Hunting and Finding (New) Rules of Thumb in Hopping

For as much time as brewers spend talking about hops, you'd assume we know all about them.  The bizarre reality is that we know surprisingly little about how hops work, what they add in terms of flavor, and the effects of different treatments and manipulation of them.  

Don't believe me?  Spend some time digging into the scientific research into hops.  You'll soon start wondering about the competence and sanity of the brewers who never miss a chance to talk up their hopping process, their proprietary hops and blends, and how they use X hop to get Y flavor.  If we know so little, they must be completely snowing and bullshitting us.  How dare they!

That's right - you heard it here first.  I'm calling out ALL professional and home brewers and saying they're all LIARS!  

No, not really (though I'd love to stop the post there and see what kind of reaction we get).  They're not lying.  They're probably not even wrong.  It's just that hop usage and what comes out of it is super-idiosyncratic: if the non-lying brewers in question produce similar recipes with changes in hop type and/or use, they can dial in flavors they want.  What we shouldn't do is necessarily assume that what works for that brewer will work the same way for us, because there's a very good chance it won't.  

Today's offering will (at least attempt to) provide some actual translatable lessons that can put up some signposts on the solipsistic road that brewers find themselves on when it comes to hops.

Two's Company

I'm an intense advocate for blending your hops.  Single-hop beers are all well and good, and have the virtue of taking the guesswork out of where hops-derived flavors are coming from in a particular beer, but their utility is limited for recipe and even for education purposes.  

You're not getting a general impression of one hop - you're getting one impression of one hop, since the point of addition, length of whirlpool, water chemistry, yeasts strain, grist, and more are creating a unique flavor and aroma.  Hell, that specific batch of hops and its oil ratios matter, too, both in terms of how it presents and what compounds are created when its added and fermented-on.  And as for single-hopping for recipe purposes, you're putting all of your flavor/aroma eggs in one hop basket, which is risky since we know that other process and recipe elements can scrub out flavors from a hop that you presumably chose for its flavor profile.

Instead, I recommend pairing hops for better results, at least if you're not willing to put in the repeated-batch-brewing necessary to find effective single-hopping (remember, you'll need to find out for yourself how that hop presents in YOUR beer in THAT recipe).  You can either pick hops with complementary flavors (for example, I love the Hallertau-Northern Brewer combo for its woodsy and floral presentation) or those that amplify common flavors (say, Citra and Motueka for a big-time citrus and tropical fruit bomb).  Consult a good hops flavor chart, and pick hops that work well for your target recipe, knowing that even if you don't get all of what you wanted, you're at least covering your bases.

Ignore IBUs (a little)

Don't obsess over IBUs.  What you should care about is the impression of bitterness you're getting, and especially if you aren't working your water chemistry that's going to differ substantially from one brewer to the next (and one recipe to the next, for the same brewer) even at the same IBU level.  

Use an IBU target for the first time you brew a recipe, then adjust up or down based on impressions.  It doesn't matter if your Ordinary Bitter only has 20 calculated IBUs instead of the guideline-minimum so long as it tastes like it does.  By the same token, ignore the maximum if you're still getting an IPA that lacks a soft bitter burr on the palate.  

You should also be looking for all sources of bittering impression in your recipes and aiming for a general "bittering impression" level.  IBUs are certainly one source.  So is carbonation level.  So is the presence or absence of roasted malts, what Lovibond level they're kilned to, and whether they're husked or dehusked.  So is sulfate-to-chloride ratio.  

Don't think of bitterness just in terms of alpha acid percentage, boil time, and utilization.

Slowhand

When it comes to late hopping, you'll have lots of brewers tell you that the longer hops are in contact with hot wort, the less aromatic impact you'll get as volatile compounds in the essential oils disappear into the ether.  They'll also tell you that whirlpooling will add isomerization "time" to your already-added hops.

There's emerging evidence that that isn't quite right.  It's probably true when we're talking about boiling wort - as minutes go by you're creating more iso-alpha acids (bittering) and burning off essential oils.  But it's not at all clear when it comes to hot-but-not-boiling liquid.  Experimental research strongly suggests that long whirlpools/hop-backing yields a higher level of aroma from hops than shorter exposures, even though it means longer contact with hot wort. 

