Beer School: What about Hops?

Welcome to beer school. We will show you how beer is made, what goes into it and what makes it magical.

Hops is a summertime flower. A long-lost cousin of cannabis. First added as a preservative for their natural oils. Now they have become a dominant flavor to all kinds of beers. On a brewer’s hand, they are a core of bitterness, a bringer of citrus. Those big aromas and flavors are largely responsible for the growth of modern beer as we know it.


We are not talking about SARS as anything that is going to wipe out the entire human race. We are talking about SARS as in hops which are made famous in Pilsner style beers. The mother hops if you will. You’d be amazed how many hops need to go to a beer. Very heavy hop beer like an IPA can have kilograms of how at every point in the brew.

A branch of hops and 2 glasess of beer

There are four main ingrediants in beer.

  • Water to make it wet
  • Malt to give it sugar
  • Yeast turning those sugars into alcohol
  • Hops making everything more bitter and flavorful.

Hops were used sparingly when first discovered. They kept beers fresh for longer. All initial hops were super versions born from inter-breeding old school British, German and Czech hops. In case you want to refresh your knowledge on other brewing ingredients check our Learning to Homebrew Lesson 2. Brewing Ingredients.

The International Bittering Unit IBU

Two glasses of beer inspected for their IBUs

Hops are actually flavors called cones. They are picked every year and then dried and sent to brewers. When you dry them you concentrate on the aromas that are in them. Inside all these cones are oils called alpha acids and they make beer have a really bitter finish at the end. Each time you are adding flavors you are adding bitterness to the beer.

The bitterness varies from different varieties so you can have a hop with very low alpha acids which could be about 4-5 % only. To work it all up to big American hops which are about 15 %.

Chart showing different types of beers and their international bittering units

International Bittering Unit is a measurement of how bitter a beer is. For an IPA thats probably going to be about 70 to 80. A Pilsner its going to be down to 35 to 40. Along with pales and macro lagers will go all the way down to 7 to 10. Beers like Budweiser are not really bitter at all because they are meant to be drank quickly.

Adding hops

There are points in the brewing process we can add hops.

The first addition is always at the start of the boil. So you’ve got your wort where you’ve extracted the sugars from the malt and you add hops and the start of that. It’s called bittering addition. The number of flavors coming out of it is huge. You need to pick your alpha acids very carefully to get the right amount of bitterness.

You can add it at the end of the boil and usually have a couple of additions depending on what flavors you want to add. At this point, you’d adding your aromatic addition so you get all of the aromas.

While 40 years ago in the UK pretty much all beer smoked of caramel and toast now things are much more tropical.

Cascade hops add grapefruit.

Amarillo hops gives an orange flavor with bitterness.

Citra hops had massive pine and mango scent.

Goulding’s hops are smoother, spicier and subtly citrusy.

Fresh hop flowers, and pelletized hops in a wooden spoon with a bowl of grains

Dry Hopping

This technique is very popular at the moment. Particularly in the IPAs because it adds so much aroma, but not much bitterness to beer. When you are using hops it’s a very expensive process and that’s why the bigger breweries don’t do it that much. Smaller breweries want to do it because that’s where so much of the flavor is.

SARS is a relatively subtle hop but still provides many flavors. It is known as a noble hop which comes from the old world with a low alpha acid bitterness but lots of aromas. We hope that you have learned more about hops. Without them, beer would never taste as great as we like to make it. Cheers.

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