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Ask the Experts: What is First Wort Hopping?

Homebrew expert Brad Smith, author of the Beersmith homebrewing software and the voice behind the Beersmith podcast, addresses the question of first wort hopping and its purpose.

Brad Smith 5 months ago

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A Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine reader recently asked us the following question:

What is first wort hopping and what does it do?

There are a lot of misconceptions about first wort hopping (FWH) and what it really accomplishes. The method itself is pretty simple. Rather than adding hops in the boil, you add the hops to the boil kettle fairly early in the sparging process, which gives them a chance to steep as you sparge your grains and drain more wort into the boil kettle. The hops remain while you bring the kettle to a boil and are left in for the entire boil period of typically 60–90 minutes.

The net effect of first wort hopping is fairly subtle. In blind-taste tests, most people find first wort hops to have a slightly smoother, less sharp, and slightly less bitter overall flavor. As a result, the method is primarily used in beers that are not overly hops-forward such as Continental beers, wheat beers, English styles, and many non-IPA American beers. Despite the mellowing effect of first wort hopping, scientific measurements of the wort generally indicate a slightly higher level of bitterness in the finished beer, typically 5–10 percent higher. In tasting, however, the opposite is true, with the vast majority of tasters (11 of 12 tasters in some early experiments by Dr. George Fix) preferring the first wort–hopped beer, which they found to be more harmonic, less sharp, and uniform in its bitterness.

Some misconceptions about first wort hopping track back to its origins. The technique itself is very old, having been used in German beers well over 100 years ago, but the technique was largely lost until Priess, Nuremburg, and Mitter published an article on it in 1995 (Brauwelt International, Vol IV, p. 308).

In the late 1990s, many brewers experimented with turning their late-boil hops additions into first-wort hops additions, apparently thinking that steeping the hops in the first runnings off the mash was somehow equivalent to a late-boil addition. We know now that the two are not at all the same and that first-wort hops are essentially full-length boil hops that also take the edge off the flavor a bit. They are a bittering addition and not at all equivalent to a late-hops or whirlpool addition.

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That being said, first wort hopping is one of my favorite techniques when I’m looking to smooth and blend the flavor of my hops into the beer, and I use it extensively on just about any style of beer that is not “hops-forward.”

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