Hop Oil (Hop Essential Oil) or Hop Terpenes? What’s the Difference?

While you don't need to understand terpenes to appreciate a good beer, knowledge of terpenes, hop oil (and hop essential oil) can give you new tools for selecting hop varieties. Let's take a look at hop oil and terpenes to understand the difference between these two aspects of hops and . . . .

Essential oils have become relatively familiar to most of us thanks to a booming aromatherapy industry.  You may know that essential oils are concentrates that carry the “essence” of the plant to you in the form of a strong characteristic smell.

“Lavender essential oil” , for example, smells like lavender flowers and can be used to promote a sense of calm. The essential oil of hops – or hop oil – smells like fresh hop cones.

But what are terpenes then? 

In the world of beer and brewing, terpene talk is on the rise because of the commercialization of specific hop terpenes in liquid form. These concentrates can now be used in addition to, or in place of, dry hopping to affect the hoppiness of the beer.

With terpene names like linalool, myrcene and caryophyllene, it’s easy to get turned around as to what you should really be focusing on when it comes to dry hopping or adding terpenes. 

Let’s take a look at hop oil and hop terpenes to understand the difference between these two aspects of hops and how they are used in making great beer.

What is hop oil?

Hop oil (also known as hop essential oil) is derived from the hop cones, or flowers, of the hop plant, much the way lavender essential oil is derived from lavender flowers.  These essential oils generate the familiar aroma and taste related to the hoppy characteristics of beer.

Because these oils are derived from the whole hop cones, they represent the unique and complex combination of chemicals (known as terpenes) that produce the distinct waves of scent for that type of hops.

For example, when BC Cascade is described as “citrus, spicy and floral” that is the aroma of the hop essential oils, or “total hop oil”, for this variety.  Each one of those dominant scents is created by one or more specific hop terpenes found in the BC Cascade hop plant. These terpenes interact with one another creating the nuanced aroma for BC Cascade.

Hops growing in a field at Lillooet BC
Hop oils are affects by variety and growing locations (Photo: HOOH)

What are the “Total Oils” of a hop variety?

The term “total oil” reflects the amount of essential hop oil present in a given hop variety.  This may range from 0.5 to 4% of the hop cone. Total oil content can be impacted by hop variety, growing location, and other factors. The higher the total oil value, the more aroma potential the hop variety has.

However, just knowing the amount of total oil alone does not tell you what the dominant scent or flavor of that hop variety will be.  To understand what to expect from a specific hop, you need to know which aromas are dominant in the variety. 

In the past, this scent description work was done primarily by people with sensitive noses and a gift for describing aromas.  Today, thanks in a large part to the advancements made with cannabis, hop aromas can now be described by their terpene content. 

By knowing which terpenes dominate in the total hop oil, you can make better choices on how and when to add that hops to your brew and create the hop-forward beer you’ve been chasing.

Hops with the highest total oils include:

Idaho Gem

Organic Centennial

BC Comet

What Are Hop Terpenes?

If hop essential oil is the total aroma profile of a hop variety, then hop terpenes are the specific chemicals found naturally in the hop plant that create the components of those aromas and flavors.  A terpene is a plant chemical that has been isolated, purified and liquified to create an extract that is associated with one signature aroma of that plant.

Because hop varieties that are used for making beer are indeed “types of hops” – aka they are all types of Humulus lupulus –  they all share the same basic list of terpenes that are common to the species.

What makes one hop variety stand out from another is the amount of each terpene, and the combination of dominant terpenes, that create the unique flavor and aroma profile.

close up of lavender flowers
Both hops and lavender contain the terpene “linalool” (Photo by Janine Joles on Unsplash)

Take Linalool For Example

The terpene “linalool” is a naturally occurring component of hops which creates a fresh, sweet floral aroma.  It is also a dominant component of lavender.  Researchers are still determining how the linalool terpene differs when it is purified from hops compared to lavender, cannabis or other plants. In other words, the source plant of the terpene may be important to its performance in beer . . . . . or not.  But either way, the use of terpenes in beer is on the rise.

Some hop varieties, whether through breeding or happy wild accident, may contain a unique terpene component, or terpene combination, that imparts something quite different from the normal array of hops on the market. 

Check out Idaho Gem as one such happy wild accident, with its unique red berry aroma!

Analysis chart for Idaho Gem

Check out Idaho Gem

Since terpene content and total oils can vary by harvest year and location, it can be important to review a recent analysis to know just what you are getting in the batch. Sign up for a HOOH Membership to see the details for each hop product we have for sale.

How do Hop Terpenes affect beer?

The hoppiness or bitterness of a beer is determined by how and when hops are added during the brewing process.  Dry hopping tends to preserve more of the terpenes in the final beer resulting in stronger aromas and nuanced flavors.

Hop oil can also be used either in addition to, or instead of, the dry hopping stage to boost flavor and aroma. Dry hopping methods tend to boost flavor without boosting bitterness, and the addition of hop oil at this stage works in much the same way.

More recently, the creation of specific hop terpenes as liquid extracts means new flavor and aroma combinations are possible outside of the standard hop varieties currently on the market. Because the terpenes are isolated chemicals, most will not increase the bitterness of the beer, but they will boost their particular flavor component. Experimenting with these new terpene concentrates will likely keep beer lovers lining up for the latest innovations for many years to come.

draft beer pouring into a glass
Adding hop terpenes boost the flavor and aroma of beer (Photo by BENCE BOROS on Unsplash)

Do Hop Terpenes have health benefits?

Many plant essential oils and terpenes have health benefits which may include anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, analgesic, memory enhancement, and other properties.

The relationship of hops to cannabis (same plant family) means that many researchers are interested in determining the activity of specific hop compounds. It also means that one day your beer may be able to provide specific medicinal benefits as well.

The Difference Is The Glass

Whether the beer you are drinking contains traditional natural hops, purified hop essential oils or added hop terpenes will become clearer after you take that first sip. 

Natural hops, loaded with hop essential oils, provides the fundamental aroma profile of your beer. Added essential hop oils can increase the hoppiness and aroma of the drink, usually without added bitterness. If hop terpenes have been added, you should expect an added pop of flavor and aroma, a stronger aromatic finish that lasts longer, or an unexpected twist to the drink in your hand. (Learn to describe beer like a pro with these tips.)

While you don’t need to understand hop terpenes to appreciate a good beer, knowledge of terpenes does give you a new tool for selecting the hop varieties for your next brewing adventure.  Check out the HOOH Hop Shop for details on hop varieties, their total oils and terpenes. Then raise a glass to your next beer adventure.

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