There are four basic ingredients to beer, but only three are essential: malted barley, yeast and water. However, beer made with only these three will be sickly-sweet and dull. Throughout brewing history, brewers have added something extra—usually a plant part of some sort—to give their beer balance and depth.
The plant part used in brewing beer is the hop flower, a delicate, pale green, papery cone full of perishable resins. They give a beer bitterness when used early in the brewing process, and aroma when added at the end. As a bonus, hops are a preservative, and extend the life of beer.
The hops we use in brewing is actually the flower of the hop plant, which is a member of the hemp family. The hops in the picture above are compressed pellets of hops flowers used specifically for beer brewing. Hops contain an essential oil with a very bitter flavor. This bitterness counters the sweetness from the malt to create a more balanced beer, and it also acts as a preservative.
To get a sense for hops flavor, try beers that are described as having a lot of hops or being high in hops. Work your way down to those lower in hops and see if you can pick out the flavor.
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