Much more than just a bittering agent, hops are the soul of beer. They balance the sweetness of the malt and furnish a refreshing flavor and pungent aroma to beer, and American craft brewers are experts at showcasing this spectrum of flavors that hops lend to beer.
There are a handful of hop-producing regions in the world, each with its own signature hop variety that has historically provided defining flavors for the region's brews. Here are a few broad categories of hop varieties and some suggested brews to try that will showcase their signature flavors:
The Noble Hops
The hops traditionally used by European brewers are now known as "Noble hops," and they are prized for their delicate and floral flavor. The most famous example is the Czech Saaz hops that are responsible for the herbal "zing" of the continental pilsners like Pilsner Urquell. Philadelphia's Victory Brewing makes Prima Pils, a pilsner aimed at hop-heads that exemplifies the spicy and aromatic qualities of the noble hop family.
The hoppy pale ales that gained popularity in the 19th century were defined by the soft herbal and earthy character of English hops. East Kent Goldings hops are most identified with British Ales, and the floral Fuggles variety is also commonly found in British-style bitters. Firestone Walker Double Barrel Ale is an excellent American craft example that showcases the rich earthiness of East Kent Golding hops.
Classic American Aroma Hops
Made famous by early craft breweries like Sierra Nevada and Anchor Brewing, the cascade hop is one popular American hop variety. Cascade hops are often seen used in the American pale ale style where they impart a piney flavor and citrus or floral aromas to the beer. The venerable Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Stone Brewing IPA are excellent showcases of the classic New World hop flavor.
Modern American Aroma Hops
Newly developed hop cultivars are all the rage in today's hoppy craft brews, and these modern varieties can add strong citrus and tropical fruit flavors and pungent musky, onion-like, or even catty aromas to beer. Varieties like Simcoe and Amarillo have become popular in IPAs, and perhaps the most intense is the Citra hop prevalent in Sierra Nevada's Torpedo IPA.
New Zealand Hops
Some of the most popular new hop varieties being used by craft brewers are the pungent and exotic examples grown in New Zealand. The bold, fruity flavors of these hops have been increasingly used by U.S. craft brewers who prize their unique flavors. Nelson Sauvin is a popular variety that exhibits a wine-like aroma and piquant tropical fruit notes; Alpine Brewing's sought-after Nelson IPA demonstrates the passion fruit and guava aroma of Nelson hops.
There are dozens of other varieties of hops that can be combined in countless ways when brewing beer, and growers are producing more new breeds each year. There is a hop flavor for nearly every taste, and experimenting with beers that utilize different hop varieties you may lead you to a new favorite.