Nick Carr on November 12, 2014 1 Comment A brewer walks into a homebrew shop … okay, this isn’t the start of a joke, though I have to admit to trying long and hard to come up with one. So, instead of a joke let’s talk about this moment. You walk into the local homebrew shop or maybe you’re at home perusing online homebrew stores, either way you’re happy. You’re about to embark on a new creation. Maybe it’s your first time and you’re taking those first tentative steps on the homebrewer’s path, or maybe you’re an old hand, just in to restock those ingredients that will, once combined in the brewer’s art, be a beer worthy of a raised glass and a hardy toast. In either case you have a list of ingredients you’re on the hunt for; malt, a good yeast, and… hmmm, hops. Suddenly you come to a crossroads do you use whole hops or pellet? Is one better than the other? Is one form better in certain recipes or beer styles? In a flash you realize you’ve never seriously considered these questions. Well, first let me assuage your fears a bit. No matter which form of hops you choose, you can follow the directions and make good beer. So, don’t worry. You can click off this article right now and get to brewing. But if you’d like to know something about their subtle differences and how to work each ones little idiosyncrasies in your favor then read on. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Whole Hops Whole hops are exactly that, the entire hop cone, or inflorescence of a female plant. These are picked, air dried, and then pressed into bales. The bales are then stored in warehouses at around 26°F (this will vary depending on the climate) until needed by a brewer or hop distributor, such as your homebrew supply shop. When a homebrew shop orders hops the bale is broken down into smaller quantities, vacuum sealed, and sent to the shop, where it may be broken down into salable sizes and vacuum sealed again. Advantages: They are the most natural, unprocessed form of the ingredient. They can form a filter bed when straining the boiled wort, this removes some of your hot break and other material formed during the mash and boil. Some brewers also think whole hops are less harsh then pellets, and though there is no empirical evidence to back this up, there could be something to it. At any rate some very large brewing companies like whole hops enough to use them exclusively. Whether it’s their natural state or some perceived “better” tones they get in the finished beer, I can’t say, but companies like Sierra Nevada have found some reason to invest heavily in the whole hop… and little can be disputed about their beer quality. Another clear advantage is dry hopping. Because whole hops are minimally processed more of the volatile aromatic compounds, which is what the brewer is after, remain intact. They also will not sink and gum up your siphoning efforts when it comes time to bottle. Disadvantages: On paper the disadvantages of whole hops would seem to outweigh their advantages. Whole hops float and are larger than pellets, which presents a smaller surface area to the surrounding liquid. This can be mitigated to some extent by using weighted hop bags, but the surface area is still going to be much smaller than using pellets. This smaller surface area, and the fact that their lupulin glands remain whole, means it takes longer to extract and use (isomerization) the alpha acids, and keeps hop utilization pretty darn low, coming in at only around 10 percent. Their natural loose state means that they are more susceptible to oxygen exposure which creates a breakdown in quality that can happen more quickly than in other forms. But as long as you keep whole hops stored correctly, use the freshest hops possible, and reseal unused portions in vacuum-sealed bags; this problem can be mostly avoided. Another factor to consider is wort loss. Whole hops act like sponges, soaking up and leaving some of your wort unrecoverable. Yes, you can press the hops and draw out some of the precious liquid, but then you run into the possibility of some harsh unwanted characters escaping with the liquid and making it into your beer. Inconsistent quality and specifications could also be a disadvantage, depending on your outlook. Granted you should be trying for the best quality hops every time you buy, but as for being exactly the same… well, really that’s more a worry of a brewery trying to replicate the exact same beer over and over again, and not something worried about as much, in my experience, by homebrewers. Even if you are trying to make exactly the same batch of IPA you made last year, it is likely the variation, if any, will be so small as to be scarcely noticeable. And, hey a little variation never killed a good homebrew. Pellet Hops It is after the drying stage that processing for whole hops and pellet hops diverge. Hops bound for the pellet are hammer milled, which creates a powder. This gummy powder is then forced through a extrusion die, turning them into hard shiny pellets and something that looks akin to lifestock feed. The hops ruptured lupulin sacs supply both the binder and protective coating, thus their shiny appearance. The quality of the pellets is critically affected by the temperature and speed throughout this process. Mill them too fast and discoloring, scorching, and oxidation are likely to occur. So it is extremely important to mill at low speeds and keep the whole process cool by liquid nitrogen or some other means. After milling the pellets are allowed to cool and harden. These cured hops are then precisely weighed, packaged in vacuum sealed barrier bags, boxed, and set in cold storage until sold. Advantages: Pellets sink and dissolve, creating a clear surface area advantage and, in turn, utilization advantage. This utilization advantage is further heightened by lupulin glands that have been ruptured by the milling process; making the isomerization of alpha acids easier. Both, the surface area and alpha acid availability translate to a 10 to 15 percent increase in utilization over whole hops. Though, technically this increase is not high enough for a brewer to change the hop amount in a recipe when going between the two forms, if you find that there is a harsh quality to a beer after switching to pellet hops, it may be worth trying the same recipe with a slightly downsized dose. The outer shell of lupulin resin helps protect the pellets from oxidation giving them a longer storage life, with less chance of damage to quality. Pellet hops are also easier to measure out, work with, and take up less storage space than whole hops. These factors together, actually produce another advantage to the home brewer; the availability of more hop varieties. Disadvantages: Most of the disadvantages of pellets stem from their advantages. They sink and dissolve, meaning they create “sludge” on the bottom of your brew kettle or fermenter. If in the fermenter it can impede siphoning. Also, if a dry hop addition is added too early it’s possible that dead yeast cells may cover the hop powder, limiting wort contact. The extra processing due to milling can negatively affect the aromatic quality. Whole lupulin glands allow a slow release of essential oils giving time for some oxidation of humulene and other hydrocarbons. The ruptured glands of pellets means a loss of a major portion of these compounds long before their oxidative states have a chance to form. It’s All Relative What form of hop you decide to use for any given recipe or task and any partialities you build, will be greatly based on your brew setup and personal preference. Each can be used to make fantastic beer. Some brewing equipment, such as hop bags and a hopback, make handling whole hops a little easier. Overall it would seem advantage favors the pellet, with its better utilization and easier storage and handling. But I would not discount the whole hop completely. It does seem it could find its niche imparting the aromatic character. If nothing else, it would be easy to use them in conjunction. The pellets doing the bulk of the bittering work, with whole hops held in reserve for the more delicate dry hopping operations. Whatever form of hop you choose remember to search out the freshest, store them in your freezer, and vacuum reseal if possible. There are plenty of good books out there where you can expand your hop knowledge, but at some point you have to get out there and just try things. The “doing” that’s what’s gonna stick with you the most and, I think we’d all agree, more fun. Cheers!