Dear Mr. Wizard,
What are your thoughts or recommendations on using hop bags when brewing. I enjoy the hoppier spectrum of beers but also appreciate the pouring ease and cleaning convenience of keeping the hop pellets in bags. Do these bags diminish hop utilization?
Mr. Wizard replies:
My overall philosophy with brewing is extremely simple and goes something like this: “If the method works to produce good tasting beer with the desired aroma, stability, appearance and material yields — it’s OK with me!” Let’s face it, hops and malt are messy to deal with and there are many things we do as brewers to minimize the mess. Mash tuns and lauter tuns are usually designed to make clean up easy and the same is true with hopping techniques. Let’s first look at some of the ways brewers deal with hops.
The majority of brewers usually do not use whole hops because they are a pain to separate from the wort and require some type of hop separator. However, many of our nation’s notable brewers do use whole hops. This list includes Anheuser-Busch, Coors, Sierra Nevada and Anchor.
Most brewers use pelletized hops because they are much easier to ship, store, handle and separate than whole hop cones. Commercial brewers use whirlpool vessels to separate trub and hop solids from wort. Even brewers using whole hops spin their wort in a whirlpool to separate trub from wort. A whirlpool vessel usually has a flat bottom and is dimensioned with a height-to-diameter ratio ranging from 1:1 to 1:3. Most whirlpools fall into the short and wide category. Wort is introduced after boiling through a tangential inlet to get the wort spinning. After filling, the liquid slowly stops spinning and the solids are deposited in the center of the vessel where they remain while the clarified wort is transferred to the wort cooler.
Finally there are brewers who skip this whole hoppy mess and extract the goodies from the hops in a separate facility. Many European brewers use hop extracts and there are many types available. Although these products lack tradition and romance, they do offer many advantages including the “less mess” factor.
Your desire to make hop handling easier is clearly a topic of importance to all brewers and there is not a single “right” method. Hop bags are certainly convenient for homebrewers because our brew kettles are much smaller than those used in commercial breweries. The amount of hops used by homebrewers is also fairly small. The most important thing to consider when using hops is that if they don’t get completely hydrated and exposed to the wort or beer (like in dry hopping) the acids and oils may not transfer from the hop pellet or cone into the liquid.
This may sound unlikely, but it does indeed happen. I was once on site for a brewhouse commissioning and saw a pile of pellet hops that were dry in the center of the mass sitting in the bottom of a 250-barrel (7,750-gallon) kettle after the boil. The pellet hops had clumped together in the vacuum package and were not broken up enough before being tossed into the boiling wort. The lesson: If you choose to use a hop bag for pellet hops, make sure it’s large enough to allow the hops to hydrate without being restricted by the bag. Cone hops increase in volume approximately by a factor of four when hydrated in hot water.
You may experience a slight reduction in utilization even when the hops are not restricted in the bag. This falls into the “so-what” category of things. It’s well known that pellet hops have a higher utilization than whole hops (extracts have even higher utilization). This fact is recognized by brewers who use whole hops, but utilization is not always the most important factor to consider when addressing the topic of hopping. As long as you produce a beer that meets your standard of quality and understand the pros and cons of your chosen method, you are doing just fine in my book. By the way, a slight reduction in hop utilization is not going to break the bank!
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