Hops are the pretty green flower of the Humulus Lupulus plant, a member of the hemp family. They look like soft green pine cones, and are smaller than your thumb.
Beer did not always contain hops. It used to have gruit, a mix of spices and herbs. There is a rumor that some strangers in town are adding pumpkin spice mix and eggnog flavor to beer. We don’t have gruit or pumpkin spice. We have hops.
People talk about hops giving beer its bitterness, but they do much more than that. It’s more balance than bitterness, and a combination of aroma and balance. The various hops varieties are grown for the qualities they impart to beer. Some have strong smoky aromas, others wild herbal greens. Some hops are sharp and bright, others more mellow and rounded. Like wine grapes, hops reflect the terroir of the land they grow on.
Hops act like a preservative, and a filter, keeping beer clear and fresh, with a stable head. But for craft beer lovers and breweries, hops are the endlessly fascinating ingredient that can change a beer’s taste and aroma from blah to sublime. Several essential oils in the hops flowers are responsible for the transformation of beer from sweet mash to balance, nuanced flavors. Varieties of hops are region-specific, even farm-specific, and have different degrees of sharp, citric flavor and smoky, bitter flavors based on harvest, weather, variety, and many other variables. In addition, the degree of the hops flavor and aroma in the final beer is not just the essential oils in the hops, but the way they combine and change over the course of making.