1000 Flavors in Every Glass

1000 Flavors in Every Glass
(Or, did you know just how crazy hops actually are?)

Woody. Guava. Resinous. Piney. Floral. These descriptors come up frequently on tap menus, bottle labels, and as we try to pick apart what we drink. It’s exciting to know exactly how that monster IPA you just fell in love with is made, but sometimes the list of hops can lose meaning. Or, you might be the kind of drinker who sees 'tropical notes, with a hint of verbena and sunshine' in a beers' description, and think it's all made up.

What if those smells- those tastes- were created by the same stuff as what they remind you of?

Let's talk about hops.

What's inside a hop that provides flavor? Let’s science for a minute.

By weight, hops (depending on variety) contain 2-20% “alpha acids” and as little as 0.5% “essential oils.” Alpha acids are bitter, can take abuse, and stick around through a boil in the beginning of the brewing process to lend bitterness to a finished beer. Essential oils are often much more fragile- the earlier in the brewing process they’re introduced, the less they carry into the final aroma and flavor.

While there are several types of alpha acids, they share roughly the same character- bitterness, in our experience of taste and smell. On the other hand, there are a staggering variety of essential oils that can develop in hops. Even cooler, those oils break down, recombine, and play with one another in crazy ways to smack us in the face with the full range of flavors beer nerds excitedly pick out of hopped up ales and lagers.

How does the stuff inside a hop alter a beer's flavor?

According to a guy on the internet, synergy and masking is the fermentation magic behind hops’ purpose in life. In Stan’s words, synergy is where two or more compounds combine and interact to create something different. Masking is where one compound slows or stops the expression of another.

Different essential oils found in hops can break down or change one another in a variety of ways throughout boiling and fermentation. This leads to a complexity in your glass that brewers (and even beer scientists) can't always predict.

Even crazier, the way a particular hop will act in fermentation isn't set in stone. A crop of a single hop variety- say, Cascade- collected from several farms throughout Oregon and Washington, with the same overall amount of oils, can differ significantly in the proportion of essential oils, leading to completely different products after brewing.

Often, the beer we drink isn't dramatically different from batch to batch. However, it's amazing just how many microscopic changes play a part in just the flavoring hops bring to beer.

Give me some examples.

Everything so far is cool and makes sense (hopefully). But what's actually in our beer, producing all these unique flavors? And why do we say hops smell (or taste) like so many other things?

More than 1000 different compounds have been identified in labs. And that last, delicious DIPA I tried out. While there's a crazy number of oils in total, there are four main ones that come in your standard hop. Different hops will have higher proportions of certain oils than others, making them useful for different purposes.

The basic essential oils we can typically find in hops include:
  • Humulene
    Comes across as: woody, piney
    Also found in: pine, orange, tobacco, sage
  • Caryophyllene
    Comes across as: woody
    Also found in: black pepper, rosemary, basil, lavender, oregano, and clove
  • Myrcene
    Comes across as: green, resinous, piney
    Also found in: lemongrass, verbena, mango, bay leaf, cardamom
  • Farnesene
    Comes across as: floral (think Magnolias)
    Also found in: apple, orange, mandarin, basil, pear, ginger, nutmeg

After the four "main" oils, there are a ton more that occur in hops at smaller quantity, or which commonly get created through different parts of the beer crashing and combining.

A few of these include:
  • Geraniol
    Comes across as: floral, rose, geranium
    Also found in: geranium, lemon, rose, and citronella
  • Limonene
    Comes across as: citrusy, orange
    Also found in: lemon, orange, mint
  • Citronellol
    Comes across as: citrusy, fruity
    Also found in: roses, geraniums
  • Linalool
    Comes across as: floral, orange
    Also found in: mint, cinnamon, rosewood, citrus, and birch
  • Nerol
    Comes across as: rose, citrusy
    Also found in: lemongrass
  • Pinene
    Comes across as: spicy, piney
    Also found in: pine, eucalyptus

After all that hard work, you're ready for a drink, right? Hops are amazingly complex, and do some incredible things in our glass. Next time you sit down to a brew, take an extra sniff, and let that initial wash over your palate linger for a moment longer than normal. Those hops have worked hard to put on a show- and maybe you'll find something you haven't experienced before.


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