I recently returned from two days of nonstop talking about hops, hopping, hops oils, hops resins, pellet hops, leaf hops, hop shots, iso-alpha hops extracts, hop farming, and hopping methods.
As a result, I really don't want to write about hops today, but...
I noticed a real (and probably faulty) bias in lots of the folks I spoke to on my trip about what we're getting out of mash, first-wort, and boil hops, which is that they would often talk about these hops in the context of significantly increasing aroma and flavor. They're not wrong, really - it's just that they're overly-optimistic. I found myself repeating what I thought was a useful conceptual approach to hopping, over and over again, this past weekend:
In (or before) the boil, they're all bittering hops.
If you're using those additions to develop moderate-to-high levels of hops flavor and aroma, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. Like a sequel to the classic film Zombeavers, it just ain't going to happen, no matter how badly you want it to.
It's Getting Hot in Here: Utilization and Volatility
Hops have two things we care about (beyond odd names we can't pronounce): resins and oils.
We talk a lot (too much, probably) about resins, specifically alpha acids, and their role in producing bittering in beer. Alpha acid isomerization (by boiling) isn't terribly complicated - the longer they boil, the higher the utilization of those acids you'll yield, up to a practical limit of about 30%. What's worth noting, though, is that you pretty rapidly (20-ish minutes) hit 15% utilization, or about half of the max. Practically, this means that you get the bulk of your bitterness from that initial rapid rise in utilization, and the rest of your 60-240 minutes of boiling is yielding diminishing returns.
That same kind of rapid reaction is volatilizing your hops oils, and just as rapidly (or faster). Of the oils we care about that add nice flavors and aromas to our hops, nearly all undergo a rapid process of getting-the-f***-out-of-your-beer when you boil them, because the temperatures at which they volatilize are generally much lower than the 212F you're boiling them at (some go as low as 140F or below). Within 15 minutes nearly all are at less than half of their initial concentrations. Linalool - a nice floral, lavender aroma - hits that mark in six minutes.
The upshot here is that even short-added hops are still yielding most of their bittering potential and losing most of their flavoring potential.
In the boil, it's just not productive to think in terms of "early-bitter, middle-flavor, late-aroma" hops. In the boil, they're all bittering hops.
Low and Slow
None of this matters for lots of recipes, because in a great many styles we don't actually want much more than the bittering out of our hops. We want accents and hints of hops flavor, not pronounced impressions of it.
in a more and more hops-forward world, though, I see people actively trying to make even traditional malt showcases with big hops aroma and flavor. If you want to do that, that's great - but don't try to make new-fashioned beer the old-fashioned way.
If you want anything more than low or medium hops character, add those hops post-boil, pre-chill.
After the boil, let your beer sit until it drops under 170F, then go to town. At those temps you're adding minimal bitterness, but extracting and preserving the oils (and flavors) you want. Let them sit, too - longer is better, up to about 20 minutes.
Consider the "less is more," approach, too - when Sapporo played with this stuff and published their results, they found that a lower level of dissolved oils in some beers gave more flavor. Weird.
I usually use less than an ounce of anything added then, and then adjust in subsequent recipes.
Dry hopping in addition to using post-boil/pre-chill hops will intensify flavor and aroma again, but be conscious of the other plant-based flavors and textures you're adding, too. Dry hopping is not identical to post-boil hopping, though, so make a conscious choice to do one, the other, or both.
Make What You Want
New brewers often work from pre-existing recipes, and with good reason: they often model already-successful beers, and we all need to learn from something when we're just getting started. After a while, though, you should be thinking back from the finished product instead of forward from the recipe.
Decide what you want to drink, and then design a recipe and process that gives you the best chance of getting that.
And if what you want is big hops, then you should definitely be thinking more about what happens after you kill the burner than what happens before you spark it up.
Keep it simple.
Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link! Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).