Hops may be one of four essential ingredients in beer (alongside barley, yeast, and of course water). But from the current spectrum of craft beer offerings—and the heavy emphasis on hoppy IPAs—it might seem like hops is the marquee ingredient behind all worthy and delicious beer.
That isn’t the case. Hops are magical, absolutely, and hoppy styles are recently trending as hard as the Kardashians, but hops are part of a spectrum; an ingredient—a really interesting one—in the magical recipe for beer.
So what are hops? As far as beer is concerned, what we call “hops” are actually just the cone-shaped flowers of the female hops plant, aka Humulus lupulus. A cousin of cannabis—with none of the THC, alas—hops contain acids and oils that impart bitterness, flavor, and stability to the finished beer. Generally, hops are added to the boil stage of brewing, as it takes a pretty long time (around an hour) to unleash the “alpha” acids that bitter and balance the sweetness of the malt (this is why hops weren’t incorporated into beer production until around the turn of the 1st Century A.D.– ancient man probably wouldn’t have had time or inclination to chill out around a fire as his hops boiled).
Hops are most often associated with bitterness, but that isn’t the only reason to use them. Depending on what you’re going for, you might add more hops later in the boil (since aromatic oils are destroyed in a long boiling process). But a beer could also be dry hopped (added to the fermenter) or even fresh hopped (when just-picked hops aren’t dried but instead brought to the brewery like so much fresh cut grass). Again, depending on the style you’re going for, and where you’re brewing, the choice and timing of hops will vary.
If you’re looking for a great basic example of how hops can vary in flavor and regional characteristics, try a West Coast IPA alongside an East Coast IPA. You’ll notice similarities—an unapologetic, but pleasant bitterness, e.g.—among a world of differences. Bear in mind, these are so-called “hop-forward” beers, with a pronounced bitterness which you may or may not like. But fear not, because in many cases—and many beer styles—hops don’t have a starring role but a supporting role, and are often even shunted into the background for structural support as a brewer looks to emphasize other flavors (say, the roasty character of a grain in a darker ale).
Beyond knowing your basic beer styles, a good way to know how hops have been used in a particular beer is checking the IBU level. An increasing number of beers will display the IBU, or “International Bittering Units,” which measures the iso-alpha acids in a beer (and thus, the bitterness). But whether you notice them or not, if you’re drinking beer, you’re reaping the benefits of the hops plant.