By Cold, Hard Football Facts contributor Lew Bryson
What does it mean when a beer is "hoppy"?
You can look at it from the brewer's perspective: It's a beer that uses a lot of hops in the brewing process. If it's got twice as many hops as another beer, it's probably hoppy. But that doesn't do us much good. We rarely know the hop amounts in a given beer, and let's be honest: Would it mean anything to you if you did?
Even if you don't have the inside brewing dope, you do have a highly sensitive analytical laboratory hanging off the center of your face. So smell the beer! Hops, like flowers, have a variety of aromas. If you smell pine, or citrus peel, or grass, or flowers, or an earthy spiciness, chances are that's hop aroma – you lucky dog. Only well-made, fresh beers with deliberately added fine hops have that distinctive aroma; you're in for a treat.
Now taste it. Even a beer that does not have hops aroma – either because it's not quite at peak freshness or because the brewer did not intend it to – can have plenty of hopsmack in your mouth.
Hops deliver on your tongue in two different ways. The rarer and more delicate of the two is hop flavor, which can be as variable as hop aroma, but almost always has a delicious fresh character to it; it almost tastes green.
The other hop component in your mouth is what hops are really there for, the whole point of putting hops in any beer, the reason this wild vine has been carefully, painstakingly cultivated: bitterness. People generally prefer sweet flavors over bitter flavors. Beer is one of those exceptions for a lot of folks. And if your beer is bitter, it comes from the hops. 
Hop bitterness keeps beer from being sickly sweet. Ever had Goya Malta soda? That's beer without hops (or yeast, which is why it's soda, not beer): thick, sweet, cloying. We add hops (or spices, or ox bile) to keep it balanced. Or we can add enough hops to over-balance it and make the bitter bombs, such as "imperial" India pale ale, that are currently popular with American beer geeks.
Hop bitterness also gives beer a come-on finish, as in "come on, have another." The bitterness sets you salivating, which makes beer go better with food, and helps you realize that you do indeed need another beer.
And that's what it means when a beer is hoppy. Good thing, right?
Past lessons at Sam Adams University:
Jan. 12, 2007 - Tiny Bubbles in the Beer
Jan. 5, 2007 - All About Malt
Dec. 28, 2006 - India Pale Ale
Dec. 21, 2006 - Ale vs. Lager
Dec. 14, 2006 - Dark Beers