Whole-cone hops or pellets this causes
more heated debate among brewers than anything else.
I suggest that it is difficult to dispute that pellets are better where it counts – flavour, storage-capacity and easy-of-use.
This is not intended as anti-leaf propaganda and it should be noted that leaf hops do give off clearer floral notes – so if that is you are looking for in your beer, then whole-leaf hops are definitely advised. In any other sense, pellets are definitely a better choice even when it comes to the actual taste of the beer. They impart character quicker than leaf hops do, they provide more flavour, and most importantly, they are more consistent in flavour.
There is something romantic about using actual hops in your brewing and there is definitely something to be said for that. However there is nothing romantic about having to clean out the mess of spent hops from brewing and fermenting vessels including clogged valves – or ending up with a poorly hopped end-product because of the varying hop alpha and difficulty in estimating the hop utilization correctly.
Pelletised hops are essentially hops crushed into pellet form. This takes place within two or three days from harvest – while the hops are still very fresh. In the process, the leaves and stalks of the hop are removed, leaving only the cones in the pellets. Because pellets no longer look natural but instead industrial, some brewers have the notion that they are inferior to using actual hops, but this is simply not true.
Firstly hop pellets give of more flavour than whole-cone hops. According to studies, hop pellets give roughly 10% more bitterness, flavour and aroma compared to whole-cone. In crushing hops for making hop pellets, the lupilin glands inside the hops are crushed, which means you get a better extraction rate of alpha acid – leading to more bitterness when the alpha acid is isomerised in the boil.
In many blind tests, pellet hops have come out on top in terms of flavour and scientists have found similar results by analysing the chemical compounds in the flavour profiles. Various tasting studies report similar results – that the flavour intensity was favourably affected by the use of hop pellets when comparing to whole-cone hops and it has also been shown that pellets increase the flavour stability brew-to-brew.
These are some of cited reasons that pellets are preferred to whole-cone by professionals, who want consistency in their product.
Having said all this, many people claim that whole-cone gives off a better flavour when it comes to dry hopping. However the results from blind tests are inconclusive. On top of which, whole cone hops introduce more oxygen to the beer and soak up more of the wort and they are also impractical in the brewing process for reasons given below.
Having tried to deal with the big, contentious issue – which type tastes better – we can move on to talking about what everyone agrees on: pellets are way more practical, not least because how easy they are to store.
Pelletised hops take up less space, pellets have less surface area, so they oxidize more slowly which means they stay fresh longer and have a better flavour for longer. Pellets have a lower rate of alpha loss than whole-leaf hops, with only 10-20% loss over 12 months at 20oC and almost no loss at all in a frozen state. They last up to 3 years in a normal refrigerator. Whole leaf hops, on the other hand, last approximately 6 months and in the best-case scenario up to 1 year by which time they will not give anything close to their original flavour. Smelly socks and parmesan cheese have both been used to describe the smell of old hops.
Very, very fresh whole-leaf hops may be equally as good as (some would claim superior to) pellets, but the high alpha loss rate removes any advantage and only brewing with fresh, seasonal whole-leaf hops would restrict brewing to three months a year!
The use of whole-leaf hops produces more mess to clean up and can clog up the nozzles and valves of your brewing vessel. Dry hopping in the fermenter produces another difficult cleaning job. Pelletised hops are generally hosed out with very little effort.
It is advisable to use a muslin bag when dry hopping with whole-leaf and to weigh down the buoyant leaves ensuring that they are wetted and that the flavour gets into the liquid. This means you typically need to use more 10-15% more hops (because of the muslin bag retaining some flavour) increasing the cost of dry hopping with whole leaf hops.
Pellets, on the other hand, avoid many of these problems. They are small and easy to handle, and for home brewers, they eliminate most of the issues you will have with whole-leaf hops in the dry-hopping process. They also soak up less wort than whole-leaf hops, leaving you with more beer! The one problem with pellets is that they give of more trub if used loose in for example a dry hopping situation.
This may lead to some clogging issues similarly to whole-leaf hops, but these can be solved by using a muslin bag when brewing and/or by using a strainer on your siphon when siphoning the beer. Also, you should make sure to use a finer strainer when brewing with pellets so that less hop matter transfers to the bottle.
In short: Choose pellets (most of the time)
The bottom line is that pellets are not only easier to store and to use; they are more consistent when it comes to their flavour and they actually give off more flavour – seemingly contrary to popular belief among some brewers. While there definitely is something to be said for the romantic factor of using whole leaf hops “the way it has always been”, and they do give off better floral notes for example, pelletised hops in our opinion win in the long run on usability, storability, cost effectiveness and most importantly the end result.
I may be harbouring a certain bias because when I started brewing full time professionally on the 13th of August 1979 at a brewery with a German designed brewhouse it was specially designed for pelletised hops. It was several years before I became familiar with the problems associated with whole hop usage.
Written by our friend George Thompson Brewing Consultant