At first glance, the hop plant is pretty lame. It's susceptible to pests and disease, it only pops out its valuable flowers once a year, and it doesn't have many uses. But one of those uses is really, really important. Hops are basically here just for mankind's beery satisfaction. Once the cone-shaped flowers of the plant are harvested and dried in the fall, they play a huge role in the beer brewing process.
Brewers love these little vine-grown buds for several reasons. First of all, they taste good. Hops impart a necessary bitterness to beer that might be overly sweet or out of balance without them. What's more, hops leave behind a whole lot of flavor in the form of citrusy, pine-like, herbal, and earthy aromatics. Hops also help maintain a beer's foamy head and lend antibacterial qualities that help prevent spoilage. So yeah, hops rule.
But not all hops are created equal. The amount of bitterness and type of aromas that hops deliver to beer are dependent on a number of factors, including the variety of hops grown (there are dozens!) and their growing conditions. As you get to know hops around the world, you'll find trends amongst the hop varieties grown in the different major growing regions. Let's have a look!
You'll notice that I've included a few recommendations below for commercial beers that clearly represent a given hop's flavor profile. As a rule, beers made with just one hop variety are tough to come by; just as chefs layer flavor with a number of different seasonings and aromatics, brewers typically use multiple hop varieties for depth in flavor. Since single-hop beers aren't super common, one of the best ways to experience individual hop character is to try brewing your own one-hop beers.
Germany and the Czech Republic
When it comes to German and Czech hops, there's one main group that is really important to know. They're given an appropriately important sounding name too: noble hops. These are hops that have been set apart as being worthy of admiration, with a range of aromas that extends from soft and floral to earthy and spicy.
The Noble Hops
Hallertauer Mittelfrüh (sometimes called just "Hallertau" or "Hallertauer"): Continental Europe's most famous hop variety is gentle and floral, with a slightly peppery or woodsy spiciness.
- Try this beer: Look for Hallertauer Mittelfrüh's flavor (alongside that of Spalt and Tettnanger) in the aroma of your next pint of German-style pilsner. Fresh, locally-made versions will offer the best opportunity to taste German noble hops—hop aroma is the first thing to fade as beer travels and ages.
Tettnanger (sometimes called just "Tettnang"): Zesty and grassy, with an earthy spiciness and a touch of citrusy aromatics.
Spalt (sometimes called "Spalter"): Easy-going, woodsy, and peppery.
Saaz (sometimes called Žatec or Saazer): A Czech hop known for its assertive earthy spiciness. Similar in flavor to both Spalt and Tettnanger.
- Try this beer: Fresh Czech-style pilsner showcases Saaz in a big way. The classic Czech pilsner, Pilsner Urquell, offers a great way to taste the hop in all it's glory.
Though English hops comprise only about one percent of the world's production, they have a dedicated global following. They tend to be grassy, floral, lemony, woodsy, minty, or tea-like, and are generally used in beer styles of English origin or their spin-offs made around the world. British beers often maintain a fairly even balance of malt and hop flavor, but English bitter and IPA are great places to taste what English hops can do.
Hops You Should Know:
Fuggle: Everyone likes it for its name, but Fuggles are beautiful hops aside from that. Earthy, cedary, minty, and floral.
Challenger: Used in many English pale ales, Challenger has a tea-like earthiness alongside a lemon marmalade-like fruity bitterness. It's basically an afternoon spot of Earl Grey in cone-shaped form.
- Try this beer: Coniston's Bluebird Bitter is a delightfully hoppy beer thought to be brewed with just Challenger hops. Check it out, if you can find it! [Full disclosure: the company I work for distributes this beer in California.]
Golding (AKA East Kent Golding or Kent Golding, depending on where the hops are grown): Goldings have been popular for over 200 years thanks to their earthy, peppery, and lemon-like character.
Northern Brewer: Perhaps best known in the US for appearing in steam beers (also known as California common beers), Northern Brewer imparts a woodsy mintiness alongside pine-like aromas.
- Try this beer: Grab a bottle of Anchor Steam to taste this one—that beer is hopped exclusively with Northern Brewer (albeit ones likely grown in the US).
The United States
American hops are valued throughout the world for the bold, intense flavors they impart to beer. "Citrusy" is the word you'll most commonly hear to describe American hops, but that's just the beginning. The range of character in American hops is staggering, and you'll encounter intensely pine-like, floral, woodsy, and stone fruity aromas as you taste through all the US has to offer.
