A good understanding of various hop techniques is critical for successful brewing. Yet the wide array of hopping techniques with terms such as mash hopping, first wort hops, dry hops, boil hops, and late hop additions can be confusing to first time and experienced brewers alike.
Beginners and intermediate brewers alike often apply the wrong technique to a given beer style. Knowing which technique to use for a particular style or desired flavor profile is part art form, but it all starts with a firm understanding of the techniques themselves.
We’ll present the most common hop methods in something of a chronological order, starting with the mash and ending with finished beer:
Mash hopping is simply the addition of hops directly to the mash tun itself. The hops is often placed on top of the grain bed and left to sit as the mash is sparged. Mash hopping is reported to provide a better overall balance and character to the beer, though it adds almost no bitterness.
Mash hopping is seldom used today because it requires a fairly large amount of hops and adds very little in direct flavor. Since the hops are never boiled, no bitterness is released and most of the flavorful oils from the hop flower are lost in the boil that follows.
Brewers today theorize that most of the reported benefits from mash hopping are a byproduct of lower pH from mash hopping and not the hops itself. Given the high cost of hops, as well as many cheaper methods exist for controlling the pH of your wort, I’m not sure why a homebrewer would choose to mash hop.
First Wort Hops
First wort hops are hops added to the boil pot at the very start of the lautering process. Unlike mash hops, first wort hops remain in the boiler during the boil and therefore do contribute bitterness to the wort.
First wort hopping is an old German method that has enjoyed a home brewing resurgence. In blind taste tests, beers brewed with this method are perceived as smoother, better blended and have less of a bitter edge and aftertaste. I have personally used this method with great success on a variety of beers where a smooth well balanced bitterness is desirable. I’ve even used it on lightly hopped styles as it helps to reduce the perceived bitterness without upsetting the malt-bitterness balance of the beer.
Bittering hops or boil hops are just that – hops added for the bulk of the boil to add bitterness to the beer. Boiling hops releases the alpha acids that provide bitterness in your beer. The longer you boil your hops, the more bitterness you will add.
Beer software, such as BeerSmith can help you estimate the bitterness for a given hop additions. In general, your bittering additions should be boiled for full length of your boil (typically 60-90 minutes) to extract as much bitterness per ounce of hops as possible. I will usually add my bittering hop addition at the beginning of the boil.
Late Hop Additions
Hops added in the last 5-15 minutes of the boil are called late hop additions. These hops are usually not added for bittering, though they do contribute a small amount of bitterness to the beer. The main purpose for late hop additions is to add aroma and aromatic hop oils to your beer.
In addition to bittering compounds, hop cones from “aromatic” hop varieties contain volatile hop oils that provide the strong flowery aromatic flavor and scent desirable in many hoppy beer styles. Unfortunately most of these compounds boil off within 10-20 minutes of adding the hops.
Late hop additions should always use “aromatic” hop varieties, and should be done within the last 10 minutes of the boil to preserve as many aromatic oils as possible. In addition, late hop additions are most appropriate for beer styles where a hoppy flavor and aroma is needed. You would not add late hop additions to a malty or low hop beer style.
The Hop Back
A hop back is a device containing hops used inline between the boiler and chiller to infuse fragile hop oils and aroma directly into the hot wort before it is cooled and transferred to the fermenter. While a hop back does not add any significant bitterness to the beer, it can add great aroma to your finished beer.
Dry hopping is the addition of hops after the beer has fermented. Hops are typically added in the secondary fermenter or keg and left for a period of several days to several weeks. Dry hopping is used to add a hoppy aroma to the beer, as no bitterness is added with this method. Dry hopping is also used in many commercial beers for a hoppy burst of aroma.
The basic method is to add a few ounces of hops to the secondary before bottling. If kegging, use about half as much hops. Again you should use only aromatic hop varieties, and you should only use this method with hoppy beer styles where a strong hop aroma is desired.
Combining Hop Methods
Advanced brewers often use a combination of hop additions to achieve a burst of hop aroma and flavor, particularly for hoppy styles like India Pale Ale. In fact, many true hopheads will add substantial first wort and boil hops, followed by multiple late hop additions and a final dose of dry hops.
Personally, I try to keep things simple, so I will typically add a single boil or first wort addition for bitterness, followed by a single late hop addition in the last 5-10 minutes of the boil to preserve aromatics and dry hopping if appropriate. In these hop starved times, I’ll also try to use higher alpha bittering hops for the main boil hops and save my precious aromatics for the late addition and for dry hopping.
On non-hoppy styles, I’ll often choose to add a single bittering addition, often as first wort hops since I like the smooth blending perception this method produces.