Author Timothy Sprinkle takes readers behind the scenes of Colorado nanobreweries to reveal the realities, with a nuanced perspective on this narrow but growing segment.
Good news, hop heads: the Brewers Association just released its annual Hop Survey. Along with a wealth of other data, the annual survey includes a year-over-year “Top 10 Hop Production Ranking.” The results? Well, they are surprisingly similar in form to that other familiar fall ranking: the College Football Top 25.
For the eighth year in a row (i.e., every year the survey has been in existence), Cascade and Centennial hops are ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. These perennial favorites are the Alabama and Ohio State of hops: love ‘em or hate ‘em, you can bet they’ll be in the mix for top hop.
Top picks from prior years, on the other hand, such as Willamette and CTZ, have slipped considerably in the rankings. These are the Oregon and Boise State of this year’s rankings: once considered top 10 shoe-ins, neither is a safe bet this year. Willamette fell out of the top 10 last year, and remains outside looking in, while CTZ — ranked fourth in the inaugural survey— clings to 10th place.
Chart © Brian Devine
Finally, relative newcomers Citra and Mosaic have made big splashes in this year’s rankings, occupying No. 5 and 7, respectively. Much like Clemson, Citra broke into the top 10 around 2012-3 and remains a force to be reckoned with. Mosaic, on the other hand, finds a natural analogue in the Washington Huskies (if we restrict our view to the past decade or so, that is; shout out to the ’91 champs): both were new, and somewhat surprising, additions to the top 10 this year, yet neither shows any signs of slowing down. (To be fair, not everyone was surprised by these successes; prescient analysts predicted Washington’s success during the preseason and the rise of Mosaic hops was prophesied in The New Brewer last year.)
Other highlights from the 2016 Hop Survey results:
- Beers are getting hoppier — The amount of hops/barrel rose among all but the biggest craft brewers, from 1.39 last year to 1.5 this year. This is an indication that smaller brewers are increasingly able to get their hands on hops, which is probably because:
- Hop plantings are up — way up. Roughly 8,000 new acres were planted last year, nearly double the BA-suggested 4,000 acres (based on projected industry growth).
- Patents expiring — Proprietary hops like Simcoe and Amarillo have patents expiring soon (2019 and 2020, respectively), which should lead to wider availability in the next decade.
Overall, the news is good for hop lovers. In particular, the increase in acreage likely means we have stepped out of the shadow of the hop shortage of the late 2000s. “While yields will be determinative, it appears 2016 has broken the cycle where hop supply is chasing demand,” according to The New Brewer contributor Dick Cantwell. “Whether that’s equilibrium or oversupply remains to be seen.”
We’ll be watching with baited, bitter breath, hoppy beer in hand.
Top Hops in 2016* [Previous Year’s Rank]
*2015 production year, reported in 2016 survey
- Cascade 
- Centennial 
- Chinook 
- Simcoe 
- Citra 
- Amarillo 
- Mosaic [NR]
- Crystal 
- Hall Mitt 
- CTZ 
Source: Brewers Association 2016 Hop Usage Survey/The New Brewer Magazine
Hops are a vital ingredient in most beers, but they can present a messy problem. We need them in the boil but really don’t want them in the fermentor. Whole-leaf hops become bulky as they absorb wort and break apart, while pellet hops turn into green sludge. Either way, they can easily clog a valve, a racking tube, a pump, or a counterflow chiller.
There are several standard ways to solve this problem. The most traditional is to whirlpool the wort at the end of the boil. This collects the hops and trub in the center of the kettle, keeping them away from the drain or racking tube. The downside is that the whirlpool needs time to work; otherwise, it leaves a fair amount of hops in the solution (especially with pellet hops). Also, super hoppy beers can overwhelm this technique.
Alternatively, you can use a filter, either on your racking tube or attached to the kettle drain. There are numerous commercial choices, such as the Bazooka Screen or the Hop Stopper, but you can also make a simple filter out of a copper scrubber. Any of these work reasonably well, although pellet hops can often clog them up. Cleaning the filter afterward is also a hassle.