So, when it comes to whirlpool hopping, take your time.  Slow down.  You'll probably get more flavor out of your hops while risking very little in terms of your mid-to-late boil hops.

You're Not Aging Your Hops

Finally, I field this question all the time, and I'd love to try to bury it here: no, you don't need to worry about how old your hops are.  If you're taking any kind of care in the storage of your hops, then they're perfectly fine to brew with for at least a year, and probably longer.  

Will the AA% be a little lower?  Yes, probably.  But not that much.  And see the earlier note on not obsessing about IBUs.  

To think, though, that you're going to get cheesy flavors, or dramatically less bittering, or significantly less aroma/flavor out of a hop that you've had in a zip-locked bag in the refrigerator is bordering on zymurgic paranoia.  Have you ever seen/read about what it takes to make hops "age" for use in things like Lambics?  It takes some rough treatment; we're talking 50 Shades of Perle rough (Editor's Note: that's an absolutely killer and hilarious multi-level play on words as long as you're pronouncing it right - "Per-LAY").

So don't worry about your hops.  I store mine in a bag with the air pressed out, zipped, in the freezer.  They're basically immortal. (Second Editor's Note: This was TOTALLY written before Brulosophy dropped this week's exBEERiment!!!)

Try then Trust

There may be more, but that's all we have time for this week.  Feel free to add questions/comments and expand!  What's important, though, is that when it comes to hopping you keep good notes on use and subsequent impressions.  There are rough rules to abide by, but to really get the most out of your hops, YOU need to be on the ball to find out what that looks like in your situation.

Try, then trust.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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The Basics of Base Grains

"You said to go back to the beginning - so I have."  I can still hear Inigo Montoya slurring that line, and it's good advice, especially for brewers.  So today we check in with base grains, if for no other reason than to be sure that we're getting all we can out of our recipes.

It seems like it should be obviously important, but I frequently run into brewers (amateur and professional) who don't seem to give much thought to their base.  They'll tell you all about the crystal they had imported from the UK, the special steeping method they use for chocolate malts, bore you to tears with discussions of experimental hops and fermentation temperature ramp-up - but when you ask about base malts, you often get a shrug and an "I dunno, whatever I usually use or have laying around..."  Since base malts make up the largest chunk of your grist, that attitude seems bizarre to me.

It matters.  As I'm often recommending, you should be choosing base grains for a reason - and that reason should probably be something better than "because I had a bucket of it."

Base Basics

The good news is that there aren't many grains out there that could reliably function as base malts (that is, malts with sufficient enzymes to convert themselves and most anything else you dump into the grist).   They are distinct, though, and your flavor profile is subtly but persistently and pervasively affected by them, even in darker and more-intense beers.

Let's see what our options are:

  • American 2-row: Faint and light grainy flavors.  A good malt to use if you don't want anyone to notice malt - so, some IPAs, I guess?  
  • American 6-row: A lot more diastatic power, so if you're using a bunch of adjunct, then maybe, but practically speaking there's almost never a reason for homebrewers to use this, especially since it has the same barely-there flavor profile but with a touch of gritty/sharp flavor. 
  • Maris Otter/English Pale Ale Malt: Kilned a bit higher than the American malts, it provides a noticeable cracker/bready/nutty flavor.  An excellent go-to malt for all but the most austere styles.  Speaking of...
  • Pilsner Malt: The lightest malt around.  If you want a malt that at least tastes like something (lightly grainy, slight honey-like flavors) but otherwise stays the hell out of the way, this is your choice.  Obviously it's good for Pilsners (where you want those classic hops flavors coming through), but be careful with it in other less-hoppy applications: it can make beers seem surprisingly sweet.  
  • Vienna Malt: Lands in the no-man's-land between pale ale malt and Munich Malt (coming up next): it has a nice toasty flavor, very little of the sweetness of the lighter-kilned base malts, and stops short of the too-full richness that can come from Munich malt.  It can be used in almost anything; don't be shy about using it in pale beers (my Kolsch is 50% Vienna), and you can also count on it to hold its flavor in stronger/darker beers all the way up to Baltic Porters. 
  • Munich Malt: In a lot of ways, this is the Cadillac of base malts.  Munich has the power to convert itself while also functioning as a kind of utility-infielder specialty grain, with rich bready melanoidin flavor and even a touch of light-crystal flavor.  It can be used in a SMaSH (Single Malt and Single Hop) Doppelbock, or as an equal-partner base malt in lots of other amber-to-dark styles.  

