Hops are one of four ingredients used to make beer. In your “hoppy” styles, or overly-hopped beers, i.e. pale ales and IPAs, it plays a larger than a quarter role. Hops contribute many different things to a beer’s overall profile, so when you come up to the bar and order “something hoppy” or ask “how hoppy is that beer?” you could be asking for many different things. “I want an IPA that’s not too hoppy.” Is like ordering a steak that’s not very meaty.
One of the largest and most common agents of “hoppiness” is bitterness. Hop cones are rich in lupulin, which in turn is full of alpha and beta acids. When you add hops to wort (unfermented beer) at different stages of the process, it does different things. After you’ve added your grains and let those steep and all the relevant sugars are extracted, you boil that liquid and add hops. Typically boils last for about 60 minutes. When you add hops at the beginning of the process, those alpha acids get a chance to go through a process called isomerization. Beyond the chemistry, isomerized alpha acids are the base elements that taste bitter. The often used stat IBU or International Bittering Units is physically measured as parts per million of isomerized alpha acids. So an IBU of 10 means there are 10 parts per million of isomerized alpha acids.
Another common misrepresentation of “hoppiness” is the Pacific Northwest hop profile, which tends to highlight more piney, woody notes. In large quantities, those hops can err on the aggressive side. The rise of the west coast IPA in the 00’s definitely polluted the field a lot, with the style highlighting extreme bitterness and low malt character.
The rise of the hazy IPAs operates in stark contrast to the old west coast styles. While still hopped aggressively, the high oat and wheat content in the malt base contributes a softer body and the sweetness of the styles cuts back on the dominance of whatever bitterness prevails. One of the tenants of hazy/juicy IPA is that most of the hops are what’s called “late addition”, which just means they are added later in the boil. Most hops added within about 0-30 minutes left in the boil contribute aroma and flavor, and not much bitterness, as the alpha acids don’t have time to isomerize.
Hops contribute many different flavors into a beer. Like wine grapes, hops have an extensive variety that all taste and smell different. Different hop growing regions tend towards certain profiles, and hop characteristics of some regions can be interpreted differently by different people, while still not necessarily being “hoppy” by any vague definition of the word. Hopefully this helps in your choosing of Hoppy style beers as well as asking your beertender about them.