We all know that there are different types of hops that come in various forms from pellets to whole cone and also hop resins like Hop Shot that is increasing in popularity. In this article I want to focus on the differences in pellets and whole cone hops and their applications to homebrewed beer.
I’m going to start out by saying that I don’t believe that there is a right or wrong way to use hops in your homebrew. Like most things in brewing the hops you use and how you use them is mostly about personal preference. I have always been curious about whether or not the form of the hop actually matters in brewing. In general I have not noticed a real difference myself except for when it came to storage. Most seasoned brewers are aware that the acid content of the hops and the boil time is what contributes directly to the bitterness. The higher the alpha acid content the more potential for the hops to contribute to higher IBUs. Likewise the longer the hops are boiled the more lupulin oils are extracted from the hops resulting in higher IBUs. But is there a difference when using pellet vs whole hops?
What we know about hops
Variety of hops aside, what makes us choose between pellet or leaf hops when we buy for our brews? If you are like me, then you may tend to stick with pellet hops mostly due to the fact that they are easier to store. I tend to purchase my hops by the pound and when you have several pounds at a time freezer space is a valuable commodity. A pound of leaf hops can easily consume three times the space that a pound of pellets does. However, leaf hops tend to be a bit cheaper, likely due to the fact that they don’t require as much processing before they hit the shelves. Speaking of processing, it is a common thought that the extra processing that pellet hops go through may make them last longer. This would certainly explain why most breweries order pellets as they may have a longer shelf life in addition to being easier to store.
In the past I have have tested the hypothesis that pellet hops last longer. In my short experiment I put an ounce of cascade pellets and leaf hops into sealed mason jars and put them on a dark shelf in my office. Alternatively, I also did the same exact thing a second time but stored in the freezer. I then did a weekly check to observe the visible and olfactory change in each of the samples. After about 2 months I was able to observe that the cascade pellets that were stored at approximately 75F/23C had changed color a little to be slightly brown but still mostly green. Whereas the leaf hops that were stored at the same temperature were completely brown. After two months the two samples had definite changes in smell. The pellets were still holding on to some of their citrus-y aroma that I love but also had a slight hint of smelly feet. The leaf hops however smelt like a really funky blue cheese. The freezer samples had no detectable change at all at two months. So while this little experiment is isolated to a small sample size the results for this group showed that storing in the freezer is a great way to prolong the life of both pellet and leaf hops but at room temperature pellet hops were significantly more resilient to decay. Regrettably, I no longer have the photos from this experiment.
So do pellet hops last longer than whole hops? The results of my experiment would say yes!
The next question I propose is does it make a difference in your homebrew?
I performed an experiment to test the bittering qualities of cascade pellets vs leaf hops in a split batch of beer. For this experiment I used the grain bill from the very popular Homebrew Talk Centennial Blonde recipe originally provided by the famous Biermuncher. For the hop additions I only used cascade hops. I began by mashing all the grain together using the instructions for the 11 gallon batch. After the mash and sparge were completed I then evenly split the batch into separate kettles and started the boil. I used the exact same hop schedule that Biermuncher has listed in his recipe with the exception of using only cascade hops for consistency and one batch was made using only pellet hops while the other was made using only leaf hops. Original gravities for both beers came out identical according to my refractometer and the final gravities came out 0.002 apart which may have impacted flavor but seemed negligible to my taste testers. I should also note that the alpha acid content varied slightly between the two hop forms. My pellet hops had an AA of 4.8% while the leaf hops were only 4.5%.
To test the results, I brought in my wife and a few of my friends from a local club. All tasters were BJCP judges at the time. I presented each taster with samples of 3 beers. One sample was the beer made with all cascade pellets, one with all cascade leaf hops and the other was a control that was made previously using the exact instructions provided by Biermuncher which included the use of centennial hops.
The results of this test were surprising. None of my judges knew which beer was which but they could all easily identify the beer made with centennial hops because it was notably more bitter than the others. However, only my wife was able to pick the correct beer when asked which was made with leaf hops. The other, more experienced judges could not detect a difference. Now, given that 4 out of 5 of my judges could not identify the correct beer it is likely that it may have been a fluke that my wife guessed correctly. Again, this is a very small sample size but the results from this experiment concluded that for our sample the form of the hop was negligible in having a direct effect on perceived bitterness so long as alpha acid content and boil time were comparable.
The next question I think should be asked is does the form of the hop make a difference in the perceived hop flavor from dry hopping? Unfortunately, I have not done an experiment like this myself but Greg Foster of the blog Brülosophy did and it was a very well put together experiment.
Greg’s statistical data from his exBEERiment determined that both pellet and leaf hops provide similar aromatic qualities but a few of his tasters were able to determine which beer was made with whole cone hops leading him to conclude that “beers dry hopped with whole cone hops will be noticeably more intense when fresh, the intensity fading over time, eventually dropping to a level similar to that of a pellet dry hopped beer.”
In conclusion, between my experiments and those published by the Brülospher; I think the only truly notable differences between pellet and whole cone hops are in the shelf life and space consumption. Pellet hops do appear to last a lot longer than whole cones when not stored in the freezer. If you are storing hops in the freezer you may want to stick to pellets in order to save space and maybe even to keep any significant other from hating your homebrewing hobby any further.
Hop image from Homebrew Talk user CHQ28. Image retrieved from: http://www.homebrewtalk.com/photo/cascade-cones-63582.html