Experimenting with Hops: Tips from the Pros

Brewer:  Steve Dresler
Brewery:  Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Chico, Calif.

As far as strategies for adding hops to the boil, what we do at Sierra Nevada is pretty standard — 30 minute additions. We do a 90-minute kettle boil and we add hops at 30-minute intervals. Then we do an aroma hop addition that’s usually quite large. The post-boil addition is so that we don’t blow out a lot of the volatiles (flavor compounds that are reduced by boiling). We do a fourth addition and then immediately do a kettle strike (remove from the heat). Minimal post-boil contact with the wort gets our aromas up nicely.

We used to strike our kettle through a hop back, which is just basically a big screened container with whole hops in it. That would give us some really nice aromas, but as we expanded and automated, we got into an automatic hop discharge system. By going with the fourth addition and the kettle post-boil, we found we achieved the same aroma quality and were still able to get the hops out just as soon with the automated system.

For homebrewing I would set my kettle off and put my hops in for a very short amount of time.

The Great Leaf Debate
We prefer using leaf hops as opposed to pellet. The aroma is best from the leaf hops. When I used to homebrew, most hops came in pellet form and, unfortunately, leaf hops are still hard to come by, particularly good quality and European hops. These obstacles, coupled with the fact that there’s been a great improvement in hop pellets over the last few years, make it hard to tell homebrewers just to use whole-leaf hops because I think that would be a real limitation on their ability to explore.

If, for example, they want to go buy Saaz to make a nice pilsner, they won’t find whole-cone Saaz.

70-Barrel Experiments
As far as experimenting goes, we have 13 in-house products now with a great variety of hops. When we do hop selection yearly, if there’s a new hop out or a chance to try some different type of European hops, then I’ll do a small brew, which for me is 70 barrels. Then I’ll feature one of those different types of hops in each experiment and hope to come up with something.

While we can normally make the experimental beer salable in the first run, I usually need to do a little bit of tuning, particularly with hops I’ve never used before. Either the brew is a little aggressively hopped or you want to get a bit more aroma or something. Usually just by looking at the hop and knowing its numerical bittering value I can formulate a beer and have it pretty palatable on the first go.

Matching Hops to Beer Style
When it comes to choosing varieties of hops, you want to pick a hop to match the type of beer you’re going to make. If homebrewers are going to make a very light lager or a light ale, they’d want to go with something that’s not heavily bitter and has some nice, light aroma qualities. If they’re more into doing dark beers, barleywine or IPAs, those styles would dictate having a very aggressive hop. In that case you start playing with Chinook or some pretty heavy-duty hop.

We use a lot of Cascade in our regular ale, but I have a couple of beers  in the pub that feature mainly Kent Goldings. And while it’s a really nice hop, if you’re going to use it in a big beer, you’re going to use a ton.

If you’re making something very light with light body and lower alcohol, I’d suggest a nice floral hop. Start playing with Saaz or a French hop we use called Strissel Spalt. I had wanted to buy Saaz, but it was a bad year for that variety so I took the advice of our hop broker and was very happy with the results of Strissel Spalt. It’s a really interesting hop, and while it wouldn’t go well in a barleywine, for example, because you could never pick it out, it gave our wheat beers a really wonderful aroma.

Among common domestic hops, I like Cascade in ale because it’s aromatic with lots of citrus, Willamette in porter because it is milder, Fuggle in porter, and Mount Hood in bock because it has a noble, flowery character but is not too pungent.

Don’t be intimidated about trying something new. Play with different hops. A common problem among brewers is not experimenting enough. The beer ends up with too much malt or sugar, without the hops character. Experiment.

Issue: October 1996