Homebrewing: Getting the Most Out of Hops


Happy brewers brew with fresh hops. And fresh hops are now available(!), which got me thinking about all of the great ways hops can be used to make great beers. Hops are extremely versatile, but that versatility is underexploited by homebrewers, microbrewers, and—of course—macrobrewers. Many brewers have pushed our palates to the limit of our hops bitterness tolerance, simply by cramming more and more hops into each pint. Few have stretched our palates to appreciate the many nuances hops have to offer. Here are a few techniques that will help you get the most out of your hops.

First Wort Hopping

First wort hopping is adding hops to warm—but not boiling—wort before the boil. Unlike bittering hops additions, first wort hopping contributes high-quality hops flavor to the beer without vegetal harshness. Like standard bittering hops additions, first wort hops will bitter the beer, but the amount of bittering is difficult to quantify. As an estimate, calculate first wort hops bittering as if the hops were added with 60 minutes left in the boil.

How To Do It:

Add hops to the kettle before lautering the 170°F wort from the mash into the kettle. For extract brewing, heat water and extract to 170°F, add hops and let sit for 10 minutes. Then continue to heat to boiling and proceed with the boil.

Only-Late Hopping

Only-late hopping means adding hops to the boil only during the final 20 to 30 minutes. The effect is a more robust and refined hop flavor with less astringency. You will need more hops than you would for a standard hops regimen because the hops has less time in the boil to contribute bitterness.

How To Do It:

Add hops to the boil only during the final 20 to 30 minutes. Adjust the mass of hops additions upward to reach your IBU target. Here is a useful online IBU calculator that was created by Glenn Tinseth, an expert on hops bittering.

Dry Hopping

Dry hopping is familiar to homebrewers, and even to some casual beer consumers. Dry hopping is typically done by adding hops to the beer after primary fermentation is complete. It adds a major dose of hops aroma to the beer and is used in many IPAs and northwest pale ales.

How To Do It:

Ferment your beer then rack it to a sanitized secondary fermentation vessel, being careful not to aerate it. Add whole (preferred) or pellet hops to the beer. You can put the hops in a sanitized (by boiling) nylon bag with glass or stainless steel weights to pull the hops below the surface of the beer. Remove the hops after 3 to 5 days. Repeat if desired. You can use more than one hops variety, but I recommend keeping it simple.

Hop Back

Using a hop back is technically challenging but has some great benefits. Like dry hopping, using a hop back will add a punch of hops aroma to your beer along with a little flavor. It will also filter out the hot break (protein aggregation that makes the beer cloudy), resulting in a brighter beer.

How To Do It: In your brewing apparatus, situate a hop back between the boil kettle and the wort chiller. The goal is to run the hot wort through the hop back and chill it immediately afterward. If, like me, you chill in the kettle, you can run chilled wort through a hop back en route to the fermentation vessel, but you won't get as much hops aroma and flavor as would if the wort is still hot when it hits the hops.

Fresh Hops

Fresh hops come around once a year in the fall. In the United States, most of the fresh hops you can get will come from Oregon or Washington (unless you grow them yourself.) One good source is Freshops, but you should check with your local homebrew store to see if they are getting a special shipment of fresh hops. Fresh hops pack a flavor and aroma punch that tastes and smells, well, fresh. Fresh hops are also a joy to work with because they smell so good.

How To Do It: First you need to get your hands on some fresh hops. If you do not live in the Pacific Northwest, consider ordering online or contacting your local homebrew store. Fresh hops are typically available in September and October. You will need to use about four times as many hops by weight than you'd normally use, because the hops still have their water weight. Also, fresh hops do not come with alpha acid values, so use your best guess based on the typical values for a variety.

Once you have the hops in hand, use them within five days at most—right away is better. If you cannot use them immediately, you can store them unsealed in the refrigerator.

Putting It All Together

Designing a great beer requires vision. You need to visualize the beer in its entirety before filling in the ingredients. What style is it? Color? Is it highly alcoholic or sessionable? Is it bold or mild? Malty or hoppy? Balanced? Is it for a special event? Does it have unusual or special featured ingredients, like cherries, nutmeg, or jasmine? Is it sweet or dry? Before using the hopping techniques I've described here, create a vision for your beer, then choose the hopping techniques that will fulfill the vision.

Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • Start with your favorite pale ale recipe. Replace the bittering hops with only-late hopping and up the IBUs a little for a strong yet gentle hops flavor.
  • For a maltier beer, try an American amber, American brown, or English mild beer with first wort hopping and late hopping. With this combination you can get significant hop aroma, flavor, and bitterness, without masking the malt you want to showcase.
  • If you like hops in your morning coffee, try an American IPA with hop backed hops and two additions of dry hops.
  • If you like hops, but only after noon, consider a red ale with fresh hops.

Have another idea for using hops well in your homebrew? Chat us up in the comments.