The Secret Life of Hops

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[Originally published in 2011, stats are not up to date, but still a good read. So read it.]

You probably know that hops provide much more to craft beer than just bitterness, but how much do you really know? After a recent trip to Hopunion’s Hop & Brew School in Yakima, WA,’s Andy Sparhawk returned with his mind officially blown! Here are just a few of his revelations about this amazing plant:

Hops grow clockwise, but not on vines. -Whaaahh?!

Hops are vigorous growers, averaging several inches a day at minimum. Maybe they shoot up because they plan their route? Hops always grow clockwise. On hop farms, they grow up heavy twine or rope, but in the wild they use other plants for support to get to sunlight. Oh, and hops are not vines, they’re bines. Whereas vines have suction cups and tendrils for support, hop bines have strong stems and prickly hairs to help in their ascent.

Some hops are alpha and others are aromega.

The hop market can be divided into two categories, alpha hops and aroma hops. Alpha hops refer to the higher percentages of alpha acid in certain varieties’ lupulin glands. Alpha hops provide more in the way of bitterness, while aroma varietals are lower in alpha acids and have a higher percentage of essential oils, which impart the characteristic flavors and aroma to beer.

In terms of harvesting, alpha hop yield is measured in kilogram of alpha per acre, while aroma hop yield is measured in pounds per acre. Craft brewers account for over 60 percent of the aroma hops market, but both categories have their use in craft brewing.

Hops can just up and burst into flames!

The immense pressure created by the weight of hop bales and super high levels of alpha acids in some varieties can make for a serious fire hazard. In 2006, Hopunion lost 2 million pounds of hops from spontaneous combustion. The fire added to the 2007-2008 hop shortage that greatly affected craft brewers. The majority of the hops destroyed were of the CTZ variety, which include Columbus Tomahawk and Zeus (CTZ’s are especially prone to combustion).

The good ol’ US of A grows 30 percent of the world’s hops.

Many grape growing regions claim exceptional terroir, and hops tend to be blessed by where they’re grown too. Typically German and Czech hops are known for being floral, while in the UK, hops are described as earthy. Here in the U.S., craft beers benefit from the country’s piney, citrusy and resinous hops like Cascade, Centennial and Amarillo®. In the U.S., 77 percent of hops are grown in Washington, while the majority of the rest are grown in Oregon and Idaho.

The average U.S. hop farm is 429 acres.

By comparison, the largest grower in the Hallertau region of Germany is 193 acres. The average size of all farms in Germany is 32 acres. There are 73 hop growers in the U.S. (twenty years ago there were nearly 200).

Ever seen hop seeds at the garden center?

And you’re never going to. Hop farmers never use seeds to grow hops because there is a fifty-fifty chance of growing a male plant. Hop cones only come from the female plant, making the male plants commercially worthless. So, with no seeds, hops are grown from potted plants or rhizomes. So one might wonder why when hops are portrayed as cartoons, they’re always a masculine monster-like hop?

It takes 11 years to create a new hop variety.

Originally, hop breeding programs were started to “maximize the potential of hop varietals in specific environmental conditions and to fulfill certain industry needs.” Translation: to make hops yield more in specific growing conditions and to develop hops that yield more bitter alpha acids.

Today, hop breeding programs are more focused on new flavors, but that can take a long time. For instance, initial research for the Simcoe® hop variety began in the early 1990s. However, most experimental hops will never make it to market. If they don’t make the cut, they are either bred into other experimentals or destroyed.

‘C’ Hops are supreme.

The Brewers Association surveys its members each year to determine what hop varieties are most often used by craft brewers. Chris Swersey, the Brewers Association’s technical coordinator, reported that in 2011, the top three utilized hops were Cascade, Centennial and Chinook. Chinook surpassed Willamette this year to take over the number three spot.

Craft brewers like their hops.

Swersey also reported that on average, a pound of hops goes into just one barrel of craft beer. With the growth in craft beer recently, I think it’s safe to say that craft beer drinkers like hops too.

Don’t smoke ’em, don’t eat ’em. (A PSA brought to you by Andy Sparhawk)

Humulus lupulus is in fact related to cannabis. Despite that, smoking and/or eating hops is not recommended—not even for medical purposes! Consuming hops in any way, other than in beer, can give you an upset stomach and a raging headache, but your pets are at a far higher risk as hops are often toxic to animals.

One thing hops do have in common with their controversial cousin is their calming effect. Hops were once used to fill pillows to help people sleep. Ninkasi Brewing Co.’s Jamie Floyd says that he always needs a hop buddy with him when he goes to pick up hops for his fresh hop beers. Not because of the company, but to keep him alert and awake. With a car full of hops, and a long drive back to Eugene, the soothing aroma would make anybody want to take a siesta.


IBUs  – Is that a brewing school?

IBU, or International Bittering Unit, is a value that refers to how much dissolved alpha acid is present in a finished beer. Basically, it’s a number that helps a brewer compare their beer to a given style specification. The higher the IBU rating, the more bitter the beer, right? This is not necessarily the case. Many people cannot taste bitterness in excess of around 100 IBUs. Plus, the IBU of a beer matters little to how each individual perceives the bitterness of a beer. It is also important to note that many factors affect hop utilization during the brewing process. The only accurate way to find out a beer’s IBU number is by sending it to a lab for testing, so most the time it’s just a brewer’s estimate.

Long story short, don’t let a number determine whether you try a craft beer or not, it’s just a number and has little to do with how your palate will perceive a beer.

A Letter to Hops

Dear Hops,

I feel like I don’t even know you anymore!  I only hope that what I have learned will bring me closer to you and craft beer in the future.



Andy SparhawkAndy Sparhawk, the Brewers Association’s Craft Beer Program Coordinator, is a Certified Cicerone® and BJCP Beer Judge. He lives in Arvada, Colorado where he is a homebrewer and avid craft beer enthusiast. On occasion, Andy is inspired to write on his experiences with craft beer pairings, and if they are not too ridiculous, you might see the results here on

Andy Sparhawk, the Brewers Association's acting editor-in-chief for Andy is a Certified Cicerone® and BJCP Beer Judge. He lives in Westminster, Colorado where he is an avid craft beer enthusiast. On occasion, Andy is inspired to write on his experiences with craft beer, and if they are not too ridiculous, you might see the results here on is fully dedicated to small and independent U.S. breweries. We are published by the Brewers Association, the not-for-profit trade group dedicated to promoting and protecting America’s small and independent craft brewers. Stories and opinions shared on do not imply endorsement by or positions taken by the Brewers Association or its members.