If you have ever sipped a beer and tried to describe the nuances of flavor and aroma then you’ve experienced the wonders of hop terpenes first hand. “Terpenes” are the chemicals that create the characteristic smells we associate with plants like pine, cloves, basil, orange and lavender.
In nature, terpenes influence the chances of plant survival. They may primarily attract pollinators and other helpful organisms, or they may repel the harmful ones. Humans have long been drawn to these powerful plant odors too and have used them to stimulate mood, affect breathing, repel harmful insects and even as plant medicines.
Hops are loaded with terpenes and these aroma chemicals can influence a finished beer depending on how and when the hops are added during brewing. As we learn more about the science and chemistry of terpenes, we can use this information to draw out the specific flavors and aromas of different hop varieties.
Let’s explore the 8 most common terpenes found in hops and what aromas you might expect when these terpenes dominate in a beer.
8 Most Common Terpenes in Hops
1. ẞ-pinene – fresh, woodsy, spicy
Beta-pinene (or β-pinene) carries the scent of fresh woods and spice. It is one of the most common plant terpenes in the world. From culinary herbs like parsley and basil to massive trees like cedar and pine, this chemical is one we are all familiar with. It tends to foster a sense of alertness and clarity for most people.
Hops with the highest levels of β-pinene include:
For example, Zeus has 1.4 and 1.5 times as much β-pinene as Crystal or Idaho 7 respective.
Caryophyllene is closely related to another hop terpene (Humulene). This terpene creates spicy and woody tones, but also has a sweet component like figs. It is common in many culinary plants like black pepper, cinnamon and rosemary, as well as being a strong component of cannabis and many hop varieties.
All three varieties have strong caryophyllene components that will contribute hallmark spiciness to your brew.
Humulene is the name-sake dominant terpene in hops, deriving its name from the Latin for hops (Humulus lupulus). This terpene is also commonly found in cloves, ginger, sage and black pepper. Humulene and Carophyllene are isomers – which means they are related by their chemical structure and activity. Humulene is also strongly associated with cannabis.
Hops with the highest level of humulene include:
Organic Crystal has 1.4 and 1.5 times the amount of humulene as BC Golding and Organic Liberty respectively.
Traces of farnesene can come through in beer that has been dry hopped using varieties high in this terpene. The scent includes traces of apple peel, and ginger, but it can also provide a citrus, floral and even spicy tone to beer.
Hops with the highest level of farnesene include:
Sterling has twice the amount of farnesene as Amarillo and 2.5 times more than BC Cascade.
Nothing smells quite like the sweet, floral, rosy, citrus contributions of geraniol! Found widely in essential oils such as lavender, rose, lime and orange, geraniol brings pleasant tones to a well finished beer.
Hops with the highest levels of geraniol include:
BC Centennial has approximately 1.6 times as much geraniol as BC Cascade, and almost double the amount found in BC Chinook.
Linalool occurs in more than 200 plant species and it is found among the 8 common terpenes associated with some hop varieties. With the soothing floral scent of lavender, and imparting fresh, sweet tones to the senses, linalool tends to illicit a sense of calm wellbeing and sleepiness when found in essential oils. Nuances of linalool include lavender, mint, herbal, rosewood, and fresh citrus.
Hops with the highest levels of linalool include:
Organic Nugget has about 1.2 times more linalool than Organic Liberty or Sterling.
Myrcene provides pungent earthy tones to beer, imparting scents reminiscent of cloves. However, it can also provide more nuanced scents that include lemon grass, basil and mango. This terpene is best known for its soporific (sleep-inducing, sedative) effects in higher concentrations.
Hops with the highest levels of myrcene include:
BC Tahoma has about 1.1 times more myrcene than either BC Comet or Citra.
Most commonly found in citrus fruits and their peels, limonene imparts a distinct citrus, even bitter, aroma and taste to a brew. Nuances may include rosemary, mint, fennel or even juniper notes. Limonene has many anti-microbial and anti-oxidant properties.
Hops with the highest levels of limonene include:
Zeus has about 1.2 times more limonene than either BC Centennial or BC Challenger.
More Than Just One Terpene
While it is interesting to dive down the terpene rabbit hole and ask questions about which hop holds the most limonene or caryophyllene, it is important to remember that each hop variety represents a complex blend of terpenes.
We are only just beginning to understand the human health benefits of hop terpenes and in what quantities they might provide active results. Beer as medicine is not a far-fetched concept. Research on cannabis, a close plant relative of hops, is leading the charge on terpenes, their uses and effectivities.
As you learn more about hop terpene aromas and characteristics, be sure to check out the best ways to describe beer so that you can share your thoughts with friends over a cool pint or two.
The 8 most common terpenes in hops are:
1. ẞ-pinene – fresh pine, woodsy
2. Caryophyllene – spicey, musky, cracked pepper
3. Humulene – hops, sage, herbal, ginger
4. Farnesene – green apple, herbal, ginger
5. Geraniol – floral, rose, light citrus
6. Linalool – floral, citric, fresh and sweet
7. Myrcene – citrus, earthy, grassy
8. Limonene – orange, citrus peel, fir needle, caraway
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