Another option is to use muslin or nylon bags to hold your hops during the boil. This keeps them contained, but there’s a trade-off. Your hops utilization will be lower because the hops are crammed together, rather than free floating. Generally, you’ll need a separate bag for each addition, and you must avoid over-packing them. Big, hoppy beers may require quite a few bags to handle all the hops.
Cool Alternative: A Hop Spider
A fairly simple solution is the hop spider, which comes in a couple of different styles. One is a metal mesh cylinder that hangs inside the kettle during the boil. The other is a metal frame with a large nylon bag attached, which perches over the kettle. During the course of the boil, hops are added to the cylinder or bag. Hops utilization is still a minor issue, but the larger size gives the hops more room to infuse the wort.
The nylon bag version is a great DIY project because it’s trivial to build and the parts are quite inexpensive.
- One 4″ x 3″ (8 cm x 10 cm) ABS reducing coupler
- Three long 3/8″ (10 mm) eye-bolts to form the spider’s legs. The length should be equal to the radius of your kettle or a little longer.
- Six steel washers (3/8″/10 mm hole)
- Six 3/8″ (10 mm) nuts
- Large (3″/8 cm or larger) hose clamp
- 5 gal (19 l) nylon paint strainer bag
- Hammer and vice
- Drill 3 equally spaced 3/8″ (10 mm) holes in the middle of the fatter side of the coupler (see below).
- Warp 3 of the washers so they’ll fit the inside edge of the coupler. To do this, I placed a washer across a ½” (1 cm) gap on my vice, laid an eye-bolt on top, then gave it a whack with a hammer to bend the washer slightly.
- For each leg of the spider:
- Thread a nut onto an eye-bolt so it’s a couple of inches (about 7 cm) down.
- Put a flat washer on the bolt.
- Slide the eye-bolt through one of the holes in the coupler.
- Put a curved washer on the bolt so it snugs up against the inside edge of the coupler.
- Thread a second nut onto the bolt just far enough for the bolt to protrude slightly past the nut.
- Holding the bolt in place, tighten the nut on the outside of the coupler until it snugs together tightly (see below).
- Feed the neck of the paint strainer bag through the coupler from the wider side, then wrap it back over the narrower opening.
- Use the hose clamp to hold the bag in place (see below).
On brew day, once you’re ready to start the boil, place the hop spider across the top of your kettle, with the bag hanging down inside the kettle. Then, for each hops addition, just pour the hops into the mouth of the hop spider. At the end of the boil, you can drain the kettle like normal, but all the hops will stay inside the strainer bag.
When it’s time to clean up, loosen the hose clamp and detach the bag. Empty out the spent hops, and then turn the bag inside out to rinse off all of the hops particles. Hang the bag up to dry. Once it’s dry, you can brush away any remaining hops particles.
Late addition hops are a crucial element of today’s IPA as brewers strive to capture more hops aroma and flavor without adding bitterness. But English breweries (and some brewers inspired by English brewing practices) have been using the hopback technique for ages, running wort from the kettle through a container filled with whole leaf hops. Devices (such as the Blichmann Engineering HopRocket) are now available to homebrewers, so we asked Taylor Caron to test how this technique compares to late kettle hops additions.
There’s an old British brewing practice of running wort through leaf hops on the way from the kettle to the fermentor, using what’s known as a hopback. This can be done alongside or instead of a knockout addition to add a bold hops aroma and flavor to the wort. One belief is that if you move the hot wort quickly through the hops and then quickly chill the wort, you retain the hops’ aromatics better than if you just add hops to the kettle before chilling.
With this practice, there’s also the benefit that the hops themselves act as a filter for trub and kettle hops matter, sending a clearer wort into the fermentor.
We decided to test the actual effects on hops aroma and flavor by conducting a side-by-side comparison of Blichmann Engineering’s HopRocket and adding hops to the kettle immediately after the boil. Here is a quick overview of our process followed by more detailed step-by-step photos.
