We talk a lot about hops when we talk about beer — hoppiness, hoppy flavors, hoppy aromas and hop varieties. Snooty beer bloggers (yes, they exist) go on and on (and on and on) about the flavors of particular hop varieties. They can get as wound up in the subject as snooty wine bloggers can about grape varieties. Does it really matter?

Talk to microbrewers—or even home brewers — and they’ll definitely tell you; the kind of hops you use will have a major impact on the taste and “feel” of your beer. So here’s a little hop primer to help you know what you’re going to taste before you drink (or brew) it.

First, what are hops? They’re a plant that grows like a vine, but which is actually called a bine. The part of the bine used in beer making is the hop flower. It looks something like a tiny, green, unopened pine cone, and it’s produced only by the female hop plant.

Hops can be used in their fresh-picked state, but that’s pretty difficult — so difficult, in fact, that entire festivals are devoted to making fresh-hop beers. The problem with fresh hops is they don’t stay fresh long, so you have to rush them straight from the field into the brewery, and most breweries just can’t handle the logistics.

So, the hops used in beer are mainly dried hop flowers, which is fine — no worse than using dried herbs when you cook. In fact, there’s a lot of similarity. And just as experienced chefs know what flavor basil or thyme or pepper or cloves will add to their food (and wouldn’t substitute one for the other), experienced brewers know what flavor a particular hop will add to their beer.

Hops also come in a processed, compressed “pellet” form frequently used by home brewers and there’s some debate about the pellets’ quality. They look like rabbit food (rabbits, hops, not going there…) but what counts is their taste. Most of my brewer-buddies think they’re just fine — less processed, in fact, than some other ingredients home brewers use (such as malt syrup) — and generally true to the original hops’ flavors.

Others, though, think they’re harsh and challenging to control during brewing. One friend drew a comparison between pellet hops and cake mix: Does a cake from a box taste as good as a cake made from scratch? Maybe it depends on the baker.

Personally, I see a similarity with tea: loose-leaf versus powdered instant. I prefer my tea to look like leaves, and my hops to look like flowers, but I’m here to talk flavors — not start an argument. So what do hops taste like, and should you care if your beer is made from one hop or six?

There are more than 40 American hop varieties — out of at least 80 grown worldwide — and they all basically add bitterness to beer. Where they vary is in their degree of bitterness and accompanying flavors (especially citrus and pine) and aromatics. Their bitterness comes from alpha acids, which reside in different percentages in hop flowers’ resin glands and are released when hops are boiled (with malted barley and water, of course). The longer the hops are boiled, the more bitter flavors they’ll impart to a beer.
Cascade, Centennial and Columbus are three popular varieties grown in Washington state which, along with Oregon and Idaho, produces the majority of U.S. hops (and the U.S. ranks second in the world, after Germany, in acreage devoted to hops).

Cascade is mildly bitter (4.5-8 percent alpha acids in a given weight of dried hops) and is known for its grapefruit aromas. Centennial has more pungent citrus aroma than Cascade and higher acidity (9-11.5 percent). Columbus has grapefruit aromas similar to Cascade and Centennial, but even higher acidity (14-18 percent) and with lengthy boiling can add resiny (pine tree) flavors to your beer. Chinook, also grown in Washington, is another piney hop, but with slightly lower acidity (12-14 percent).

It’s no surprise from their flavor profiles that Cascade, Centennial, Columbus and Chinook are all used in hoppy American Pale Ales, India Pale Ales, and those uber-hoppy brews with words like “2X IPA” on their labels. You’ll sometimes hear the high-acid hops referred to as “bittering hops,” because they primarily add bitterness to the brew — as opposed to fruit or spice.

At the other end of the acid spectrum are the “noble hops,” which differ from American varieties not only by their taste, but because they were not intentionally cultivated — they are wild hops named for the particular city or region where they were first discovered.

Noble hops are low in bitterness and high in aroma, hence their characterization as “aroma hops,” not “bittering hops.” They include varieties such as Hallertau, Saaz, Spalt and Tettnanger from the Czech Republic and Germany.

You’ll find noble hops in European-style lagers and pilsners, such as Cologne’s Kolsch or the widely available Pilsner Urquell, as well as in American versions — like Mama’s Little Yella Pils from the Oskar Blues Brewery, which uses Saaz hops (and is now on tap or in cans at numerous watering holes across Mobile). The low alpha-acid level in Saaz (2-5 percent) makes these beers feel light and gluggable, and there’s no grapefruit punch.

Bitterness aside, hops can add flavors of licorice (Mount Ranier) or blueberry (Mosaic) or grass (Palisade) or pineapple (Zythos). My favorite is Fuggles — similar to Oregon’s Wilammette — a British hop (with the world’s best name) used for both aroma and bittering (4-6 percent alpha acid). Fuggles actually is a parent strain of many U.S. varieties, prized for its grassy, floral aromas and slightly sweet flavor. You’ll find it in bitter ales from Yorkshire’s Black Sheep Brewery (another great name), at better local package stores.

Can you track 80 hops without a score card? It may take time but, with practice, you’ll learn which hops you like best and home in on beers you’ll love. Practicing with beer — what a concept.