You probably don’t know what hops taste like offhand. But if you have drank beer then you have tasted them before. Isn’t that weird? What is a hop? What do they do in a beer? Why will I care about hops when I am done reading this? Allow me to explain.
The main ingredients in beer are Water, Malt, Hops and Yeast. Water is the medium in which the magic happens. Malt supplies sugars for the yeast to munch on as well as colour and flavour. Yeast eats the sugars making alcohol and bubbles. I’m glad the world works this way.
Where does the hop come in? Hops are added to the beer at specific points during production to deliver bitterness, flavouring and aroma to the beer. The sweetness from the malt needs to be balanced and bitterness is the way it is done. Hops do a whole lot more and have some interesting properties, but I’ll sketch out the bitterness, flavour and aroma aspects first.
Bitterness – Bitterness is an essential part of any beer. But most beers people drink have barely perceptible levels of bitterness. If you want to do some tasting to try and specifically ‘find’ this aspect of the beer I would recommend you start with English style beers. In fact, ‘bitter’ is the name of a style of English ale. Any beer with ‘bitter’ in its name will work too. Ten Bitter Years by Black Oak Brewery is a good example. If you want a mainstream (Canadian) beer to try I would say Labatt 50 is a good choice here. Of course, India Pale Ales (IPAs) are the beer world’s way of worshiping the hop.
Bitterness shows up in many ways in a beer’s flavour profile (the way and the order that the flavours present themselves). Sometimes it is there, nakedly, all on its own. Generally, it shows up as a compliment or a counterpoint to sweet, malty, and grainy tastes. It can linger as part of the a beer`s finish.
Flavour—Flavour is a little trickier to define. I mean, bitterness is a flavour, right? You would be correct. But here flavour refers to the taste of the hop itself, not the taste of the bitterness it imparts. Each hop has its own flavour. Brewers pick and choose them for their different taste and aroma properties in order to make you a delicious pint.
This is where beer is a little like wine. The hops are a vine-grown plant (actually, hops grow on a bine if you want to be geeky about it). They grow in certain famous regions. They are temperamental and affected by the weather. Each variety has its own unique tastes and uses.
If you want to taste hop flavours and not just bitterness I would recommend IPAs. But I would also say that every IPA is different and you may end up with one that is heavy on the bitterness and lighter on the flavours. Another good choice here would be a Pale Ale or an American Pale Ale. Bitterness is on display here too, but there will most likely be a strong hop flavour here. As you drink different beers you will start to notice the particular tastes of certain hops. Cascade hops, for example, taste and smell a lot like grapefruit.
Aroma—Aroma is where the hops deliver in a big way. Because taste and smell are so intertwined you are mostly going to get the ‘nose versions’ of the tongue flavours hops provide. Fruit, citrus and grass/plant smells abound.
Effectively, you will never detect a hop aroma in a mainstream beer. Stop drinking it and try something not associated with large breasts, pool parties and American football. Here, you will find hop aromas to delight you. As far as a recommendation, I will just say that I encourage you to smell beer in general and to smell it with curiosity. Smell your beer like Sherlock Holmes would.
Randall-ized beers--What got me started on all this hop madness was the recent addition of a Randall at Gambrinus Bistro, my go-to beer bar in my hometown. Also known as an “organoleptic hop transducer module” (though I suspect this phrase is just Sam Calagione’s sense of humour at work ) it takes dry hopping to another level by pumping your draught beer through a chamber filled with hops. There’s a lot of fun to be had by playing with different hop varieties and their flavours + different beers and how they taste when ‘Randall-ized’. You could put spices, cocoa or coffee beans in there. The sky is the limit.
This is a good way to taste hop flavours, but Randalls aren’t exactly common. It will be much easier to walk into a bar or store and buy a hoppy beer (or Gambrinus, if you are in Southwestern Ontario).
Some Hop Facts--If you are curious about how brewers use hops to favour bittness vs. flavour and aroma you are in luck. Beer is boiled during the production process (actually, wort is being boiled and it later becomes beer if you want to be geeky about it). As the beer boils hops are added in stages at specific times. The timing of these additions determines what aspects of the hops will end up in your glass.
Hops deliver bitterness through alpha acids and flavour and aroma through other volatile compounds. Hops that are added early in the boil will have the volatile compounds boiled away and will impart only bitterness. Mid- and late-addition hops have relatively fewer compounds boiled away.
You can also add hops to beer after the boil. This is known as dry-hopping and it imparts flavours in its own way because the hops are never exposed to boiling temperatures. You add the hops by putting them in a bag or a cheesecloth and throwing them in the beer as it ferments. Or they are added to casks. Dry hopping flavours are very noticeable and unique. I once had a beer at Blind Tiger in New York City that tasted eerily like grass clippings and marijuana. Not sure if it made me hungry, but I certainly was very thirsty.
Hop bitterness in beer is measured in IBUs (Int'l Bitterness Units). Hop bitterness comes from compounds known as Alpha Acids and these are measured as a percentage. You won’t see alpha acid percentages unless you are buying hops. You will see IBUs on bottles and in tasting notes.
Hops have anti-microbial properties that help preserve beer. I did one of my first ever interviews with Monique Haakensen, a Canadian beer scientist who studied this exact phenomenon.
Skunky beer flavours occur when hop compounds in beer are fractured by light, breaking into new compounds that don’t smell as nice. This has more to do with the colour of the bottle than hops. Green bottles are the culprit here because they allow in light spectrums that brown bottles don’t. Ever wonder why skunky beers are the ones in green or clear bottles—eg. Heinekin and Moosehead? This has never happened to me, but I heard a brew-pub brewer tell me that he got skunk complaints because people drank the beer slowly, in clear pitchers, on a sunny patio. Better drink quick on the patio!
The big commercial brewers often use hop extracts to flavour beer. They use special extracts that are light-stable instead of changing the packaging. Craft brewers use whole leaf or pelletized hops.
Hops are related to marijuana and hemp. Might explain that beer I had in NYC, eh?
Hops are basically useless for anything other than beer making. Though, The Royal Oak in Wantage, Oxfordshire, makes a nice go at it using them for decoration.
Finally, here is the wikipedia page for hops so you can read more and see just how many beer-specific hops there are worldwide (a LOT!).