The importance of hops in today's beer cannot be overstated. With the exception of heavily roasted barley, assertive yeast strains and the occasional bonus ingredient, hops tend to be the majority contributors to the overall flavor of a brew.
Of equal import is the type of hop used. While one variety may come over the top with floral and citrusy aromas — best used in IPAs and other hop-centric beers — another may lend a subtle earthiness, adding depth and complexity, rather than bitterness and aroma.
With so many varieties, it's tough to know what's what. Fortunately for the would-be "lupulinologist" (yes, I'm coining that term), there are many single-hop beers around, along with quite a few beers using a blend of hops dominated by a particular variety. Here's a primer on the big players, along with some of the beers that you'll find them in.
Saaz: Along with Tettnanger, Spalt, and Hallertau, Saaz is one of the traditional European noble hops — hops low in bitterness but high in aromatic oils, giving beers a crisp, floral nose and delicate bitterness. This hop is widely used in traditional Bavarian and Czech beers. Pilsner Urquell, the original pilsner, is a great place to start. Victory Prima Pils uses a blend of four noble hops, including Saaz. This beer is more hop-forward than Urquell, while still showcasing the clean simplicity of Saaz.
Kent Goldings: The Goldings varities from Kent and East Kent, England, are British noble hops that are featured prominently in many English beers, such as Samuel Smith's Old Brewery Pale Ale and Fuller's ESB. These hops are relatively equal in balance between bitterness and floral aroma, making them a good all-around variety.
Fuggle: Another English noble hop (also from Kent) is Fuggle. It's more bitter than the Goldings, making it a good fit for IPAs and other heavily-hopped beers. It's a fairly mild hop, but in Fuggle-heavy beers such as Bass IPA, a pleasantly bitter finish lingers on the palate for quite some time.
The "Three Cs": Cascade, Centennial and Columbus — the building blocks of American pale ales and West Coast IPAs. These Pacific Northwest hops are characterized by grassy, citrusy flavors and extremely floral aromas. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is considered by many to be the classic Cascade beer, with its bright, grapefruit flavors, while more aromatic beers with less of a citrus bite, such as Bell's Two Hearted Ale, rely heavily on Centennial hops — sometimes referred to as "Super Cascade." For the ultra-floral, skunky Columbus hops, try Anderson Valley's Hop Ottin' IPA.
Simcoe: Another popular West Coast hop is Simcoe, from Washington state. This hop is distinguished by a pine-like earthiness, followed by a slow-burn bitterness. It's showcased well in Peak Organic Simcoe Spring Ale, as well as Russian River's legendary (but sadly not available in Florida) Pliny the Elder IPA.
Summit: Along with Simcoe, Amarillo, and Citra hops, Summit is a rising star in the West Coast pale ale scene. Colorado's Oskar Blues uses Summit lightly in its flagship Dale's Pale Ale, heavily in the bold Deviant Dale's IPA and exclusively in Gubna Imperial IPA. This hop is very polarizing among hop-heads due to its distinctive flavor, which some describe as onion- or garlic-like! Cisco Indie Pale Ale is a less extreme beer brewed with a healthy dose of Summit.
Chinook: Another classic American hop, Chinook, is characterized by a heavily bitter, dry flavor profile. Beers featuring Chinook often have a distinctive woodiness to them. Stone's classic Arrogant Bastard Ale uses a hefty amount of Chinook hops, while Full Pint Chinookie IPA is hopped exclusively with this bitter powerhouse.
With a little research (read: drinking) of your own, you may find that you're able to pick off specific hops in your favorite beers, which is both a really cool and almost completely useless skill. Most importantly, though, you'll have a much deeper understanding and appreciation of one of the most crucial building blocks of beer itself, and that's certainly nothing to be bitter about.