Hops

The Hops Mirage: Pellets, Flowers, Powders, and Time

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I don’t know that it’s possible to drink or brew beer these days without confronting, face-first and chin-out, hop heads. If it’s just the beer drinking variety, they can be a bit soporific: there’s only so much discussion of whatever experimental hops such-and-such brewery was using that I can take before my mind starts to wander. I’m also not at all sold (experimental results forthcoming) that they (or I) can tell the difference between hoppy beers unless they’re sitting side-by-side. Still, with them it’s more about endurance than engagement.

It’s the brewers, though, that I get into the most spirited debates with, especially on the question of what really makes for hops aroma. I think I manage to bring most of them around on the practical physics of the thing (that in the boil, they’re all bittering hops - if you want aroma/flavor, add it in the whirlpool), but I still get no end up pushback on the question of hop form.

Let’s just put it out there. Pellets, powders, whole flower hops - it doesn’t much matter, so stop wasting my time with it. Time, it turns out, is exactly what we don’t have when it comes to hops flavor and aroma.

A Matter of Time

I say that knowing full well that many of you have strong feelings, especially about Cryo Hops/powders/hash. The problem is that while I agree with you that they yield a domineering and impressive hops presence in the short term, within even a few days there’s just no difference. And believe you me, I’ve tried. The effects are (to borrow a phrase from political scientist Larry Bartels) either minimal or fugitive outside of that super-tight window.

I don’t drink most of my beer in the 96 hours after packaging. If you do, then go ahead and move on - keep pounding your IPAs and American Ambers while drink-reading through some other pieces here at good ol’ Beer Simple. The rest of you, though, can rest easy. If you’re planning on serving that beer in a week, or two, or (Ninkasi forbid) a month, then you’re just as well off with conventional hopping products.

Time isn’t your friend. We know that, as brewers. Just how big an enemy it is, though, is obvious when you get a whiff of the intense aromatics of a cryo-hopped beer…and then some time passes.

The Mirage

It’s an attractive illusion, those hops powders. You can just tell that they’re going to work. And they do - but just as you’re walking across the room to stick your friend’s nose into the glass…

Gone.

OK, so it’s not that quick, but it’s not far off, either. I’ve played with these hops six ways from Sunday, and I’ve never been able to produce a stable advantage from them. In a week (or less) they’re more or less indistinguishable in intensity.

Whirlpool only. Whirpool and dry hop (this was best, btw). Just dry hop. Multi-stage dry hop. Pellet and powder (this was best, btw). Pellet and flower. All three. Significant and interesting immediate differences - no lasting difference.

Maybe your experience is different. Maybe my system, or process, or yeast, or something is nulling it out.

But I just don’t see it. To me, different forms of hops are just a mirage of flavor, shimmering in the background and all resolving into the same hoppy finale when I get closer.

Right, for the Wrong Reasons

That’s not to say you shouldn’t use them, of course. There are advantages in the form of less ingredient loss, probably in product shelf life as well (though I’ve never had an issue storing hops in the freezer for even years at a time), convenience, or even just the knowledge that you’re doing all you can (even if that “all” doesn’t amount to much) to amp up your hops flavors.

Maybe these fancy products are right, just for the wrong reasons.

Whatever the case, though, I had to say it, just one time, to all of you: when it comes to hops, I’m going to have to keep acting like the kid who said the emperor was naked, even if that means I’m beaten to a hoppy hash by King Gambrinus’ green-clad courtiers.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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Buying Time: Setting Your Hoppy Beers Up for A Healthy Shelf Life

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ACTUAL EXCHANGE OVERHEARD ON A FACEBOOK GROUP THREAD:

"I need some help getting rid of six cans of [insert famous IPA here].  Picked them up at the brewery seven weeks ago."

"Wow - that beer is OLD."

What the hell has happened to people's tastes that a seven-week-old beer is old?  I'll grant you that if it's a particularly hops-aroma-forward beer, you want it as fresh as you can get it, but old?  

Well, rather than go off on a jag about how beer geeks' palates have (allegedly) become so refined that they NEEEEEEED a beer that's no more than 21 days old (and I'd love to test their sensitivities and have them predict the age on their favorite IPA based on nothing but aroma), I think we'll talk about ways to set yourself up for success and brew beers - particularly hops-forward beers - that can actually hold up to some shelf time.  We'll save the "supertasters'" sensitivity test for a future Beer Culture post, when I find the time to put together some good data (should be able to get that done by June).  

I take two approaches to this: recipe design and handling.  And don't worry - we're not going to belabor the "store it cold, avoid oxidation, blah blah blah" aspects of this.

