What are Hops?

Hops flower on the vine

Ah Hops! Floral, bitter, earthy, piney – the smell alone can be intoxicating to the senses. The backbone of flavor and aroma for any beer, hops are a flowering vine in the same family as Cannabis sativa.

While lacking many of its cousin’s inebriant properties, anyone who has enjoyed a heavily hopped beer can attest to the relaxing properties it confers on users. Conical in shape, hops (Humulus lupulus) flowers contain a variety of constituents that impact the aroma and flavor of beer.

Like grapes in wine-making, hops thrive in specific regions where soil, weather, and length of season combine to produce perfect growing conditions. That said, hops can be grown nearly everywhere, but don’t expect a luscious Cascade bite from the Cascade rhizomes growing in your Arizona back yard. Don’t let it stop you – plenty of home brewers grow their own hops, with spectacular and sometimes unexpected results in the garden and in the bottle.

Hops vines on a farm
Hops vines are trained upward.

The hops plant itself has been documented as a cultivated crop in Europe for nearly a millennia and a half. The so-called Noble Hops are classic cultivars that are closely tied to places, and heavily influenced the evolution of beer styles there. Saaz hops, for instance, are a mild, low-bitterness hop named for the Czech region where they originated. Though now applied in a wide variety of styles, Saaz was key in developing the Pilsner style.

New World Hops, both from North America and Australia and New Zealand, have brought new flavor and aromatic profiles to the beer world, much to the delight of home brewers. From a clean, citrusy bitterness of Pacific Northwest Centennial hops to the tropical fruit notes of New Zealand Motueka, today’s brewers have access to a universe of bittering, flavoring, and aromatic agents unheard of since hops took over the beer world.