Stop and Smell the Hops: 4 Fun Facts About Hops and Your Senses

hop-hop cone-hop plant-hop nerd-hop head

Summer is a time for vacations and travel – things I have been busy with lately.

There has been plenty of time sitting in airports, on planes and by the pool, so filling it up with worthwhile reading makes everything a little easier. Naturally, I’ve been opting for something a little more educational than the normal easy beach reading.

for the love of hops-hops book-bookAmong the books I’ve been working through has been Stan Hieronymus’ For the Love of Hops, an incredible compendium of research and interviews on the history and science of this important beer ingredient. It’s chock-full of incredible information, most of which goes above and beyond my beer-loving head.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some easy, accessible things to learn from Hieronymous’ work. Instead of sifting through the pages yourself, here are just four cool tidbits I learned from the book about hops and our senses.

1. The Nose Knows

Ever wonder why so many hop heads adore the process of sticking their nose in a glass filled with an IPA? It’s because our noses are pivotal in our beer drinking experience. While we have four receptor types in our brain geared toward sight, we have about 350 active receptors for smell. Like the unique snowflake you are, not every person has same active receptors, which helps result in our wide range of palates and ability of sense.

2. Frankie Says ‘Relax’

Maybe the way to a man’s heart isn’t through his stomach, but his nose.

A beer lover’s sense of smell, unlike other senses, takes a unique detour after that first whiff of a beer. When taking a deep inhale of your next brew, consider this: your reaction is first routed through the right (emotional) side of your brain before the left (analytical) side. This is compounded when you drink beers with high levels of hop aromas, which have a significant correlation with creating a relaxed feeling.

3. Battle of the Sexes

Even if you still buy into the idea that women are the “fairer sex” there’s one undeniable thing they’ve certainly got on us men. Women are better at sensing different aspects of beer:

“Women (on average) detect odors at lower concentrations, are more likely to rate smells as more intense and unpleasant, and are better able to identify them by name.”

On a basic level, odor perception between men and women is differentiated thanks to the cellular architecture of brain structures associated with smell. During a test on using the Citra hop, Sierra Nevada found that men would comment on Citra’s smell in a simple means of “tropical fruit,” while women could narrow it down to “catty” and “tomato plant.”

4. Practice Makes Perfect

Whether you’re male or female and want to get better at identifying and understanding hops, plain old research and development is your best bet.

Much like the evolution of our palates as we drink a variety of beers and learn more about them, so too does our ability to detect hop characteristics. Practice smelling hops enough and your brain activity will adjust to help you better remember and ID aspects of hops.

What’s really cool is that even though the sense of smell is routed through the emotional side of your brain, practice (drinking/smelling/etc) begins to even out brain activity to be more analytical than emotional. This may help explain why beer judges can more easily be straight-laced and analytical whereas “non-expert” brains may be more wired to act emotionally to a strongly-hopped beer.

… but don’t take my word for it. Head out to your local bookstore, library or Amazon to check out For the Love of Hops. As a bonus, Hieronymous includes recipes for 15 beloved brews, including Dogfish Head’s Indian Brown Ale, Firestone Walker’s Union Jack and Victory’s Kellerpils. Homebrewers, rejoice!

+Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac


11 thoughts on “Stop and Smell the Hops: 4 Fun Facts About Hops and Your Senses

  1. I have to wonder if that relaxed feeling from smelling it is part of hops relation to marijuana?

    1. Ha! Hieronymous doesn’t overtly make any connections, but I suppose it’s possible. Someone else better equipped in the sciences may be able to elaborate, but I imagine the different makeup of the two means it wouldn’t be directly related.

      That said, you raise an interesting point…

  2. Stan’s book is such an awesome resource. My copy has so many flags and notes it’s kind of ridiculous. I just bought the “Yeast” book in the same series by Chris White/Jamil Zainasheff; hope it’s as good as FTLOH.

    For another, alternate but supporting view, check out Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire. He goes into depth about marijuana, and a lot of the smell/relaxation associated with cannaboids. Also just great writing and research about food and the mind.

  3. I’ve got this book sitting on my shelves. But it’s currently behind one of Pete Brown’s books and a book on Yeast in my reading queue.

    I had a friend who attended hop selection in Yakima for the brewery worked for. He grabbed a box of hops and put them in his car. On the way home, he started to get super drowsy and had to roll down his windows because the hops were relaxing him too much!

    1. That is the best story ever. I’m going to keep a little snuff-tin full of hops in my pocket at all times from now on.

      1. Fresh if you can get them! But I guess that’s also why they make hop pillows. Sleepy time!

    2. That’s it. The 4-month-old is getting a hops stuffed animal.

  4. Sounds like a great book. I like the Yeast book in the series as well.

    I agree that women may have better noses. Whenever I have trouble IDing smells in beer, I hand it over to my wife and let her smell it. It’s amazing how often we perceive the same beer differently, and how easily she pinpoints the aromas.

  5. I’m working on a lot of perfect (assuming that’s what a lot of practice gets you).


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