Craft Beer 101: A Basic Guide to Hops

In any conversation about craft beer, you’re likely to hear beers described based on their hops. “Dry-hopped,” “Smack your face with hops,” “light hoppiness,” etc. Hops are an integral part of any beer; some are more intensely hopped than others, and each hop varietal has its own purpose and flavor.

Whether your tastes veer towards the bitter, highly hopped or you prefer a maltier, more mellow brew, learning about hops’ role makes it easier to discover palate-pleasing beers.


Hops are flowers produced from a plant very similar to those of the marijuana family. Unlike Mary Jane, hops won’t make you “high” so forget that notion immediately. Way back when, it is believed that hops were added to beer as a primitive preservative while people were trying to create a safe beverage. But over time, hops were established as a bittering agent used predominately for taste over preservation.

The oil that hops emit provides the bitterness — not the flower shaped hops themselves. In many beers, the bitterness of the hops alone is counteracted by the malt used and vice versa creating a harmonious balance of flavors.

For example: Most stouts have fewer hops and more malt while IPAs of have more hops and less malt — each creating the desired flavor profile per their style.

When beer’s “hoppiness” is measured, a scale called the  international bittering units or IBUs is used to determine the hoppiness level of a beer. A beer with higher IBUs is more bitter while a lower number indicates a maltier or less hoppy beer.

When it comes to brewing, hops are added are different points and sometimes multiple points throughout the process. For example Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA is hopped continuously at intervals for 90 minutes, hence its name.

While Sam’s explanation is all fine and dandy, it wouldn’t be complete without a background on bittering and aroma hops.

It can be broken down to this:

  • Hops meant for bittering are added early in the brewing process and are meant to counteract the malts.
  • Hops added later in the process are intended to affect the aroma of the beer.

For many people, how a beer smells can affect the way its judged, even before it’s tasted. To say that each hopping style is vital would be an understatement.

Dry-hopped IPA firkin at McGrath's

Dry-hopped IPA firkin at McGrath’s

At a bar, you may hear that a beer has been dry-hopped. (We see this a lot with firkin specials locally). For clarification, this doesn’t necessarily mean that dried out hops were added to a brew. Instead, this means that hops were added at the very end of the process so that they would give off a bright fresh flavor instead of a dried, cooked flavor. Usually these hops are added during the fermentation process in order to fully enhance their aroma and flavor once the beer is finished.

So what hops do you like? Well that comes down to flavors:

  • Citrusy hops: Looks for the C’s: citra, chinook, centennial, crystal
  • Spicy and herbal hops: German, fuggle, perle, nugget

If you stumble across a beer and aren’t sure what hops are in it, you have many resources ahead of you.

First, try the brewery’s website for their official description of the beer. Second, check rating sites like BeerAdvocate and RateBeer to see what everyone thinks. Smartphone app UnTappd is another resource for ratings and reviews. Or, even use the old phone-a-friend method to see what they think. After all, beer lovers love to talk about beer!

Happy hopping!

A version of this post can originally be found at Thanks Sara!

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