Friday, December 9, 2016

How to Buy and Use Bulk Hops (by the pound)

Like so many other industries, the homebrewing industry changed a lot during and after the recession. Where there used to be few dedicated local suppliers of homebrewing equipment and ingredients, now there are many (though this may be changing). And while we have had a handful of online suppliers for quite some time (MoreBeer comes to mind), there are plenty of suppliers who are either new or who upped their online game considerably (e.g., Williams Brewing used to be primarily a catalog business). When I started brewing, there was one local shop I went to and I bought everything from them. I no longer live in California, but I still love this shop, especially for the people who work there and who helped me get into this great hobby.

But once I got really into the hobby, I realized that there was a better way to get certain supplies. And while buying whole sacks of base malt is great, I can appreciate the hassle that it represents. However, keeping dry yeast in the fridge and buying hops in bulk has saved me money, time, and has made it easier for me to get ready to brew on a moment's notice. I recommend keeping 2-6 sachets of dry yeast on hand (US-05, S-04, BRY-97, London ESB, Belle Saison, and Abbaye are all good options). I keep base malt on hand, too, so I am always ready to brew SOMETHING, even if I am alone and the LHBS is closed. If you are an extract brewer, it won't hurt to start buying dry malt extract in bulk, provided you don't let it go stale.

This is my guide to buying and using hops in homebrew for the casual brewer. Now, I am going to assume for the rest of this blog that everyone is brewing 5-gallon batches of beer, even though I brew 12-gallon batches. I am also going to assume that everyone brews once per month. If you brew more or less than this, consider changing the numbers I am recommending.

You will need to have an answer for these questions:
1. What kinds of beers do I generally brew?
2. How much freezer space to I have?
3. What kind of hops (whole/pellet) works best with my system?

First of all, everyone should be buying their hops in bulk online from hop retailers like Hops Direct and Yakima Valley Hops. There used to be a few more hop farms I recommended in the past, but today these are the two I find the most reliable and affordable. In general, Hops Direct has better prices and Yakima Valley Hops has better selection. I recommend you buy from either or both. And get a decent kitchen scale to measure your hops. Anything digital that goes to grams will work - it will also make you a better baker and coffee brewer to have one of these around.

Not only will this save you considerable money (I can pay $2.25/oz for Cascade at my LHBS or buy a pound for $9.60 at HopsDirect), but having the hops on-hand will allow you to brew whenever you want. No worrying about what they have available at the LHBS and no more getting not-too-fresh hops delivered from the online homebrew supplier. You will build your recipes (or sub when necessary) with all the ingredients you have.

Secondly, everyone who brews hoppy beers or high gravity beers should be buying a CO2-extracted hop resin. You can get the bitterness you need from these guys and not waste the kettle space with wort-absorbing hops. This is especially important if you are a whole hop brewer or someone who brews more than 100 gallons per year. That said, if you fill up some cappable oral syringes with the resin, then you put those filled syringes in a freezer bag and toss it in the fridge, they will keep very well for several years without losing much bittering potential and they take up very little space. If you're suspicious, just try one tube for your next batch and see how you feel about it. FWIW, I would describe the bittering of this resin to be similar to Warrior or Magnum.

If you are not planning to get a CO2 extract for bittering, then get an extra lb of nice clean bittering hops. Magnum, Warrior, Nugget, CTZ, and Apollo are all excellent choices in most circumstances. Magnum, Warrior, and Northern Brewer are very neutral and will leave very little aroma when boiled 60 or 90 minutes. CTZ may be a slightly bolder bitterer and has some lingering aroma, but this will rarely be a problem for a novice brewer. I would recommend Apollo over the others for most novice brewers because you can use less of it and it keeps very well and can double as an aroma hop. If you're only really into lagers and European styles, I would recommend Magnum.

Third, North American and European hops are harvested in the autumn (usually September and October) and they are usually available for sale in October and November (whole hops are typically made available before pelleted hops). Hops from the southern hemisphere (mostly New Zealand and Australia) are harvested during their autumn, and usually become available for purchase in March and April from the above hop distributers. You should plan to buy your hops accordingly. Buying one year's worth of hops in the fall works, but if you want to be guaranteed the freshest southern hemisphere hops, putting in one order in April and one in November is also a decent way to go.

