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What are hops?

Hops are the green cone-shaped flowers, or “inflorescence,” of the Humulus lupulus plant. They’re a climbing perennial with a distinct jackpot for craft brewers. Hidden inside each cone are tiny yellow pods or glands called lupulin — the source of bitterness, aroma, and flavor in beer.

Two hands opening a single hop cone to show lupulin glands inside

Where hops are grown and sourced spans the globe; notable producers include Germany, Czech Republic, New Zealand, and North America. We use German hops, for example, toward several beers including Oktoberfest and Pale Bock. We’ve raced freshly picked New Zealand hops over the ocean to brew Southern Hemisphere Harvest IPA. But the majority of our supply is here in the U.S., where Oregon, Idaho, and Washington are the top hop-producing states.

Hops grow best in moderate climates with rich soil and abundant sunshine. Those ideal regions generally sit at similar latitudes on the world map, both northern and southern. At our brewery in Chico, Calif., we maintain 10 acres of certified-organic Estate hops, but the grueling summer heat and spotty rain pose big challenges. The Pacific Northwest is more favorable for hops with its milder weather and reliable precipitation.

Close-up view of hop cones growing at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

Looking down a row of Estate hops at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

What do hops smell like?

When brewers pick hops in the field during the annual harvest, we rub them in our hands — literally smashing the cones in our palms, releasing aromas we can smell to imagine them in our beers. (It’s a messy but totally magical time of year.) And there are so many types of hops that they smell like everything from fruits and spices to pine sap, coconut, and cannabis.

Sierra Nevada brewers rubbing and smelling hops during annual hop selection

What do hops taste like?

Just like brewers describe different hop aromas — fruity, tropical, resinous, etc. — hops taste that way in beer, too, depending on the style. A Hazy IPA, for example, typically goes big on fruity hop flavor while a pilsner-style beer uses hops that taste more floral and spicy. (And we’re talking “spicy” like black pepper, not chilies. It’s an earthy zip, not fiery heat.)

Hops in beer

Craft brewers are after the lupulin inside hop cones. Those sticky yellow glands contain resin that contributes bitterness to beer, which helps balance the sweetness of malt, and essential oils responsible for aroma and flavor.

Within the resin are acids that aren’t very soluble in water, so when brewers need to extract bitterness, they add hops during the kettle boil (the “hot side” of brewing) to release their bittering qualities. The essentials oils, however, are far more volatile and can boil away quickly. So when specific aromas and flavors are the goal, brewers often add hops toward the very end of the hot side, and into the “cold side” of the process (i.e., during or after fermentation, like with dry hopping).

Sierra Nevada brewer adding hops during brewing

There are many varieties of hops, much like wine grapes, and each has unique uses in brewing. Some hops are excellent for bittering (e.g., Magnum hops in Torpedo IPA, or Polaris in Powder Day IPA). Others have signature aromas and flavors that brewers mix and match like spices in the kitchen. Our founder Ken Grossman made Cascade hops famous with our classic Pale Ale, which brims with notes of grapefruit and pine.

Cascade also shows up in our Celebration IPA, but it unites with Centennial hops, bringing in additional layers of citrus and sweet floral notes. A newer hop called Citra is highly favored for its tropical fruit character, and it’s among the standouts in Hazy Little Thing IPA.

Young woman holding out a bottle of Sierra Nevada Celebration IPA

Benefits of hops

Hops offer such versatility to craft beer, with brewers able to dream up almost any flavors and bring them to life — invoking tropical fruits, fragrant flowers, herbal tones (think tea), freshly cut grass (really), and more. When you track the evolution of India Pale Ale (IPA), you see that American craft brewers especially have enjoyed pushing hops to their limits.

Hops serve other purposes in beer, namely providing inherent preservative qualities. The acids within hop resin are naturally antimicrobial, helping ward off spoiling bacteria during fermentation. And this defender role carries through to the finished beer, where hops also curb the development of off flavors.

This isn’t new science either; hops have worked hard for centuries. By the latter 1700s, British brewers learned to crank up the hops when shipping beer to faraway destinations. Those ocean journeys were long, and hops extended beer’s life.

What are hops used for?

While hops aren’t a kitchen staple, you might see them selectively incorporated into food — perhaps toward a marinade or, say, a sauce like pesto. The team in our Chico Taproom says we grind hops into our salt specifically to “add a little hop bite to our French fries.” Beyond that, “the bitterness hops create in food tends to be overpowering,” he says.

To be clear, cooking with finished beer is another story, lending itself to more culinary adventure. Hops no doubt may be part of the beer’s flavor profile, but you have more control over what characteristics transfer to the dish du jour.

We’ve managed to infuse hops into other playful products, like our Hops-n-Mint lip balm that features distilled hop oil, and aromatherapy soap with hops among the all-natural ingredients. Visit our online store to see what’s in stock.

And when it comes to fermentation, hops aren’t restricted to craft beer. We’ve recently started brewing Strainge Beast hard kombucha, and while organic fruits and botanicals are the headliners, organic hops also help bring these deliciously different flavors to life.

How far hops have come

More than 40 years ago, when Ken Grossman first introduced Pale Ale, he remembers “probably 90 percent of [people] or more hated it.” It went on to spark a revolution, and today IPA is by far the top style within craft beer. Hops lead the way, and we’re loving it.