Hops are the spice of beer, providing flavor and aroma. They also add bitterness to balance the sweetness of the malt, and they increase the shelf life of the finished beer. Getting to know beer? Get to know hops.
Native to the Northern Hemisphere, hops are in the same plant family as cannabis, as evidenced by both plants' production of small, fragrant nuggets of psychotropic resins. Hops grow on bines, which are like vines -- though bines grow only in a circular pattern around a support, making them very easy to train.
The cultivation of hops has been traced back to the 8th century in what is now the German state of Bavaria, yet hops weren't used in the production of beer until the 11th century. Before that, and going back to our earliest records, beer was flavored and preserved by an array of herbs, flowers, roots and spices, creating many brews that would be hardly identifiable today. The function of these ingredients was the same, however: flavoring the beer, bittering the malt and preserving the brew.
Ever seen that ad where Jim Koch of Samuel Adams noses around a hops field and says, "Hops are to beer what grapes are to wine"? While it's not quite an SAT-worthy analogy, it does make the point that there are different varieties of hops -- and that they are crucial to beer.