Green Into Gold

Hops bring spice, aroma, and mystery to beer. Here’s how.

Tbeer_hopsime for some beer basics. This week, the incredible climbing bine that has just started to pop out of the soil in the beeriest corners of the globe, from Bavaria to Oregon: hops.

People ask us lots of questions about these mysterious green wonders: What are hops? What are some of the best hoppy beers on the market? It’s best to think about hops as a spice that adds fantastic flavors and aromas to beer, making them by turns more crisp, floral, bitter and often delicious. Hops also help preserve beer, which explains their overstated presence in India Pale Ales (IPAs); extra hops helped the brews survive the long ocean voyage from Britain to India. Hops even help with head-retention, the technical term for the inch or so of frothy foam you want at the top. You can’t see them in beer, but you can’t mistake their taste and aroma in a well-crafted brew. True story: a member of the Cannabaceae family, hops are closely related to a certain illegal herb and, stored in bale form, have been known to spontaneously combust.

Pyrotechnics aside, hops plants are vines that sprout cone-shaped flowers in late summer and fall. These flowers carry pollen-like resins which add the familiar citrusy and bitter flavor to beer and often a floral aroma. So, in well-hopped beers you may pick up notes of lemon, orange, pine, cedar and grass. There are over 80 varieties of hops around the world; the U.S. states of both Washington and Oregon are major producers. Read on to learn more about craft beer’s secret spice and three hoppy beers we love.

Beer’s hoppy bitterness is measured in International Bitterness Units (IBUs, if you’re in the know). The higher the IBU, the more bitter the brew. Budweiser scores just 11, while the relatively hoppy Sierra Nevada Pale Ale clocks in at 37. American craft brewers pride themselves as major hopheads, so beers with even more punch—even over 100 points—are relatively easy to find. Note, higher hops don’t guarantee a better brew; balance is everything, and many styles don’t call for a lot. Hops are used in both the warm-fermented ale and cold-fermented lager families of beer; ales show off hop aroma much more readily than lagers.

One great option is the 60 Minute IPA from Dogfish Head in Delaware. To achieve its IBU rating of 60, the brewers continually add hops while the brew boils for an hour. The result is a powerful yet balanced and drinkable beer with herbal and citrus notes and a semi-dry finish.

When you’re ready to move up the scale to an IBU of 73, tackle the Big Hoppy Monster from Terrapin Brewing in Athens, Georgia. This Monster is an imperial style (meaning super assertive) red ale with five varieties of hops set against a powerful malt backbone. It’s surprisingly balanced and has ample aromas recalling grapefruit.

If you are ready to take it to the max, seek out Sierra Nevada’s Hoptimum, a whole-cone imperial IPA with an IBU of 100. The Hoptimum is about as intense as it gets, with aromas of tropical fruit and pine plus flavors of grapefruit, rose and cedar followed by a long, dry finish.

When you develop a love for these beers you’ll be a hophead for life. Have a favorite hoppy beer? Share it with us below.

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