We boiled a 10-gallon batch of wort and ran half of the wort through the sanitized HopRocket loaded with 3 ounces of leaf hops. Rather than use a pump, we simply connected the kettle to the HopRocket inline and gravity-fed the wort into the HopRocket. It took about 12 minutes for us to transfer half the wort through the HopRocket and into another kettle where we chilled it with a copper immersion chiller. We left the other half of the wort in the kettle and added 3 ounces of leaf hops to it, letting those hops steep in the 190°F (88°C) hot wort for 12 minutes, then chilling with another immersion chiller. The wort heading out of the HopRocket was much clearer in the carboy than the second half of the wort, which we simply ran through a fine screen. This was not surprising.
HopRocket Test Protocol
To test how the HopRocket hopback technique performed against a more typical knockout hops addition, we brewed a 10-gallon batch of India Pale Ale and split it between the two hops processes. At the end of the boil, we placed 3 ounces of hops in the HopRocket and gravity-fed the wort from our kettle, through the HopRocket, and into a pot for wort cooling (shown at top).
The Taste Test
A few weeks later, three of us sat down to compare the two versions next to each other. Both versions showed some definite hops haze, but the HopRocket sample was clearer. The two were served in slightly different glasses, so we could tell them apart, and that may have accounted for the apparent difference in clarity. We wondered whether the “raw” hops elements that come from the HopRocket are less prone to settling out, thereby mitigating the benefits of filtering the trub.
The difference in taste and mouthfeel between the two was really quite subtle. We found that the non-HopRocket version had a sharper bitterness; this was not undesirable, just a distinction. The version that went through the HopRocket had a cleaner, fresher, and crisper hops presence. This makes sense when we consider that the kettle hops had at least an extra 12 minutes of hot-side time, during which some isomerization (the process by which the nonsoluble hops resins become the bittering compound we know and love) would have occurred, even at sub-boil temperatures.
The HopRocket beer presented itself as a younger beer in general, whereas the other half had a slightly stronger yeast profile and stronger contrast of malt to hops. For what it’s worth, all three of us finished the HopRocket version before the non-HopRocket, but it could simply be that we are all right-handed, the HopRocket version was closer, and muscle memory took over. Who knows?
Overall, this was a really great IPA that we will make again, albeit with more homebrewer tinkering.
The HopRocket was very straightforward and easy to use and clean. We really liked seeing the trub left behind so effectively. Many brewers using a plate chiller find it difficult to keep hops pellet matter from clogging the chiller during runoff. The HopRocket would help immensely, assuming—of course—that the finished beer warrants late-hops character. Also, if a kettle has a hard time draining off of a massive hops load in general, the HopRocket is a good way to take the wort to the hops rather than vice versa. If bold hops aroma is something you want in your beer, the HopRocket is a great piece of gear to help you get there.
Blichmann Engineering HopRocket™
Available at homebrew shops nationwide and worldwide.
We’re excited to try the HopRocket in other areas of the brewing process and have a number of additional tests in mind:
- Chill the wort first and then transfer to the carboy through the HopRocket to reduce potential isomerization (which can begin to occur at 150°F (65°C).
- Cycle the wort through the HopRocket during the boil to reduce the quantity of hops in the kettle itself, reducing trub but giving better hops utilization than a mesh hopback might.
- Run beer from the fermentor through the HopRocket (purge it with CO2 first) into the bottling bucket or keg to add last-minute hops aroma.
One of the most approachable beer ingredients a homebrewer can tackle is homegrown hops. Sure, yeast wrangling is a fun, nerdy challenge, but chances are, the wild bugs will produce something that reminds you more of a used diaper than Cantillon. And yes, wheat and barley grow all over, but even the most stewarded of plots in a typical homebrewer’s backyard will produce barely enough for the nanoest of nano batches (not to mention, the need for home malting).