The Three (or Four?) Cs
Cascade: This is the hop that started the hoppy American craft beer revolution. Its flavor is most famously compared to grapefruit or grapefruit rind, but Cascade can be an intensely floral hop as well.
- Try this beer: Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale offer wonderfully clear tastes of Cascade in all its glory.
Centennial: This hop is sometimes referred to as "super Cascade" because of the two hops' similar aromas. Some say Centennial is a bit more floral, but you should expect a balance of flowery and grapefruit-like aromas.
- Try this beer: Bell's Two Hearted Ale is a delicious IPA that uses only Centennial for its potent hoppy flavor.
Columbus (also known as CTZ, which refers to a group of functionally interchangeable hop varieties: Columbus, Tomahawk, and Zeus): Columbus is a potent, flashy hop. It's pungent and herbaceous, drawing comparisons to marijuana and pine resin.
Chinook: Perhaps the most pine-like hop of them all is Chinook, which is sometimes considered to be one of the Three Cs in place of Columbus. Think of Chinook as a world class session drummer: it's rarely alone in the spotlight, but it often sets the stage for its more flashy friends to steal the show. Look stage-left for an overtly pine-like aroma with a touch of mellow citrus.
- Try this beer: Stone's Arrogant Bastard is the first beer that comes to mind for me when I think of Chinook. Its hop flavor is potently pine-like and spicy.
Ready to read more about the Three Cs? I dug a bit deeper in this post.
A Few More American Hops to Know
Willamette: Bred from the English hop Fuggle to produce a mellow earthy spiciness. Brighter and more citrusy than its momma.
Citra: The name says a lot with this one. Packed with citrus flavor, Citra is a newcomer to the world of beer, released in 2009. Alongside an orangey citrus character is a fruit bowl of other aromas: mango, passion fruit, pineapple, and peach are all commonly used to describe this hop.
- Try this beer: Citra is famously used as the prominent hop in cult classics (read: tough to find) such as Citra Double IPA from Kern River Brewing and Zombie Dust from Three Floyds Brewing, but the hop's flavor shows up in more commonly available beers like Sierra Nevada's Torpedo Extra IPA as well.
Simcoe: Simcoe use runs rampant through the world of hoppy American beers. Its intense and complex aroma is often compared to grapefruit, pine, sweet onion, and tropical fruit.
- Try this beer: For an isolated taste of Simcoe, seek out Pennsylvania's Weyerbacher Double Simcoe, a double IPA that is made exclusively with the hop.
Mosaic: Mosaic has become an quick favorite in the craft beer world since its release in 2012. Its flavor is often likened to blueberries (I don't taste it), but it is absolutely packed with pungent pine and other fruity notes: tangerine, pineapple, and peach readily come to mind.
- Try this beer: Terrapin, Ninkasi, and Epic Brewing (the New Zealand one) have each already made single-hop beers with Mosaic, but expect many more as this hop grows in popularity.
Amarillo: With a punchy aroma of orange blossoms, Amarillo is a distinctive and popular hop in American beer.
- Try this beer: Look for Amarillo's presence in Three Floyd's Gumballhead or Green Flash Hop Head Red.
For a bit more on these hops, check this article out!
Australia and New Zealand
Hops from Australia and New Zealand can be woodsy and earthy or ultra-bright and juicy. Those falling on the fruit-forward end of the spectrum are well-loved in the United States for the booming lychee, Sauvignon Blanc, melon, lime, and passion fruit aromatics that they can impart to IPAs, pale ales, and other hoppy beers.
Hops You Should Know:
Nelson Sauvin (sometimes just called "Nelson"): Nelson Sauvin is named for its aromatic similarity to the Sauvignon Blanc wine grapes that are grown alongside these hops in the New Zealand region of Nelson. Expect big time lychee, melon, and gooseberry flavor.
- Try this beer: Thornbridge's Kipling (disclosure: my employer distributes this one) offers my favorite expression of the hop (except maybe that of the elusive Alpine Nelson), but it's popping up in all kinds of beers these days, including New Belgium's Shift Pale Lager.
Galaxy: Australia's Galaxy is most commonly associated with passion fruit-like juiciness, but its flavor can also have a peachy or orange tilt as well.
Motueka: Bred from Saaz parentage, New Zealand's Motueka has some of the spiciness associated with its Czech 'rents, but with a bright lime-like pop and some of the tropical fruitiness associated with it's kiwi brethren.