The "right" base grain (or mix of them) for you will vary from batch to batch, but I do have some general advice, if you'd like to hear (read) it.

Clearing the Barley Field (So to Speak)

First off, let's clear the board a bit: I don't own a single grain of American 2-row or 6-row malt.  I prefer to follow the chef's maxim of "season everything."  Why would I choose a malt that exhibits virtually no flavor?  The argument that it's a good choice for IPAs because it "doesn't get in the way of the hops" seems asinine to me.  We're talking about beers that are aggressively hoppy - NONE of the base malts (except maybe Munich) would really compete with it (note to self: brew a German IPA with Munich as a base and an ass-ton of Polaris hops...).

So now we're left with four: Pilsner, Maris Otter, Vienna, and Munich (in ascending order by Lovibond).  Which is used how, and when?  Again, your call, but here are my recommendations and rationale.

The Go-To 

First up, when in doubt, reach for Maris Otter.  With just a few obvious exceptions (below), there's virtually no beer flavor profile that doesn't benefit from a slightly bready, biscuit-like background flavor.  It's beer, after all.  In side-by-side fermentations/comparisons and triangle tests with other folks' beers, I've found an incredibly high success rate in picking out Maris compared to 2-row, and almost everyone prefers the Maris-based beers, even in purely American styles.  I use more Maris Otter than any other grain.  Hell, I even use it in...

Pilsner: The Esoteric Malt

I'm not a big fan of Pilsner Malt (there's something in the flavor that just bumps me, like how I love seafood but just don't like crab), but if you're making certain styles, it's the right choice.  Not many styles.  OK, one style - if it's a Bohemian Pils, then go to town on the floor-malted Pilsner Malt.  For German Pils, I still say you're better off with a Maris/Pils blend and then hammering it with Hallertau, but I know I might be weird in that regard.

In other styles, Pilsner can be a nice blended base malt, especially if you want a bit of light honey-focaccia bread background, but be sure it's in a milder beer: its flavor can get trampled easily, unless you're super-sensitive to it like me.

The Underdog

I once received a 55-lb. sack of Vienna Malt free, as a prize from a competition.  I had my eye on the sack of Munich, but someone got to it before me, and so I took the Vienna.  I'm so, so glad I did: this is a wildly underappreciated base malt.

If you're an amber beer fan (and especially if you're an Altbier nut like me), then Vienna is a great thing to have on hand.  Use it for about 1/3 of the grist in any amber or darker beer, and you'll add a nice toasty-spicy flavor, almost like rye but without the sharpness.  I played around with that sack of Vienna in about a dozen recipes, and in only one (an English IPA) did it seem to make it worse.  

The toast comes through really well, but it doesn't add heft to the beer.  I don't think I could use it for 100% of the grist (some people taste it as being a bit too rustic), but as a blender, it's terrific.

The King

Munich Malt is wonderful.  Someone told me once (an outstanding amateur brewer who has since gone pro) that "a pound of Munich makes every beer better."  It's pretty hard to argue with that formulation.  One of the most common pieces of advice I give to people that seem to have trouble with producing full-flavored beers is to add a pound of Munich.

It's like beer flavor mortar.  It seems to fill in the gaps, and creates a flavor that's more mature and complete.  It can be overdone - don't go over 50% unless you're sure you want a rich, bready background - but as a plug-in malt it almost can't go wrong.  

The Others

I've left out wheat and rye here, even though they're perfectly legitimate choices for base malts.  The reason is because they could (depending on your system or recipe) cause process issues.  We'll jump into those another day (or you can buy the most recent issue of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine and read all about it!).

Brew Deliberately

My (often-repeated) point in bringing this up is that I want you to brew deliberately.  Make decisions about your entire beer - don't just let it happen.  There's certainly a RDWHAH-based approach to recipe construction, but if your goal is consistency and reliability, then you should be looking at every piece of your recipe as an opportunity to exert some control to get the product you want - and a product you can make again next time.

Begin as you mean to go on, as they say.  Make a deliberate choice on base grain(s), and you'll be well on your way.  

"....you killed my father - prepare to die..."  Sorry.  I had to.  

Keep it simple.

JJW

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