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Hops are the female flower clusters, commonly called cones or strobiles, of the hop plant (Humulus lupulus). The hop is part of the family Cannabaceae, which also includes the genus Cannabis (hemp). They are used primarily as a flavoring and stability agent in beer, though hops are also used for various purposes in other beverages and herbal medicine. The first documented use of hops in beer as a bittering agent is from the eleventh century. Prior to this period, brewers used a wide variety of bitter herbs and flowers. Dandelion, burdock root, marigold and heather were often used prior to the discovery of hops. Hops are used extensively in brewing today for their many purported benefits, including balancing the sweetness of the malt with bitterness, contributing a variety of desirable flavors and aromas, and having an antibiotic effect that favors the activity of brewer's yeast over less desirable microorganisms.

The hop plant is a vigorous climbing herbaceous perennial, usually trained to grow up strings in a field called a hopfield, hop garden or hop yard when grown commercially. Many different varieties of hops are grown by farmers around the world, with different types being used for particular styles of beer.


The first recorded reference to hops was by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia. The first documented instance of hop cultivation was in 736, in the Hallertaumarker region of present-day Germanymarker, although the first mention of the use of hops in brewing in that country was 1079.Not until the thirteenth century in Germany did hops begin to start threatening the use of gruit for flavoring. In Britain, hopped beer was first imported from Hollandmarker around 1400; however, hops were initially condemned in 1519 as a "wicked and pernicious weed". In 1471, Norwichmarker, Englandmarker banned the plant from the use in the brewing of beer, and it wasn't until 1524 that hops were first grown in southeast England. It was another century before hop cultivation began in the present-day United States in 1629.

World production

Important production centers are the Hallertau Valley in Germany (which, in 2006, had more hop-growing area than any other country in the world), and the Yakima (Washingtonmarker) and Willamette (Oregonmarker) valleys in the United States. The principal production centres in the UK are in Kentmarker (which produces Kent Goldings hops) and Worcestershire. Essentially all of the harvested hops are used in beer making.


Hop bines are a climbing plant, similar to beans and peas in that respect. 'Training' (or twiddling) the bines up strings or wires supports plants, allowing the plants significantly greater growth with the same sunlight profile. Energy that would have been required to build structural cells is also freed for crop growth.

Male and female flowers of the hop plant develop on separate plants (dioecious). Because viable seeds are undesirable for brewing beer, only female plants are grown in hopfields which prevents pollination; female plants are propagated vegetatively or male plants are culled if plants are grown from seeds.

Until mechanisation, the need for massed labor at harvest time meant hop-growing had a big social impact. For example, many of those hop picking in Kentmarker, a hop region first mechanised in the 1960s, were Eastendersmarker. For them, the annual migration meant not just money in the family pocket but a welcome break from the grime and smoke of London. Whole families would come down on special trains and live in hoppers' huts and gradients for most of September, even the smallest children helping in the fields.

In Kent, the numbers of hop-pickers who came down from the city meant that many growers issued their own currency to those doing the labor. In some cases, the coins issued, often adorned with fanciful hops images, were themselves quite beautiful. As the currency could in the main be spent only at the company store, this was effectively a truck system.

Sonoma Countymarker in Californiamarker was, pre-mechanization, a major US producer of hops. As in other hop-growing regions, the labor-intensive harvesting work involved large numbers of migrant workers traveling from other parts of the state or elsewhere for the annual hop harvest. During the Great Depression, many workers were migrant laborers from Oklahoma and the surrounding region who had recently come to California. Others included locals, particularly older school children. Sometimes whole families would work in the harvest. The remnants of this significant hop industry are still noticeable in the form of old hop kilns that survive in Sonoma County. In part because of the hop industry's importance to the county, local Florian Dauenhauer of Santa Rosamarker, the seat of Sonoma County, created one of the earliest and most significant hop-harvesting machines but ironically this mechanization helped destroy the local industry. It enabled large-scale mechanized production which moved to larger farms in other areas.

