Brewing Hops: 10 Tips for Surviving the Hops Shortage

by Brad Smith on April 25, 2008 · 2 comments

Editors Note: The last article in our 4 part series on the ongoing hops crisis is a collection of tips for conserving and preserving your precious hops supply.

Given the ongoing hop crisis, prices for hops are now hovering at $4 an ounce or more, up 200-400% from their pre-crisis levels. Some suppliers are rationing their hops, limiting sales, and many of my favorite English and European varieties are simply not available at any price.

I’m treating my limited supply of noble hops like gold, locking it in airtight bags in the freezer in hopes I will be able to keep a few favorite recipes in the keg. I’ve taken to calling the little sealed packets “my precious”. Let’s examine some ways the average all grain or malt extract brewer can maximize their precious hop supply:

1. Longer Boil Times - Boiling your hops a little longer, particularly for extract brewers will enhance your hop utilization and extract more International Bitterness Units (IBUs) per ounce of hops. A 60-90 hop boil will get the most bittering acids (alpha acids) from your hops. A good brewing spreadsheet or your favorite brewing program will help you in matching IBUs to beer style using minimum hops.

2. Use High Alpha Hops for Bittering – Modern, higher alpha hops such as Chinook, Warrior, Galena and Eroica can be used in much smaller quantities to add bitterness to the beer. For a complete list, see our hops listing or the hops database in BeerSmith or our online hop listing. Use one of these high alpha hops during the boil for bittering, and then use your precious low alpha aromatic hops at the end of the boil for the desired aroma and complex flavor.

3. Use First Wort Hopping – I wrote a recent article on how first wort hopping for all grain brewers will enhance your hop utilization as well as add harmony and complexity to your beer’s bitterness. To first wort hop, add a quantity of aromatic (low alpha) hops to your boiler right after the first runnings, while you are still sparging your beer. This is often done by moving your late hop addition forward to add it to the boiler very early on. The result will be not only higher hop utilization but a smooth harmonic complexity to the bitterness.

4. Reduce Late Hop Additions – Rather than have three or four different hop additions, consider using a single late hop addition close to the end of the boil for aroma, and combining your remaining hop additions into a single bittering addition at the beginning of the boil. Additions in the last 5-10 minutes of the boil are appropriate to enhance aromatic properties, but the key compounds that add aroma boil off quickly. Hop additions at 15, and 20+ minutes add much less aroma to the beer and in these hop-rationed times might be considered a luxury item. For someone on a strict hop diet, consider going with a high alpha boiling hops and single aromatic addition in the last 5-10 minutes.

4. Know your IBUs – A surprising number of brewers do not take advantage of accurate bitterness prediction. A good spreadsheet, online IBU calculator or brewing program like BeerSmith can accurately predict your bitterness (expressed in IBUs) in advance and compare that to your target beer style. In many cases, performing this simple calculation can save you several ounces of hops and also enhance the quality of your beer.

5. Reduce Dry Hops – Personally, I like to use dry hopping with many styles, but in these hop-constrained times, even our favorite practices need to be examined. A single aromatic late hop addition in the last 5 minutes of the boil will add desired hop aroma to the beer, reducing the need for additional dry hops. If you do need to dry hop, consider adding less dry hops, and only use aromatic hop varieties. One tip is to use a very large loose bag when dry hopping to enhance contact with the beer. A small tightly packed clump of hops won’t add as much aroma. Alternately you can add hop pellets directly to the secondary and separate them later when you get ready to bottle or keg.

6. Move to a Bigger Boil – Malt extract brewers frequently use small brew pots. The concentrated wort in a small pot has a high gravity which actually lowers hop utilization. All grain brewers typically boil the entire batch and get much higher hop utilization rates, requiring much less hops. If you are a malt extract brewer who enjoys the hobby, consider investing in a larger brew pot (ideally 7-9 gallons for a 5 gallon batch) as well as a propane burner. Moving from a 3 gallon pot to a full size boil will significantly reduce the hops needed. Remember to calculate your IBUs using the correct boil size (see above).

7. Store your Hops Properly – Hops lose both aromatic and bitterness as they age. In our article on hops aging and storage, we explain why your hops need to be stored in the freezer, ideally in an oxygen barrier container to minimize the effects of aging and maximize your hop potential.

8. Grow your Own Hops - I wrote a brief introduction to growing your own hops several weeks back. Growing hops in the garden can be a lot of fun, and brewing with your own home grown hops for the first time is a very special experience. While it can take a year or more to produce a significant hop crop from Rhizomes (small root-like shoots), it is a rewarding addition to the hobby.

9. Consider a “Hop Swap” – With many varieties in short supply, many homebrew clubs now sponsor a “hop swap” where members can offer hop varieties for trade. Some online forums are also offering this service, though there is always a small risk might get stiffed online. Nevertheless, this is a great way to get varieties you can’t find from your normal suppliers.

10. Substitute, Substitute, Substitute – Even if you are a world class “hop swapper”, some varieties are in such short supply that they simply cannot be found this season. If you can’t find the hop you are looking for, consider an appropriate substitute. Substitutes for almost every variety are listed in our Hops Table on the individual hop variety pages. They are also available in the hops database in BeerSmith.

The hop shortage has been painful for us all, but I hope these tips will help to save you a few pennies and also help the larger community. Conservation of our precious hops is the duty of every able-bodied home brewer. We will likely see continued hop shortages into the fall as the 2007 crop is sold off, so maximize your hop potential and minimize your costs using the tips above.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Rolf December 28, 2013 at 10:13 am

As a money constrained brewer, I have tried at least two of these ideas,growing my own hops and bigger boil. This year I planted nugget, cascade, magnum, williamette, brewers gold, and fuggles hops. Cascade and magnum took off, though the others are not as happy. The larger boil was helped with a 15 gallon brew pot. Brewsmith software makes these changes easy. Now if there was only an easy way to verify alpha acid content of home grown hops.

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