How Important are Hops in Beer?
It’s hard for most beer drinkers to imagine their favorite beers without hops. Just like yeast and water, hops are an essential ingredient in virtually every type of beer on the market.
While hops are undeniably a staple in modern beer, just how important are they really? What do hops add to the world’s most popular alcoholic drink, and can beer really be considered beer if it isn’t brewed with hops?
What are Hops?
Hops are a one hundred percent natural ingredient. They are small, aromatic flowers that grow on large climbing plants in a pinecone-like shape.
The flavor that hops contribute to beer comes from tiny glands in the flowers that are filled with a sticky substance called lupulin. Lupulin includes essential oils and acids that are responsible for the flavors, aromas, and bitterness that hops add to beer.
What Role do Hops Play in Beer?
In beer, hops are a multi-functional ingredient. Hoppier beers are more flavorful, more valuable, and have a longer shelf life than less hoppy varieties.
The main role of hops in beer revolves around flavor. Hops are the most flavorful ingredient in most modern beers, adding flavor, aroma, and bitterness to counterbalance the sweetness of each brew. Not all hops contribute the same flavors or level of bitterness. Different varieties of hops vary widely in flavor—including spicy, floral, citrusy, piney, herbal, etc. This variety adds to the attraction of hoppy beers and helps them appeal to a wider range of palates.
While hops are not technically crucial to the creation of beer, beer brewed without hops would have a very dull, sweet flavor that would be unfamiliar and unsatisfying to the palates of most modern beer lovers. Above any other essential ingredient, hops are what give beer its classic flavor.
Hoppier beers are more valuable than beers with a weaker hoppy flavor. Modern beer drinkers—especially craft beer drinkers—increasingly prefer hoppier beers to less hoppy varieties.
Due to increasing demand from consumers, hops are becoming more rare—which in turn further escalates the demand for hoppier beers. Beers with a strong hoppy flavor— especially those that incorporate unique, rare varieties of hops—are celebrated by beer tasters, craft beer drinkers, and other beer connoisseurs.
IPAs—India pale ales—are an excellent case in point of the increasing popularity and value of hoppy beers. IPAs are unique, bitter, flavorful hoppy beers that have experienced raging commercial success in the craft beer industry. In recent years, IPAs have become some of the best-selling beers on the market and have developed a cult following specifically among craft beer consumers due to their intense hoppy flavor.
Many modern breweries pride themselves on the level of hops in the beers they produce and sell. IBUs—international bittering units—are the units of measurement for the concentration of hops in different beers. Many breweries advertise their beers as having high IBUs and use these high concentrations of hops to add value and attract attention to their beers.
In addition to adding flavor and value to beer, hops also act as natural preservatives in beer. Hoppy beers stay fresh and retain their flavor longer without requiring the incorporation of unnatural preservatives, which allows these beers to maintain their purity without artificial ingredients.
Are There any Alternative Ingredients to Hops?
Hops have not always been an essential ingredient in beer. Beer itself predates the incorporation of hops by more than six thousand years. In fact, beer is thought to have originated approximately seven thousand years ago, and the first evidence of the use of hops in beer stems from less than a thousand years ago in the 11th century.
Today, only hopped malt beverages are considered to be beer. Before hops were used to make beer, however, alternative ingredients were incorporated into the brewing process to add flavor to beer and mask the unpleasant dull taste that water, barley, and yeast create on their own. Various blends of herbs and spices were the most common alternative ingredients to hops. Although beer once existed without hops and incorporated other natural alternative ingredients for flavor, modern beer without hops would be unrecognizable.
While hops are certainly an important part of modern beer, they are not necessarily the most crucial ingredient. In fact, the most important ingredient in beer is widely debated. Of the four basic ingredients used to brew modern beer—water, barley, yeast, and hops —hops are the only ingredient that can be left out or substituted and still produce a fermented beverage as a final result. That being said, most beer connoisseurs would agree that beer is not worth brewing without hops and the unique flavors, aromas, and bitterness these tiny flowers add to every brew.