As of 2005, the ten leading countries for hop cultivation (based on reported total production) were:
Hop producing country Output in tonnes (t)


Hops are dried in an oast house before they are used in the brewing process. Hop resins are composed of two main acids: alpha and beta acids.

Alpha acids have a mild antibiotic/bacteriostatic effect against Gram-positive bacteria, and favor the exclusive activity of brewing yeast in the fermentation of beer. Alpha acids are responsible for the bitter flavor in the beer.
Cross-section drawing of a hop
Beta acids do not isomerize during the boil of wort, and have a negligible effect on beer flavor. Instead they contribute to beer's bitter aroma, and high beta acid hop varieties are often added at the end of the wort boil for aroma. Beta acids may oxidize into compounds that can give beer off-flavors of rotten vegetables or cooked corn.

The effect of hops on the finished beer varies by type and use, though there are two main hop types: bittering and aroma. Bittering hops have higher concentrations of alpha acids, and are responsible for the large majority of the bitter flavor of a beer. European (so called "noble") hops typically average 5–9% alpha acids by weight, and the newer American species typically ranging from 8–19% aabw. Aroma hops usually have a lower concentration of alpha acids (~5%) and are the primary contributors of hop aroma and (non-bitter) flavor. Bittering hops are boiled for a longer period of time, typically 60–90 minutes, in order to maximize the isomerization of the alpha acids. They often have inferior aromatic properties, as the aromatic compounds evaporate off during the boil.

The degree of bitterness imparted by hops depends on the degree to which otherwise insoluble alpha acids (AAs) are isomerized during the boil, and the impact of a given amount of hops is specified in International Bitterness Units (IBUs). Unboiled hops are only mildly bitter. On the other hand, the (non-bitter) flavor and aroma of hops come from the essential oils, which evaporate during the boil.

Aroma hops are typically added to the wort later to prevent the evaporation of the essential oils, to impart "hop flavor" (if during the final 10 minutes of boil) or "hop aroma" (if during the final 3 minutes, or less, of boil). Aroma hops are often added after the wort has cooled and the beer has fermented, a technique known as "dry hopping" which contributes to the hop aroma. The four major essential oils in hops are Myrcene, Humulene, Caryophyllene, and Farnesene which comprise about 60–80% of the essential oils for most hop varieties.

Today there is a substantial amount of "dual-use" hops as well, which have high concentrations of alpha acids and good aromatic properties. These can be added to the boil at any time, depending on the desired effect.

Flavors and aromas are described appreciatively using terms which include "grassy", "floral", "citrus", "spicy", "piney," "lemony," and "earthy". Most of the common commercial lagers have fairly low hop influence, while true pilseners should have noticeable noble hop aroma and certain ales (particularly the highly-hopped style known as India Pale Ale, or IPA) can have high levels of bitterness.

Undried or "wet" hops are sometimes used.

Hop varieties

Particular hop varieties are associated with beer regions and styles, for example pale lagers are usually brewed with European (often German and Austrian, since 1981 also Czech) noble hop varieties such as Saaz, Hallertau and Strissel Spalt. British ales use hop varieties such as Fuggles, Goldings and Bullion. North American beers use Cascade hops, Columbus hops, Centennial hops, Willamette hops and Amarillo hops.

Noble hops

Mature hops growing in a hop yard (Germany)
The term noble hops traditionally refers to four varieties of hop which are low in bitterness and high in aroma. They are the central European cultivars, Hallertau, Tettnanger, Spalt, and Saaz. They are each named for a specific region or city in which they were first grown or primarily grown. They contain high amounts of the hop oil humulene and low amounts of alpha acids cohumulone and adhumulone, as well as lower amounts of the harsher-tasting beta acids lupulone, colupulone, and adlupulone.

