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Hop Yard in Winter
A pile of hop cones


Are hop pellets really better than whole leaf cones?


People on chat boards constantly swear up and down how hop pellets are better than whole cone hops. They’re different, but not necessarily better. In fact, cones can be better. We’ll talk more of that in a minute. The main thing to take away is they’re the same product (hops) only in a different delivery form.

Fresh organic hops on the bine

There are three main things to look at: Storage, Usage, and Quality.

Pelletized hop storage

First, let’s look at pelletized hops storage. The main reason hops are pelletized is for the benefit of smaller storage space. It’s not about better taste; it’s not about how they’re used. It’s definitely not about better flavor. It’s because it’s cheaper to store pelletized hops that take less space in the warehouse. That’s it; storage space is the leading reason for pelletizing hops. We’ll touch on this more in a minute.

Hop Usage

Usage is what it is. Most people use pellets because that’s what they’re told to use. Or, that’s what they used when they learned their brew craft so that’s what they still use. Pellet hops just happens to be in this kit so it must be the best thing ever. Or, they have the FALSE impression that their equipment MUST use pellet hops only. This is a big subject but we’ll hit this as we talk about whole cones.

Pellet Quality

Let’s talk pellet quality. Pelletized hops are created when dried whole leaf hop cones are run through a hammer mill and are torn and smashed into itty-bitty pieces. Then, those itty-bitty pieces get spit out to the pelletizer, something that looks and acts pretty much like the machines that make pasta noodles. There are many different designs of pelletizers but the one critical thing is you hope the hop producers use a cooled pelletizer. Okay, so why does it need to be a cooled pelletizer? Heat, anything over about 110°F will start to destroy the most subtle oils in the lupelin glands in that poor torn and smashed hop cone. Some oils and volatile isomers even start to vaporize at 90°F. So now, remember that poor smashed hop cone already went through a hammer mill, and that creates heat, and is then forced through the pellet die, and that creates more heat. Despite being a cooled pelletizer, very often the pellets come out of the pelletizer at more than 150°F and the most subtle flavors and scents are lost during the hammer milling and pelletizing process. But we also have to talk trash. Pelletized hops are allowed to have a certain percentage of trash, hopefully just leaves and stems, included in the final product. That means, you are paying for trash that does not affect your final product in a positive way. But, you’ll never know exactly how much trash, or what trash exactly, is in that pellet because the amount is almost never released. It’s checked, it’s tracked, but just try to find out, as a consumer, what the actual trash percentage amount is…go on, we’ll wait….

Okay, we won’t wait.



A large organic hop cone



Quality: oxidation

But we will touch on one more aspect of quality, oxidation. Oxidation ruins hop flavor. Oxidation happens any time any of the lupelin is exposed to oxygen (like what’s in the air). And, all of the lupelin on the outside of each and every one of those hop pellets can and will oxidize and lose its flavor, odor, and good taste. Comparatively, it’s a small amount, just the entire surface area of each and every pellet. But, it’s also something you need to know and it does affect your final flavor and aroma. Whole cones do not oxidize like pellets. The whole cone bract (leaf) helps to protect those tender lupelin glands near the base of the bract. Same with UV light, like what comes from the sun. The UV light will “skunk” the lupelin, especially the stuff on the outside of those pellets. The leafs of the whole cones, once again, act as a natural barrier that helps to prevent the UV light from skunking the hops.

Comparison

Now, let’s look at the exact same things and compare how the whole leaf cones stack up against the pellets. Remember, these are the EXACT SAME hops cones up to the point of preservation storage. The hops are harvested in the exact same manner. The hops are dried in the exact same manner. The hops are even packaged in the EXACT same packaging. The only difference is how they’re treated for long term storage. When it comes to storage, whole leaf hops take up more space than pellets. No doubt about it. They can easily take up twice the storage room, sometimes more, as the exact same weight of pelletized hops. In home or craft brewery usage, that does not really mean anything though. Most people have plenty of room to store the amount of whole leaf hops they’ll use in a reasonable time in their freezer. Can’t speak for every producer, but our whole leaf hops are vacuum packed in nitrogen purged Mylar bags and can easily stack and store and can even be on edge like the files in a file cabinet. But, when it comes to huge factories, size does matter. The size difference of pelletized hops compared to whole cone hops makes a huge difference in the storage budget. You’ll find, quite often, that storage space is actually one of the biggest money bleeds in a business’ bottom line. Square footage costs, it’s a fact of business. And, remember this, less storage space is the only driving reason for pelletized hops. Smaller storage footprint equals smaller storage costs. That also works for transportation. You can ship more of a product in the same truck if the product itself takes up less space.