Now, what kinds of beers do you brew?

If you brew mostly hoppy styles of beer like IPA, American Pale Ale, and Arrogant Bastard-inspired strong ales; you will need about 8 oz (6-12) of bold new world hops per batch. Planning for 8 oz per batch means you can buy 5-6 lbs of hops per year in bulk. If you run out before August (when the next year's US crop becomes available), you can always order a pound or two of Australian and New Zealand hops (Galaxy and Nelson Sauvin are my favorite "down under" varietals), since they are harvested in February/March and typically only available in April.

Since you're looking to buy 5-6 lbs of hops, you will want 3 lbs each of bold aroma/dual use varieties you know you love for your hop-forward beers. You will also want 1-2 pounds of pleasing "everyday" American hops for pale ale, brown ale, and stout. And it won't hurt to have 1-2 lbs of "noble type" or "English-type" hops for styles that just won't taste right with fruity new world hops.

If you brew only lagers and other continental styles of beer like Belgian ales, Altbier, Kölsch, Weissbier, and related American styles (California Common comes to mind), you will use less hops per batch. In this instance you could likely get by with 1-3 lbs of hops, and you should choose all Noble or English-style hops. Frankly, 1 lb of Northern Brewer and 1 lb of Hallertauer or Tettnanger would likely keep the lager brewer happy for 10-12 batches, but an additional lb of Sterling or Saphir wouldn't break the bank.

If you brew mostly balanced English and American ales, with the occasional lager or IPA, then you will need 1-2 lbs of great bold hops and another 1-2 lbs of everyday US hops. It would help to have a lb or two of English or Noble-type hops too. 1 lb of Citra, 1 lb of Mosaic, 1 lb of Cascade, 1 lb of Centennial, and 1 lb of Crystal would probably do you fine, but you could use more traditional "C" hops or more bold "IPA hops" like Simcoe and Apollo if you wanted. If you tend to brew more Likewise, going with more "English-style" hops can help build a nice balanced hop profile for a number of beers (Cascade + Willamette is a classic blend). Or you could just buy up 5 lbs of cheap, delicious cascade and probably brew a lot of great styles with just that.

If you don't know what you want to brew, then I would recommend you get yourself 2 lbs of bold new world hops, 2 lbs of everyday American hops, 1 lb of a genuine European noble hop (I like Tettnanger) and 1 lb of an American-grown Noble/English-type hop like Willamette. Mosaic, Citra, Cascade, Chinook, Saaz, and Willamette will probably allow you to brew whatever you want for a year.

Bold New World Hops: Personally, I would go with Simcoe, Mosaic, and Amarillo. I also adore Nelson Sauvin and Galaxy, so I would shoot for choosing at least 3 of those five varieties, depending on availability. Citra, Apollo, Summit, Chinook, and CTZ (Columbus, Tomahawk, or Zeus) are also all solid options, but they are less universally-enjoyed, so only choose them if you like them.

Everyday American Hops: These hops will also work well for IPA, but their use in moderation will also work great for more balanced beers like a clone of Mirror Pond or a nicely balanced American porter or stout. Cascade, Centennial, and Amarillo are all great everyday hops. You can use these in almost any US-style craft beer and they will taste great. Use them in the boil, at flameout, or dry and they will work well. Cascade is also cheap, easy to find, and one of the easiest hops to grow yourself, should you ever try that hobby out. Personally, I try to always have Cascade on hand.

Noble or English Type Hops: There are two schools of thought here. Some people like to buy genuine European hops for brewing European styles. Others (like me) like to buy American hops that taste and smell similar to European hops to brew those styles. If you're from the former camp, consider that the Belgians use hops from all over Europe in their classic beers and that British brewers rely mostly on English hops for traditional ales (though they are increasingly using American and Oceanic hops). Germans prefer German and Czech hops and so on.