Hops Harvest Timing
The plant does all the hard work over the summer, but as the days shorten, it’s time for the brewer/farmer to go to work. The timing of the harvest is critical. If you pick too soon, you may be left with underdeveloped flavors that have more of a grassy note and take an even longer time to dry. Pick too late and you may be left with oxidized, resinous hops flavors that can come off oniony, garlicky, or even cheesy. Each hardiness zone is going to be different, but careful monitoring of the cones’ firmness is the easiest way to track hops maturity. Ripened hops cones will have a parchment-like texture on the outside and when squeezed will rebound to their original shape relatively quickly. Rub the cones in your palm to get a sense for the aroma development and let your nose, eyes, and hands guide you.
Hops Harvest Methods
There are two primary methods of harvesting in a home-garden setting: slash-and-groom or pick-in-place. The choice is yours. In the slash-and-groom process, you cut the plant at the base, slash near the trellis at the top, and take the entire length of the hops plant for processing. Slash-and-groom is more efficient and the equivalent of what actual hops farmers practice. However, there is a yield penalty by harvesting immature cones that may otherwise fully develop.
With the pick-in-place strategy, you leave the bines growing on the trellis and pick the mature cones up and down plant as they become available. With pick-in-place, you’re able to continually harvest cones at the ideal ripeness, but efficiency is reduced by continually needing to monitor your bines. For some homebrewers/gardeners (myself included), hops plants not only serve the purpose of providing ingredients for the next batch, but also add a nice landscaping element. For that reason alone, I prefer the pick-in-place approach—I enjoy the sight of those bines changing with the season.
Preserving Your Hops
Regardless of the harvest method, preserving the hops for when you need them is the real challenge of the season. Obviously, you can avoid the issue altogether by brewing a wet-hopped beer to capture the essence of the harvesting season. If the timing of the harvest and the opportunity to brew don’t coincide perfectly, you can store your wet hops in a corny keg that has been thoroughly purged of atmospheric air with CO2 or N2. If kept cool, the blanketed wet hops will keep for several weeks without degrading too much.
Drying hops can be as complicated or as simple as you want. I’ve tried a number of approaches over the years, all with varying levels of investment and success. The easiest method is simply spreading the hops out on a pizza sheet and letting them dry in a hot/dry area of your home (the garage works great). The downside to this method is that it takes more time, and you’re limited by the number of pizza trays you have.
A food dehydrator works great. Despite its limited capacity, it’s incredibly quick, so if you’re diligent, you can process a large harvest relatively quickly. An oven can work, but it’s a little more difficult to keep it from getting too hot—if you’re not careful, you’ll be left with a useless batch of brown, crispy hops and a house that smells like spicy, burned grass.
The method that I’ve settled on over the past couple seasons requires two window screens, a fan, and a hot garage (pictured above). I can spread about 2 pounds (907 g) of hops over a 3 foot x 3 foot (1 m x 1 m) window screen. I then place the second, complementary screen over the hops and attach the two screens with Velcro, which allows me to rotate the hops as they dry. I then place the hops rack above the fan (sawhorses do a decent job for suspending the rack). Depending on how hot the garage gets, this method can dry the entire batch in 24 hours. As with the harvest, let your senses be your guide while drying the hops.
Dry Hops Preservation
Once the hops are dried, it’s time to store them for long-term preservation. The best option is a vacuum sealer. Prices for a decent food saver seem to drop every year, so if the number of bines in your yard is growing year over year and you’re looking to save your hops for more than a couple months, it may be worth investing in one. If you plan to use your hops within a couple months after harvest, a freezer bag packed with hops, followed by a judicious squeezing of as much air out of the bag as possible, is a perfect solution. Be sure to weigh the hops before packaging and label your storage bags with the vital stats.
As with any other produce you grow, with a little effort, homegrown hops can taste better (and be more special) than anything you’ll find at the store. The ability to grow your ingredients, even at a homebrew scale, gives you an appreciation for the effort and skill it takes to bring these ingredients to the commercial marketplace at such large volumes.