Usage

When it comes to usage, whole cone hops are used in the exact same manner as pelletized hops. They’re added to the boil in the exact same manner as pellets. They make a sludge pile the same way pellets do. They dry hop a beer the same way pellets do. Some people parrot, “I’ve got to use pellets because that’s what my equipment is designed for.” Yeah, okay. So you have a 15 barrel system in your garage that is designed from the ground up to use pellets and nothing else? Here’s a secret: 99 out of a 100 times that system that “can only use pellets” will take whole cone hops just fine. It’s really the operator that has the hang-up, not the system. In the one out of a hundred chances that your system doesn’t flow quite right with whole cone hops, a strainer bag, just like used in Brew in a Bag system or to dry hop, solves any problems and suddenly that one reluctant system, that actually works with pellets, works fine with whole leaf hops. I’ve used both pellets and whole cones for home brewing and there’s not a difference in usage at all. But, there could be a difference in usage rates, but we’ll get to that in a minute when we talk quality.



Organic hops in the hop dryer with a test bag

Remember This:

Quality-wise, remember, whole cone hops are exactly the same as the hops in pellets but are not beat and torn in a hammer mill. Whole cone hops are not smashed into a hot hop pelletizer. Depending on how the whole cone hops are dried, they actually contain all of those subtle flavors and aromas that are lost during any type of heated processing. But, that means we have to talk about how hops are dried.



Whole leaf organic hops in the hops dryer ( oast)


Drying Hops

Many large hop farms dry their hops with diesel fired heaters. Everyone knows heated air dries things faster than cool air. Okay, that’s fine. But, you have to pass that heated air, from the diesel fired heaters, through the hops. That means all of the exhausted fumes from the heaters are FORCED through, and into, the hops being dried. Is this wrong? You decide. But it is fast, and common practice. Quite often, mainstream hops (that day’s harvest) are dried overnight and the drying floors cleared so the next day’s harvest can take their place. That means they use enough heat to dry all of those hops in one night. Wow! Now, let’s talk how whole leaf cones are dried.



A Different Way

Most, but still can’t speak for all, whole cone hop producers actually dry hops with cooler air and some, like us, don’t use heaters at all. But it takes longer. That’s the main difference, time. We give the hops time to dry gently. The slower, cooler, drying saves the subtle oils and aromas that get driven off when huge heaters blast jet exhaust through the mainstream hops. At our farm, we don’t use extra forced heat at all. And we also have reversed air flow. Instead of blowing hot air up through the hops, we draw dry cool air down through the hops. Now, you might ask, “what’s that matter?” When air is driven UP through the hops, the hop cones have a tendency to bounce in that air stream. Imagine balancing a balloon on your hand and tapping upwards. The balloon bounces upwards. Same with hop cones. And, when the hop cones bounce, bits of lupelin get knocked out of the hop cone and just fall through or to the bottom of the dryer or onto the floor. Now, I’m not saying that the floor gets swept and the leaves, stems, trash, and lupelin on the floor are tossed into the pelletizer but it is possible and you’d never be able to tell it happened because it’d all be smashed together into something that looks like processed rabbit food. But, whatever is in that pellet ends up in your product. With the draw down air, the hop cones are not tossed around and retain all that finer lupelin that would have fallen out with rougher handling. By using cool dry air, none of the more fragile oils have been driven off. And, again, that means that the gently dried hops, like what we do, has a more pronounced flavor and more subtle notes. But, like I said, it takes longer. We don’t dry a batch of hops overnight. We take about three days of babysitting to dry that same batch of hops. And that brings us to usage rates.



Organic hop cone split so you can see the lupelin glands



Usage Rates

There could be a slight usage rate difference between pellets and whole cones. Your nose and taste will usually decide, with experimentation. Quite often you can use less whole cone hops, weight-wise, than pellets because the whole cones retain more, and more complex, flavors and aromas. These complex flavors and aromas come out in your final product. This is usually discovered by experimentation because you also have to calculate alpha acid percentages. Many times, the whole cone usage can be as much as 25% lower than pellets. That means, if your recipe calls for 1oz of hops at 1 hour, you might find that you can use only ¾ ounce of whole cone hops and get the same amount of bittering but more overall flavor. And, using fewer hops can save money over the long run. But, you will also benefit with more subtle flavors and aromas that you just cannot get with pellets.



Organic hops bines growing on the trellis



Should we do away with pellets?

As a whole cone hop producer, you might ask us, “Should we do away with pellets?” Our answer is no. We are not advocating for the complete abolishment of the pelletized hop business. Pellets have a place, especially in the big factories that store hops for long periods with limited temperature control. But, in a home brew type situation, or a craft brewery, there is no valid reason to prefer pellets over whole cones. That is, unless you like producing a sub-par product with the added exhaust, trash, and all the while missing the subtle and complex flavors and aromas found in whole cone hops.

Attribution:
Written by Dennis Kaye, © Feb 2017
RailheadFarms.com
Your source for certified organic Wisconsin hops.

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