Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Are whole flower hops superior?

Hops have a huge influence on how beers taste, and not just on IPAs. Along with malt, yeast and water, hops are what define beer.

So brewers are understandably very particular about what types of hops they use. Which is why this post on Deschutes Brewery's website caught my eye. It says:

“Deschutes Brewery has used whole leaf hops (and have invested heavily behind them) from day one because we believe they yield a better beer with better flavor. It is interesting to note that, when we believe we can get better flavor we have, and do, use some pellets and even extract. We have actually brewed Mirror Pond with all pellets to see if there is a difference, and there is a clear difference. We continue to experiment with all our ingredients including hops and malt to find that which yields the best flavor. It is certainly more convenient to use pellets, but that’s never been how we roll. We’re big fans of Mother Nature and keeping our brewing ingredients as close as possible as to what she provides.”

Deschutes is not alone in using mostly whole-flower hops. Sierra Nevada in California also does. These are two of the oldest, largest and best-respected craft breweries in the country, so their brewing techniques ought not be easily dismissed.

Most brewers, though, Durango's included, use pellets. They stand by them. I e-mailed several brewers; they cited better storage and keeping qualities with pelletized hops.

"Whole flower hops 'suck-up' a lot more beer than pellets do," said Bill Graham, co-founder of Ska Brewing Co., in response to e-mailed questions. "This is after all a business and efficiencies do matter. Loss = smaller profits."

Graham added: "Most importantly, the quality of whole flower versus pellets in the beer is negligible at best, and has been proven by brewing scientists over the past 75 years. I think that any brewery touting their use of whole versus pellets, is doing a bit of marketing mumbo-jumbo."

Graham and others said pellets are easier to store and keep better than whole hops.

"Whole hops do not keep as well as pellets," Graham said. "Hops are only harvested at one point in any given year. As storage time increases, it’s my feeling that pelletized hops hold up better and degrade less quickly than whole flower."

Furthermore, most brewing systems are designed to use pellets, Graham said.

"We are brewing on systems designed to use pelletized hops, and hence our breweries were designed for pellets as well," he said. "For example, for us at Ska to use whole flower hops in, say, the Modus, that requires over 100 pounds of hops per brew, we would need bails and bails of whole flower hops for the year.

"Pellets can be stored in a small footprint; bails require a huge cold storage facility ... Secondly our brewhouses are designed and engineered for pellets. Typically to use bailed hops, a conveyor rolls the bail down to a chopper and then disburses the hops to your kettle. With pellets, the brewer himself can weigh the hops and introduce them to the kettle without the need for a 'handling system.'"

Steve Breezley, production manager at Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder, made a similar point.

"We do not use whole cone hops for numerous reasons," he said. "The first and foremost is the long-term quality of the hops as they are stored over time. All hops are harvested at the same time, roughly between September and November. Immediately hops will begin to deteriorate with exposure to oxygen and temperature. We feel that pelletized hops are superior to whole cone hops at mitigating this process."

But Erik Maxson, brewmaster at Carver Brewing Co. in Durango, is among those who see value in whole-flower hops.

"So far we've been doing some special pale ales with whole cones," Maxson said. "I'm really enjoying a new approach to using them, and the results I feel are well the worth it."

Maxson added: "There are, in my opinion, without a doubt differences between the two as far as how they present themselves within the beer, but quality differences seem purely subjective to me."

As a small brewpub, Carver's probably has fewer storage headaches than packaging breweries like Ska and Avery. (I also sent e-mails to Steamworks and Durango Brewing. I'll post updates if I receive responses from them).

My take: Sierra Nevada and Deschutes' pale ales do seem to have a brighter quality that is lost in pellet-hopped beers. It is reasonable to assume that whole flower hops retain oils that are lost in the pellet-making process.

Nevertheless, many brewers make delicious hop-forward beers using pellets. I think the beer I brewed with Ska, Soggy Coaster Imperial Red Ale, had excellent hop character using German tradition, Crystal, Willamette and Cascade hop pellets.

Some 25 years into the craft-brewing revolution, it appears the jury is still out when it comes to whole flower versus pellet hops. I'm curious what all of you brewers and homebrewers think. Please leave a comment below.

Photo: Pellet hops used to brew Soggy Coaster Imperial Red Ale with Ska Brewing. Photo by Jerry McBride.


  1. As a homebrewer.....pellets definitley keep their "freshness" longer...the whole hops seem to dry out and loose much of their oils very quickly, even if vaccum sealed. Leaf also tend to absorb quite a bit more of the wort in the kettle and dry-hopping. I have both types in my fridge right now, but for the above reasons have been using more pellets than whole. I would say that the "optimal" way to use whole cones would be much the same as Ska does with it's Hoperation Ivy...from bine to beer in a very short time.


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