Design

First, if you're hoping for better shelf "life" on hops aroma, then don't use a huge mash-up of your favorite varieties of hops.  Pick one that, in your water and recipes and system, seems to come through clearly without blending, and then schedule a substantial addition of it.  It can be very hard (borderline impossible, as I hope to demonstrate in that upcoming Beer Culture post) to accurately evaluate the amplitude of a specific hops aroma and predict its age, but I can certainly buy the idea that you can notice if that aroma/flavor changes in character rather than amplitude when one of your blended hops fades faster than the others.  And before anyone jumps on me, I'm sure you can tell them apart by amplitude if you have samples to compare - but unless you're routinely serving someone identical-but-for-age beers at the same exact time, that's irrelevant.

Second, avoid crystal malts in general, and Crystal 60 in particular.  I've read some convincing academic research that suggests that the melanoidins in crystal malts are hostile to hops oils at the molecular level (and that the 60 is especially so).  From a straight flavor perspective, I also notice that hops can struggle to present against a toffee-centric background.  I aim high and low in my hoppy grists - base malts and 20s-ish Lovibond character malts, and 300+ Lovibond chocolate malts.

Third, write a recipe that uses late boil hops, whirlpool hops, and dry hops.  Both my and others' experiments (primitive and imperfect though they might be) have consistently found that multiple hops treatments yield larger aromatic effects, which means that you're starting from a higher "drop-off" point, extending shelf life.  Having said that, and this is where I'm afraid anecdote has to come in, I've noticed a sharper decline when I use more dry hops.  This is a repeat of the first point, in a way: to my palate (and maybe yours, others), dry hops present distinctly from warm-side hops (whether boiled or whirlpooled).  When that character goes away or diminishes, I notice the change.  So, while I use dry hops, I don't go overboard with them - usually not more than one ounce per 4.25 gallons.

Last, I tend to select for citrus hops if I want persistent aroma, particularly the lemon-lime notes we get out of many New Zealand/Australian hops.  They cut through the air and are easily-recognizable to our senses, so even when they're much less potent they seem bigger than they are.  I don't notice the same from the mango or stone fruit flavored hops, and definitely not from the herbal/floral European or old school New World hops.  

And to head off the question, I'm agnostic on whether powders/hashes are actually creating bigger character: they may, they may not.  Use them if you want.

Handling

If you want the hops flavor/aroma in that beer to last, KEG IT.  This is going to serve two functions.  First, while some flush their bottles with CO2 at packaging and some don't, nearly EVERY kegger I know flushes their kegs with CO2 before racking into them.  Less oxygen (yay).  BUT, and this one is apparently based on real science in at least one food sciences journal article I jumped behind a paywall to read, vibration breaks up and volatilizes hops oils.  Maybe that should seem more intuitive to me, but it doesn't, for whatever reason.  However, if you're bottling and hoping for longer hops shelf life, the subtle shaking and bumping of bottle handling is going to degrade the oils you want to be able to perceive.  Kegs, on the other hand, will just sit there.  Bottle/growler up what you need, when you need it.

Whether bottling OR kegging, increase carbonation levels.  Higher CO2 levels (say, 2.5-2.6 volumes of CO2) increase the punch of most aromatics, including hops.  This might be a particularly diabolical way of maintaining a steady perception of hops character in your kegged beer: serve it "on the way up" to full carbonation, and over several days your lower-than-target carbonated IPA/pale ale will have roughly equal hops aroma as your fully-carbed-but-slightly-older version.  But in any case, a spritzier presentation will make it seem hoppier than it actually is. 

You can also cheat on this and give everyone a smaller glass with a bigger bell (snifters rather than shakers), forcing them to go back to the tap/bottle more often and pour into glassware that will provide a crutch for their olfactory perceptions by capturing more of those volatile compounds.

I do also need to make a pitch - however obvious - for cold storage and limiting oxygen pickup.  Anything that stales or ages your beer is bad for hops character.  There.  Cliche served.

How Much Time Do I Have, Doc?

All beers have fading flavors over time.  This is, in some ways, a question of rate - and don't assume it's linear.  You may well have a drop-off from an initial peak of hops flavor, but good recipe design and handling will flatten out the rate of decay on that curve.

Your hoppy beers will be best in the first month or so.  But they're still (or can be) really, really good for months after that.  My oldest medal-winning hoppy beer was a 14-month-old American Amber Ale, and I've had IPAs that score well and win at 10+ months of age.  

Some minor recipe design tweaks and solid basics on handling (with, again, minor specialized adjustments) can keep your hoppy beer hoppy for a good long while.

Seven weeks.  Please.  

Keep it simple.

JJW

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).

 

 


In the Boil, They're ALL Bittering Hops

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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.

JJW

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).

  


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

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).


Pound It: Bulk Hops and What to Do With Them

Back to the Beer Simple mail bag this week!  More than one person expressed concern over keeping their hops fresh.  To which I have this response: don't worry about it.  In fact, buy more.

That picture at the top is my newest shipment of hops.  Four pounds of pellets.  I brew more than most, but I don't really use lots of hops.  Altbiers and Pilsners are my usual "hoppy" beers.  So have I lost my mind?  Am I about to jam out a series of IPAs for the hell of it?  Have I discovered that a hop-pellet-eating diet is great for treating hair loss?  

