and started increasing the number of hops they placed in their beer when transporting it to their colonies on long sea voyages. The colonists developed a taste for this more bitter-tasting beer and the rest is history.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are hops a grain? No hops are not a grain, they are flowers from a plant.

Are hops alcoholic? No, there is no alcohol in the hops themselves; the alcohol comes as a result of the yeast consuming the sugar from the grains.

Are hops in every beer? Yes, every beer contains hops to some degree. Some might only have a small bittering addition, but all beer has some. If they did not the drink would not be considered beer but rather “gruit” which is similar to beer but in place of the hops they use herbs such as juniper and heather.

The Final Word

So what are hops in beer? To summarize, hops are the flower of a plant that brewers use to adjust the bitterness of the beer and add the desired level and type of aroma and flavor to the beer they are making. They also provide a preservative quality to the beer itself.

P.S. If you make beer or have ever thought about trying, be sure to take advantage of my offer to grab my top 5 best-selling recipes from my brewpub, the details are on the side of the blog. Cheers!

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