What Are Hops? How Are Hops Used in Beer?

I realized I’d never actually wrote about, what are hops and how they’re used in beer. Well, that changes today. When you make beer, you use four main ingredients:

  • Water
  • Malt
  • Hops
  • Yeast

Many craft beer lovers like a hoppy IPA (Indian Pale Ale), but don’t actually know what are hops and how they affect the beer they’re drinking. Well hops are flowers, or cone of a plant called Humulus Lupulus.

What Are Hops?
Cross Section of a Hop Leaf

They affect beer in three mains ways, which are:

  • Helps keep beer fresh longer
  • Key component in a beers flavor (bitterness) and add the “hoppy” aroma
  • Allows beer to retain its foam head

Ever Asked Where Are Grown?

Hops are a relative of the cannabis plant belonging to the Cannabaceae family. They’re a hardy plant, which grows in most parts of the world. Some of the most famous hop growing regions are:

  • Yakima Valley – Pacific Northwest of the USA
  • Hallertau – Bavaria, Germany
  • Xinjiang – China
  • Zatec -Czech Republic
  • Victoria & Tasmania – Australia
  • Nelson – New Zealand

There are many more growing regions around the world too. I’ve recently fell for some of the great Polish varieties out there.

Nearly every single beer on the market contains hops. In fact, if they don’t contain hops then they might be called something different like “gruit”.

Alternatives to Hops

Gruit contains herbs such as bog myrtle, yarrow and juniper instead of hops. Traditionally in Scotland they used ferns, spruce tips or heathers to add flavor to the beer before hops were known about.

Brewing with Heather
Read our article brewing with heather

Further some modern Scottish breweries are bringing back these old ingredients, such as spruce tips to be used to add bitterness to the beer. Other ingredients which can also add bitterness are; the pith from orange zest and juniper.

Categories of Hops

Hops fall in to three general categories:

Bittering – They are high alpha acid varieties and are more economical for adding bitterness to beer

Alpha acids (α acids) are a class of chemical compounds primarily of importance to the production of beer. They’re found in the resin glands of the flowers of the hop plant and are the source of hop bitterness.

From Wikipedia – Alpha Acids

Aroma – aroma hops usually contain more essential oils; these oils contribute to what people describe the “hoppiness” of beer. They give notes of citrus, grapefruit or even bubblegum (Sorachi Ace hops).

Dual purpose – These hops may be used for both bitterness and aroma. They are often slight lower in alpha acid content, than pure bittering hops.

Hops are added to boiling wort in the brew kettle. Wort is the sugar liquid you make when brewing. Which ferments later in the process with the addition of yeast. You need to boil the wort for several reasons including sterilizing the liquid.

Adding Hops to the Boil

When you boil the wort usually for a minimum of 60 minutes. You add your bittering additions at the start. In the boil all the essential oils are “boiled off’ but, the alpha acids in the hops add bitterness to the brew.

Hops are often pelletized as they are easier to brew with

You need to add them much later in the boil to get the “hoppy” aroma, usually in the last 10 minutes or after flameout, in the whirlpool.

Allowing the essential oils “stay” in the beer, rather than be boiled off. So, you get the notes such as melon, mango and pine from the oils.


Additionally there’s also dry-hopping, which is a newer brewing technique, where hops are added in the fermentation process or after it is completed. The idea is you get even more “fresh” aroma.

With dry-hopping, hops are added into the fermenter or using a device like a hop cannon. The beer can be at 0 to 30C at this point. The idea is to get extra essential oils into the beer for a more vibrant aroma.

What Are Hops Black and White Image

Also note a lot of modern brews like West Coast IPA’s, NEIPA’s (New England IPA’s) and even lagers are dry-hopped to create a really pungent aroma.

You see people initially taste with their noses so, having beer with a nice hop aroma is going to be perceived well

The only downside of the high hopped aroma beers is they’re highly volatile. Over time they may change a lot in taste, resembling a much different beer. This explains why brewers recommend drinking these high hopped beers as fresh as possible.

What are Hops? Conclusions

Hop selection is one of the fun parts of being a brewer. They are more hop varieties coming to market all the time. They all offer unique characteristics.

Using the right blend of hops for bitterness, aroma and dry-hopping can make your beer unique and shine.

However, get in wrong and it might smell like cat wee (no seriously) …

Still, that’s part of the challenge of the brewer. To make sure you bring all the component of a brew together to make great beer. Get it right and people will flock to your brew.

What about you…do you have a favourite hop forward beer or preferred hop?

Let us know and comment below, it might be interest to fellow “hop-heads” reading this.

Thanks for reading and have a good day.



Neil Playfoot

Neil is a brewer with 25 years international brewing experience. Based out of China (first came in 2010) he works as a brewing consultant helping brewers with their projects and brewing processes. To find out what services Neil can provide your brewery please click here. If you'd like to contact Neil you can email at neil@asianbeernetwork.com.
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