Their low relative bitterness but strong aroma are often distinguishing characteristics of European-style lager beer, such as Pilsener, Dunkel, and Oktoberfest/Märzen. In beer, they are considered aroma hops (as opposed to bittering hops); see Pilsner Urquell as a classic example of the Bohemian Pilsener style, which showcases Noble hops.

As with grapes, land where the hops were grown affects the hops' characteristics. Much as Dortmunder beer may only within the EU be labelled "Dortmunder" if it has been brewed in Dortmundmarker, Noble hops may only officially be considered "Noble" if they were grown in the areas for which the hops varieties were named.

Some consider the English varieties Fuggle and East Kent Goldings to be noble. They are characterized through analysis as having an alpha:beta ratio of 1:1, low alpha-acid levels (2–5%) with a low cohumulone content, low myrcene in the hop oil, high humulene in the oil, a ratio of humulene:caryophyllene above three, and poor storability resulting in them being more prone to oxidation. In reality this means that they have a relatively consistent bittering potential as they age, due to beta-acid oxidation, and a flavor that improves as they age during periods of poor storage.

  • Hallertau or Hallertauer – The original German lager hop; named after Hallertaumarker or Holledau region in central Bavaria. Due to susceptibility to crop disease, it was largely replaced by Hersbruckermarker in the 1970s and 1980s. (Alpha acid 3.5–5.5% / beta acid 3–4%)

  • Saaz – Noble hop used extensively in Bohemia to flavor pale Czech lagers such as Pilsner Urquell. Soft aroma and bitterness. (Alpha acid 3–4.5% /Beta acid 3–4.5%)

  • Spalt – Traditional German noble hop from the Spaltermarker region south of Nuremberg. With a delicate, spicy aroma. (Alpha acid 4–5% / beta acid 4–5%)

  • Tettnang – Comes from Tettnangmarker, a small town in southern Baden-Württembergmarker in Germanymarker. The region produces significant quantities of hops, and ships them to breweries throughout the world. Noble German dual use hop used in European pale lagers, sometimes with Hallertau. Soft bitterness. (Alpha Acid 3.5–5.5% / Beta Acid 3.5–5.5%)

Other uses

The only major commercial use for hops is in beer, although hops are also an ingredient in Julmust, a carbonated beverage similar to soda that is popular in Sweden during December, as well as malta, a Latin American soft drink. Tom's of Maine deodorant uses hops for its antibacterial activity. Hops are also used in herbal medicine in a way similar to valerian, as a treatment for anxiety, restlessness, and insomnia. A pillow filled with hops is a popular folk remedy for sleeplessness. Hops may be used alone, but more frequently they are combined with other herbs, such as valerian. The relaxing effect of hops is largely due to a specific chemical component: dimethylvinyl carbinol. Hops tend to be unstable when exposed to light or air and lose their potency after a few months' storage.

See also



  1. University of Minnesota Libraries: The Transfer of Knowledge. Hops-Humulus lupulus.
  2. Understanding Beer - A Broad Overview of Brewing, Tasting and Analyzing Beer - October 12th, 2006, Beer & Brewing, The Brewing Process
  4. NCGR-Corvallis Humulus Genetic Resources
  5. [1]
  6. Untitled Document
  7. Interactive Agricultural Ecological Atlas of Russia and Neighboring Countries. Economic Plants and their Diseases, Pests and Weeds. Humulus lupulus.
  8. Connie's Homepage - Hop Picking in Kent
  9. George Orwell: Hop-picking
  10. Charles Levett Hop Tokens, 60 Bushels Denomination, The Fitzwilliam Museum,
  11. B.12.11.02.Tableau Global.xls
  13. Hop growers union of the Czech Republic
  14. Plants for a Future: Humulus lupulus
  15. Bourne, Edmund J. (132). "Natural Relief for Anxiety".


  • University of Vermont Extension System
Department of Plant and Soil ScienceGrowing Hops in New England – COH 27Leonard P. Perry, Extension Associate Professor

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