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As Boston Beer President C. Jim Koch once stated, “Hops are to beer what grapes are to wine.” Credit: LuckyStarr via

What is a hop? Why should we care?

This is why: They lead the way toward flavorful, delicious beers like Pliny the Elder, Stone IPA, Dogfish Head 60 or 90 minute IPA, Tröegs Nugget Nectar, Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA and Green Flash Imperial IPA.

Hops can inspire legends. They contain two types of acids—alpha and beta, which act as natural preserving agents by killing or hindering the growth of various bacteria. British brewers took advantage of this in the 16th century by brewing intensely hopped beers (which eventually became known as India pale ales, or IPAs) in order to prevent spoilage on their long journey to the colonies in India.

We’re in the thick of harvest season now. Hop plants sprout in the spring, and harvest starts in August, continuing into October. After harvested, hops can be used fresh, but are often dried for long term storage.

The craft-beer industry in the United States is as large as it’s ever been, and new hop strains and small hop farms have sprouted as a result. The craft brewing industry used an average of 1.3 pounds of hops, per barrel, as of the end of 2013.

Despite the new farms, however, there has been concern about hop shortages. The craft-beer revolution (craft brewers use far more hops than corporate brewers do proportionally), debilitating drought and the popularity of IPAs and double IPAs (which rely on temperamental aromatic hops) have made many hop varieties more scarce in the U.S. According to the Hop Growers of America, the average price for a pound of hops was $1.88 in 2004. In 2013, the price jumped to $3.59 per pound.

Bittering hops usually have a high alpha acid content. Aroma hops, with low-to-medium alpha levels, mainly offer characteristic hop aromas. Demand for these aroma hops continues to increase: Almost 42 percent of U.S. hop acreage was dedicated to aroma hops in 2012. A year later, that number had risen to an estimated 63 percent—and is expected to continue to increase.

The price increase in hops is one of the reasons many brewers have started producing “single-hop” beers. Another reason: Single-hop beers honor the hop varietal. Each hop variety possesses unique flavors, whether piney, floral or citrusy. Much like adding spices to a meal, hops add the seasoning to a beer—and singling out hops lets them shine on their own.

As Boston Beer President C. Jim Koch once stated, “Hops are to beer what grapes are to wine.”

All hop varietals come in one of two forms:

Whole-leaf hops: During harvest, whole dried hop cones are removed from the plants, dried and compressed into bales. Leaf hops are believed to have greater aromatic qualities and are often used after fermentation in dry-hopping. To increase hop aroma, leaf-hop additions can be made at end of a boil so more of the volatile oils are captured. There are some downsides to whole-leaf hops: Because leaves will absorb some water from the wort, there will be a volume loss. Leaves can also clog equipment.

Pellets: Dried hop cones are shredded, compressed and extruded into pellets. They are the craft-beer-industry standard, because of the advantages in measuring, storage and shelf life. They stay fresher longer, because they have less surface area to oxidize. There’s also higher extraction due to more exposable surface area. However, because of the drying, they tend to lose some of their aromatic quality.

Hop varieties are chosen for the properties of bitterness, flavor or bouquet that they lend to the beer, helping to balance the sweetness of malt sugars. Beer would be annoyingly sweet without it.

The most widely used American-style hops include:

Cascade: One of the most popular varieties, this hop has a moderate bitterness level and a fragrant, flowery aroma. It’s typically used in West Coast ales. The iconic Sierra Nevada Pale Ale propelled the Cascade hop. Other notable cascade beers include Deschutes Brewery’s Mirror Pond Pale Ale and Anchor Brewing’s Liberty IPA.

Chinook: With a high (11-13 percent) acid range, Chinook has distinctive pine and spicy flavors. The alluring pine-and-grapefruit aroma makes it popular in American-style pale ales.

Amarillo: Used primarily for aroma, these medium-bittering hops come from Washington. They give off unique flowery, citrus notes and are commonly used in American IPAs, American ales and wheat beers. To taste a single-hop Amarillo beer, pick up a Rogue’s Yellow Snow IPA, Noble Ale Works Amarillo Showers, or Mikkeller Single Hop Amarillo IPA.

Centennial: A relatively new hop on the market, Centennial is often used for highly hopped pale ales and IPAs. Notable Centennial beers include Bell’s Brewery’s Two Hearted Ale and Flying Dog Brewery’s Centennial Single Hop Imperial IPA.

Galaxy: This hot, newish Australian-grown hop variety showcases grassy, citrus and passion-fruit notes. It can be found in beers like Anchorage Brewing’s Galaxy White IPA or Noble Ale Works’ Galaxy Showers Imperial IPA.

Citra: This widely popular aromatic hop resulted from a cross-breed of several varieties from the United Kingdom, Germany and the U.S. After Sierra Nevada introduced Citra in 2009 in the Torpedo IPA, it quickly became one of the beer world’s most-sought-after hops. It’s spotlighted in Three Floyds Zombie Dust and Kern River Citra. Also try Ventura-based Surf Brewery’s Shaka Citra Session IPA.

If you’re looking for a locally brewed and refreshing “hop bomb” of a beer, try Coachella Valley Brewing Co.’s newly released Coriollis Effect. It’s a wet-hop imperial IPA brewed with fresh Sorachi Ace and Amarillo hops. CVB also incorporated a ton of Southern Hemisphere hops; in fact, this beer includes nearly 10 pounds of hops per barrel.

Coachella Valley Brewing purchases hops from seven countries and works with 10 different brokers to get their much-needed bittering flowers.

“We even buy farm-direct from growers in Yakima and Willamette valleys,” said Coachella Valley Brewing’s Chris Anderson.

Just for fun, Anderson grows about 16 varieties of hops on his personal property.

Tests done on hop oils have found more than 400 different compounds. That’s a lot of flavor potential. It proves that hops not only put the bitter in beer—but the character in the craft.