Food & Drink

What The Hell Are Hops, Anyway?

We know you're thankful for them, but do you know what hops really are?

You know they're important -- they're in beer, enough said -- but do you have any clue what hops really are? Hops are a cone-shaped flower that has become integral in beer-making. While beer has existed long before the use of hops, most beer today is flavored with hops, which add a bitter and also preservative quality to everyone's favorite beverage.

There are many varieties of hops, and each kind imparts different characteristics and flavors to beer. If you're a real connoisseur, you may be able to identify particular hops in different beers. If you're like the rest of us, you're totally mystified as to what hops are in the first place. It's time to bring your beer knowledge to the next level and dive into the wide world of hops. Here are eight things you need to know:

Hops are flowers.
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They are the dried female flowers of a perennial vine called Humulus Lupulus. The vine can grow up to 30 feet long.
Hops come from the same plant family as cannabis.
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Hops and cannabis are both part of the family Cannabinaceae. It doesn't mean much, but some people are really excited by this factoid.
Hops are responsible for beer's bitter flavor.
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Hops are acidic, which contributes to the bitter, tangy flavor they give to beer.
Hops ward off bacteria.
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In addition to cutting the sweet flavor of malt with their bitter taste, hops also have antibacterial properties. The use of hops helps keep beer from spoiling.
In beer's long history, hops are a newcomer.
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People were drinking beer for around 8,000 years before they started using hops. While hops were used as herbs for hundreds of years prior, the first recorded history of their use in brewing beer dates back to 822 AD, in Picardy in Northern France. It wasn't for another 300 years that Germany caught on, and it took until the 13th century for hops to really be commonplace. Before people used hops to flavor beer, they used spices and herbs -- a mixture known as gruit. Hops were first grown in America in the early 1600s.
There are two general categories of hops: aroma and bittering.
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Predictably, aroma hops are more responsible for imparting aroma and bittering for imparting bitter flavors. Both types of hops are boiled with wort -- the sugary liquid that comes from mashing malt -- to extract their flavors. They are added at different times throughout the boil depending on the intended flavor.
There are tons of varieties of hops.
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Different hops produce different levels of bitterness. If you're interested in seeing what kinds of hops go into the beer you like, Brew Magazine has a good tool to start with. "Noble hops" is a term you might hear a lot; it refers to a group of hops from Europe: Hallertau, Tettnanger, Spalt, and Saaz. They have a relatively low bitterness and strong aroma, and you'll find them in European lagers. For comparison, IPAs tend to be made with hops that have a pungent aroma and strong bitterness.
Hops are a beautiful thing.
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Now go enjoy a cold one.

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