Nope.  I just don't worry about hop staling.  I'll use those hops for at least a year.  Maybe two.

When we talk about hop freshness, we're mainly discussing two elements of hops: alpha acid percentage (%AA) and essential oils (since so much of their flavor/aroma components derive from them).  Brewers get concerned about a loss of either because it makes recipes unreliable and can significantly impact what you get out of your kegs and bottles.

To which I say, again: don't worry about it.

That's because both of these are highly stable, especially when stored properly.  If you're not living in a mobile meth lab somewhere in New Mexico and storing your hops in the outdoor shower area in full sunlight, then in all likelihood you can buy hops with abandon and keep using them almost-forever without any concerns about freshness.

[NB: Before we go on, let me say that I'm always talking pellets here.  A lot of this applies generally to whole flower hops, too, but they're not really my thing, so I can't promise anything if that's what you tend to prefer.]

Frozen: Not Just a Terrible Film With Massive Plot Holes Anymore

Storage temperature is the first thing to look at here.  Generally speaking, anything that's kept cold takes longer to spoil, stale, develop, etc.  Arrhenius' Rule tells us that chemical reactions double in speed for every 10C of temperature we add.  If we turn that around, it tells us we can roughly halve the reaction times by reducing temperature by 10C.

So let's take a worst-case.  You can find this data yourself from a variety of sources, but generally speaking you'll lose about half of the alpha acid potency and somewhere between 30-90% of essential oils in hops after six months.  

"OH MY GOD!!!  BUT I JUST BOUGHT A BUNCH OF HOPS!  YOU'VE SCREWED ME!"

No, I haven't.  Because those numbers assume you're storing the hops in open air at room temperature.  

So let's take good ol' Arrhenius out for a spin.  If we have a 10% Nugget hop, it'll be at 5% in six months (50% loss).  But room temperature is 72F (or just over 22C).  Put those hops in the fridge (average temperature being 2C, just to keep the math easy) and we're looking at half of half of that loss, or 12.5%, so our Nugget hops in the fridge are at about 8.75% AA six months later.  Put them in the freezer and we drop it by another 20C (to -18C), so we're at half of half of that 12.5% loss, or 3.125%.  So our theoretical Nugget hops are still rocking about a 9.7% AA level.  

How long would it take to cut the AA% in half, then?  Well, at that rate, it's a hell of a lot longer than you'll ever have those hops.  Theoretically, we're talking about four half-life doubling steps down in temperature.  6 months at 22C, x 2 (down to 12C) x 2 (down to 2C) x 2 (down to -8C) x 2 (at -18C, or average freezer temperatures).  96 months, or eight years.  

Essential oil survival is likewise extended dramatically.  It's tough to calculate, but essential oils and their contribution potential is seriously unpredictable anyway, so you shouldn't buy into your own BS on how much you "know" they'll contribute in the first place.  But storing them cold WILL reduce the rate at which those oils decay, in the same proportion that our AA% was reduced.

So buy that pound of hops, keep it in the freezer, and don't worry about it.

Everybody Just Hold Their Breath

The other enemy (well, one is light, but if they're in the freezer I doubt they see the light of day very often) is oxygen.  Mostly when you buy hop they're vacuum-sealed and/or flushed with nitrogen to prevent staling, which is how hops vendors get away with selling the same crop for a year or more.  In that relatively-inert environment, hops last a LONG time, especially when they're also frozen (which they are - and btw, freezer burn isn't possible in hops because of something to do with a lack of "free" moisture - ask a scientist).

Before you run out and buy a vacuum sealer and/or your very own cylinder of nitrogen, you should be aware that at least one study in the journal Comprehensive Review of Food Science & Food Safety found that simply reducing the oxygen by pushing it out mechanically (squeezing the air out of the bag) and then manually sealing it yields about 87% of the total benefit of a nitrogen flush. 

So just get as much air out as you can and then seal that puppy up.  Done and done.

Time v. Consistency

There's not much risk attached to buying lots of hops and storing them for a long time, but there is a slight loss, as noted herein.  So why take the risk?  Consistency.

First, the losses are small and predictable (and calculable).  You'll have a good sense of about how close to "new" your hops are in terms of Alpha Acids and Essential Oils, and you can account for it in your recipes.

That very slight loss in consistency from batch to batch that we will experience will, in my view, be more than offset by the consistency we'll derive from learning how to use a discrete set of hop varieties.  Constantly swapping out ingredients can be fun, but in brewing our goal is usually consistency - there's already a LOT of variability in the process.  Why not stick with six or seven hop varieties for a year?  You can always sub in specific additions for flavor and aroma, but most of your recipes are looking for a certain hop character - spicy, fruity, floral, herbal etc.  

My view is that you'll probably make better beer overall, and more consistently, if you go get yourself a few one-pound bags of pellets and use them as your "base hops" for a year or two.  And if anyone asks you about hop staling or aging - just forward them this link.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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).