Before hops became popular, brewers used all kinds of herbs and flowers to lend bitterness and flavor to ales. Gruit, a blend of such herbs, might contain mugwort, yarrow, horehound, heather, wormwood, and any number of other mostly now-forgotten plants.
But it is the humble hops that came to dominate brewing. And while nature gives us hops in only one form—the female cones of the climbing hops plant, Humulus lupulus—hops growers and processors deliver those hops to brewers in a range of products. Here’s what to look for when you’re hops shopping.
Whole Leaf Hops
Whole leaf hops are the dried cones of the hops plant and the least processed form available. Growers pick the cones from the bines (similar to vines), dry them in an oast house, and press them into bales, half bales, or quarter bales. In the United States, a hops bale is 200 pounds (90.7 kg), but homebrewers can purchase whole hops one pound (454 g) at a time or in convenient 1- or 2-ounce (28- or 57-g) bags.
Wet hops are only available during the autumn hops harvest and must be used immediately due to their perishability. These are sold loosely packed and have a moisture content of about 80 percent (dried hops are less than 10 percent). Wet hops are most commonly used as a finishing touch, either in a hopback or for dry hopping, to retain the unique character of very fresh hops. A few homebrew retailers now carry wet hops in season, but if you live near a hops farm, it’s well worth making the trip to get your hands on the freshest wet hops possible.
Hops plugs are less common than they once were. Plugs are, practically speaking, just tiny hops bales of only an ounce or two (28 to 57 g) that happen to be the right size and shape to fit through the bunghole of a firkin. Thus, they are most commonly used to dry hop real ale.
Pellet hops are the ubiquitous rabbit pellet-esque products you find in every homebrew store, large and small. Pellets are produced by shredding dried whole hops and then extruding them through a die. The stickiness of the hops resins naturally holds the pellets together, so no additional binding agents are needed. Pellets are favored from a storage perspective because they occupy just a fraction of the space needed for an equivalent amount of whole leaf hops, but because pellets disintegrate in the kettle and fermentor, whole hops are often preferred for dry hopping and in the hopback.
T-90 pellets are the type most commonly available to hobbyists, either by the pound (454 g) or in 1- or 2-ounce (28- or 57-g) packages, but T-45 pellets are seen on occasion. T-45 pellets have had much of the vegetal material removed, producing a more concentrated product: The numbers simply tell you what fraction of the original dried hops material makes it into the pellet. One hundred kilograms of whole leaf hops will yield 90 kilograms of T-90 or 45 kilograms of T-45 pellets, respectively. Thus, if a homebrew recipe calls for 2 ounces (57 g) of whole leaf Cascade, you could substitute 1.8 ounces (51 g) of T-90 Cascade pellets (90 percent of 2 ounces) or 0.9 ounces (26 g) of T-45 pellets (45 percent of 2 ounces), assuming the same alpha-acid percentage.
Hops extracts are more common in commercial breweries than among hobbyists, but retailers are increasingly making them available to small-scale brewers, too. Extracts allow for very precise dosing of bitterness because they’re standardized to a known percentage of alpha acids. Because extracts deliver IBUs without introducing vegetal material into the kettle, they’re popular for high-gravity styles that require substantial bitterness to balance a hefty malt bill.
Yakima Chief−Hopunion (YCH HOPS) is leading the charge in the development of new hops-powder products, and the release they brought to market in Spring 2017, LupuLN2, promises to drastically reduce the amount of hops used by weight, enhance hops flavor and aroma, reduce vegetal off-flavors, and save beer yield lost to hops matter.
LupuLN2 is called such because of the process used to separate the lupulin glands from the whole hops cone and the fact that the resulting concentrated lupulin product is twice as potent as traditional hops products, says Melody Meyer, director of marketing at YCH HOPS. The proprietary process starts when the cones are placed in a nitrogen-rich atmosphere and bathed in extremely low temperatures, which allows the lupulin glands to be separated cleanly from the leafy material.
Homebrew packaging of LupuLN2 is schedule to be released in Summer 2017. Check your local homebrew supply shop to see when they expect it in.