Flavor Profiles of Hops in Craft Beer

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So you’ve started on your path toward craft beer enlightenment, and you’ve sampled some of the best your supermarket aisles have to offer. However, there seems to be one style that stands in your way: the India pale ale. More commonly known as the IPA, this biting brew is perhaps as beloved as it is derided, and may have the steepest learning curve when it comes to enjoyment and appreciation.

The main barrier is arguably the flavor profile, which is commonly described as “bitter“ or “undrinkable,” thanks to the copious amounts of hops added to these beers. Indeed, IPAs are definitely top-heavy when it comes to the IBUs (international bitterness units) – but not all IPAs are created equal. While bitterness is unavoidable, different types of hops can impart drastically varying flavor characteristics – and work for or against your enjoyment of the style.

This handy guide serves to highlight some of the basic hop profiles you’ll find in craft beer today, along with examples of solid beers to help you get a feel for which intense beers please your palate. They may not all be IPAs, or even pale ales, but all of these hop-front beers serve as a way to enjoy those styles which employ hops the most.

The fresh and the Clean

If drinkability and clarity are what you look for in a pale ale, look no further than those brewed with these hops. Citrusy in character, hops such as the New Zealand-bred Nelson Sauvin and the much-revered Citra impart a mouth-watering tropical aroma and a bright, juicy flavor to IPAs – think mango, pineapple, orange, and grapefruit flavors. The result is a beer that is high on drinkability and low on bitterness, with a refreshing finish that makes you want more. Other examples of such hops include the delightful Mosaic and the incredible Amarillo, which smells and tastes like biting right into a ripe grapefruit.

Try these:

Alpine Nelson IPA – one of the best IPAs in the world, a tropical, clean rye IPA brewed with large amounts of Nelson Sauvin.
Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA – a widely available, juicy IPA brewed with Mosaic and Citra.
Kern River Citra IIPA – a highly sought-after, incredibly drinkable ultra-limited release imperial IPA brewed with Citra.
3 Floyds Zombie Dust – a mouth-watering American pale ale with citrus and pineapple notes thanks to the Citra hop.

The Dank and Resinous

If fresh, tropical flavors aren’t your thing when it comes to a good pale ale, you may be a fan of piney, herbaceous hops. Often viciously bitter and thick on the palate, these resinous hops impart the dank, signature flavor you’ve come to recognize in IPAs. They may rank low on the drinkability scale, but those who love intense floral notes in their beer will come to adore these options. Look for beers hopped with Centennial, Cascade, and Simcoe to get a good idea of what it tastes like to bite into a fresh pine tree.

Try these:

Alpine Duet IPA – a piney IPA brewed with Simcoe and Amarillo hops for balance and drinkability.
Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale – an incredibly balanced IPA entirely hopped with Centennial for a intensely bitter kick reminiscent of grapefruit peel.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale – the quintessential Cascade beer, this celebrated pale ale has all the textbook floral, herbaceous characteristics of the hop.
Troegs Nugget Nectar – an incredibly dank, malty imperial amber ale clocking in at a whopping 93 IBUs hopped with a cornucopia of hops to give it a wonderfully dank bitter backbone.

The Far-Out and Outside of the Box

If you tried a pale ale and hated it for its bizarre flavors, these hops may be what you’ve tasted. Summit, Columbus, and Sorachi Ace hops tend to sway more toward the resinous end of the hop spectrum, but large quantities of it in beer can impart an oniony, garlic-like taste. The Sorachi Ace hop is specifically known for its distinct lemon and dill characteristics, which can lead to a pickle-esque, umami flavor in IPAs.

Try these:

Oskar Blues Gubna IIPA – past batches of this imperial IPA were brewed with extensive amounts of Summit, and can be reminiscent of minced garlic to some.
Oskar Blues Deviant Dale’s IPA – an IPA brewed with a combo of Columbus and Summit hops for a nice bit of caramelized onion on the palate.
Brooklyn Sorachi Ace – a single-hopped Sorachi Ace farmhouse ale that can best be described as zesty.
Founders Devil Dancer IIIPA – a monster triple IPA coming at 12% ABV, this beast of a brew is dry-hopped with ten different hop varieties, in which some can clearly detect a distinct savory onion flavor.

These flavor profiles are basic, but they’re a good place to start if you’re looking to delve into the world of in-your-face, hop-heavy ales. While it can admittedly be difficult to distinguish specific hops in beers, staying on top of general flavor profiles can go a long way in enhancing your enjoyment of these artfully crafted ales.

Allen Park is a passionate part-time writer (and full-time drinker) of craft beer. As a proud resident of San Diego, the beer capital of the world, you can often find him sharing bottles with friends and drinking world-class IPAs at Toronado. Visit his Untappd profile for a peek at his life in craft beer paradise.

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