Beer 101: What Are Hops?

A closer look at one of beer’s four ingredients


About 15 years ago, the craft beer industry started gaining traction in the United States, says Detroit-native Ryan Brady, a New York-based brew master for Labatt USA. It’s also when our taste for hops began to take hold. Today, many beer varieties boast a “hop-forward” flavor profile, but for many people what that really means remains ambiguous. 

Hops are the dried female flowers of a vine known as humulus lupulus and share the family cannabaceae with cannabis. They are one of four ingredients in beer — the other three being grain, yeast, and water — and add both bitterness and aroma and contain preservative properties to ward against bacteria. They also help stabilize its foam. Bittering hops are typically added toward the beginning of the brewing process and impart namesake bitterness. Aromatic hops are generally added toward the later stages of the brewing process and contribute to the complexity of a beer’s flavor. Many serve a dual purpose.

According to Brady, the varieties of hops native to North America are naturally stronger than ones you might find in Europe. These include cascade and centennial hops, both of which have a strong grapefruit and pine presence.

Brady suggests the reason for Americans’ current affinity for hoppy beers is likely  our irreverence for tradition. “We are always looking for the next great thing,” he says. For years now, a solid IPA has remained that great thing.