Hops is the plant that gives beer its uniquely tangy and slightly bitter flavor and has been cultivated in Europe for this purpose since the Middle Ages. Hallertau, a valley in the German state of Bavaria, is the cradle of hops culture and continues to be the world's biggest producer.
Though its stems rarely become thicker than a pencil, hops can grow 50 feet in a season, sprouting anew from a massive underground root system each year. Its flowers, which resemble a small, soft, green pinecones hanging upside down are the part that is harvested for beer.
The cultivation of hops and its use in brewing beer is an art and science on par with the craft of wine production. There are at least 80 distinct varieties in cultivation today, each imparting a characteristic flavor and aroma to beer that is discernible to connoisseurs.
Hops is technically a bine, rather than a vine, which means it wraps its tender stems around whatever support is available rather having a woody stem with side tendrils that provide support. Bines are genetically programmed to grow in a spiral fashion, either clockwise or counterclockwise as they climb toward the sky. In the case of hops, the bines spiral in a clockwise fashion.