For versatility, I would choose from these continental varietals: Tettnanger, Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, Spalt, and Saphir. Any of these would be perfectly at hops in a lager or a Belgian ale, and they would also do well in a crisp blond ale or something like a Kölsch or Altbier. And no one will complain if you are using any of these as a subtle addition to a brown ale or stout, regardless of intended national "style origin."

For bitters and other British styles, and just about any Belgian ale (or as a "back up player" in an American style), these are good choices: East Kent Goldings, Fuggles, First Gold, or Styrian Goldings are a few good options.

If you are looking to brew an authentic Czech lager, you need Saaz.

For the latter camp (like me), and you want US-Grown Noble or English-Type Hops, I like to choose from these varieties for lagers, Belgians, and English-style ales: Mt. Hood, Ultra, Sterling, or Crystal. The best choices for English-style ales, which also work in American style ales are: Crystal, Willamette, Glacier, and US Goldings. Sterling is my recommendation for attempting a Czech pilsner without buying European Saaz hops. This is also a variety where I will frequently try something new rather than going with an old standby.

For what it's worth, this season I just bought Willamette, Bravo, US Goldings, Mosaic, Simcoe, Amarillo, and Chinook.

If you have a ton of freezer space, you can brew with whatever you want. If you want to stick to 100% whole hops, go ahead. But if you are limited in your freezer space, you will want to stick to pellet hops. They take up much less space, though they can be difficult to use with some systems. Basially, filtering out pellet hops can be hard. You can use a hop bag or another fine mesh steel instrument to encase the pelletized hops, but that reduces contact with the wort (reducing effectiveness of the hops). You can also run a whirlpool post-boil to try to corral most of the hop matter into the center of your kettle, but this is far from foolproof.

If you do not use a pump, then simply using a pickup tube of some kind and using hop bags or muslin bags will work. Or you can use a filtered pickup of some kind, like a kettle screen or a false bottom. With a filtered pickup system and whole hops, you will do great just letting the hops go free, provided everything is gravity-fed and there is no pump. Once you start using a pump, things get more complicated. You will need to use some combination of filtration and hop containment and you may decide you like one style of hop better for certain situations. For dry hopping, either works well, but you will need some sort of racking cane screen to filter whole hops out of your beer when you bottle or keg. Dry hops may take a long while to fall to the bottom of your fermenter if you can't cold crash them.

The Fun Factor (or, Keeping Homebrewing Approachable)

Not only have I found I rarely have the effort/energy/time to blog about brewing anymore, but there are a ton of way better homebrewing blogs out there, like Brülosophy that a "general experience" homebrewing blog like mine doesn't seem very relevant anymore. I love this current crop of homebrew blogs. For a decade-long brewer who deeply enjoys both the scientific and culinary aspects of this hobby (not to mention the deeper historical and cultural impact of beer in the western world), I find these popular blogs to be 100 times better than mine ever was and I don't believe I would ever be willing to devote the time and energy (let alone keg space) to producing a blog that could even approach the quality of Brülosophy or Shut Up About Barclay Perkins.

And so, I let my blog wither away without caring too much about it.

Then when I read about the homebrewing industry hitting hard times, and when longtime online homebrewing supply store Northern Brewer was purchased by AB-InBev, I started to worry about the health of this hobby in a future where AB-InBev controls our homebrewing supplies. And so now I wonder if the blogs that appeal to a seasoned brewer like me might not be a little intense for a newbie brewer or a casual (couple times a year) homebrewer. Obviously the health of this hobby relies on maintaining a steady supply of new and casual homebrewers joining the party. So while many newer, better blogs aim at improving brewing results through the use of science and controlled experimentation, they don't always focus on improving the experience of the homebrewing process by keeping the hobby inexpensive and easy. In part, this can be because successful bloggers often get equipment and ingredients for free or at a discount.

Since this hobby is recessing a bit right now, and keeping casual homebrewers is an important goal, this blog will be primarily focused on the fun (and cheap) aspects of the hobby. I don't know if I will be able to produce more than a few posts a year, but my goal will be to produce one post every month, either about brewing or about craft beer, generally.