A few years back I wrote an article on First Wort Hopping (FWH)- a technique I’ve used frequently over the years to brew great beer. While my support for the technique has not changed, my understanding of it has evolved a bit.
What is First Wort Hops?
First wort hopping (FWH) is a technique that goes back at least a hundred years in Germany, but was originally used to enhance isomerization (the conversion of alpha acids that produces the bulk of hop bitterness in beer). In 1995, Priess, Neuremburg and Mitter published an article (Brauwelt International, Vol IV, p 308) that reintroduced the technique. Later authors suggested that First Wort Hopping could be a replacement for late hopping, and that aromatic hops that were used for finishing could be used as FWH instead. Most references also recommend using only low alpha aroma hops for FWH.
The actual technique is an all grain brewing technique where at least some hops are added to the boiler during first runnings of the mash, allowing the hops to steep in the boiler during the sparge process. These same hops are left in the boiler as it is heated and boiled, effectively making them full boil hops.
Estimating FWH Bitterness
For the estimation of bitterness (IBUs), first wort hops are treated as full boil hops plus about 10%. For a 90 minute boil, we would calculate their contribution as if it were a 90 min boil and then add 10% to the IBU number. The 10% extra accounts for the fact that the hops do extract some bitterness during the high temperature steep before the boil.
Even this 10% number has some controversy associated with it. If you take a beer made exclusively with FWH and send it off to a lab, you will likely find that the IBU number is accurate – FWH does produce slightly more bitterness than the equivalent hops used in the boil alone.
The controversy arises from the fact that FWH taste much smoother than an equivalent bitterness level in a non-FWH beer. The hop flavors are blended in with the beer flavors better and the majority of beer drinkers prefer the FWH version. So even though the IBUs may be higher, the perceived bitterness is slightly lower.
Recent Thinking on First Wort Hop Additions
Aside from the IBU controversy, I think first wort hops use has evolved significantly over the years. When I talk to top brewers, I find that not only are most of them aware of FWH but they tell me that they use it frequently in a wide variety of beer styles, and with a wide variety of hop varieties. Because FWH provides a more smoother hop flavor profile that is well blended with other flavors in the beer, it really is appropriate for almost any style of beer where hop flavor is not a dominant component of the style.
Most early references speak of FWH as if it were a substitute for late aroma hop additions. I also think this is outdated advice. Because FWH are kept in the wort for the full boil, they are not a good substitute for very late hop additions. During an average 60-90 minute boil, all of the delicate hop oils you want to preserve with a late hop addition are boiled off. The flavor profile you get from FWH is favorable, but it is simply not the same as the oils and aroma you get from late hop additions.
Finally, most article on FWH say it only should be done with a portion (30% or less) of the hops and only using low alpha aroma hops. This also is outdated advice. Home brewers are beginning to discover that even high alpha hops have some great aromas and flavors that, when used properly, can be added at any stage during the brewing process. I’ve made well over a dozen batches with FWH exclusively, particularly for milder (less hoppy) styles with nothing but positive results.
Also if you speak to many competitive brewers, you will find that they are using FWH for large portions of their hop schedule – some even brewing great beers using only first wort hops. While this would not be appropriate for a hoppy beer like an IPA, the smooth blending of flavors that occur with FWH can be very desirable for many styles where hops is not the dominant flavor such as ales, continental lagers, what beers, Marzen, and many more.
I urge you to try experimenting with FWH a bit more if you are an all grain brewer. In my opinion it makes better beer, with a smoother flavor and less harshness. Also, having done quite a few beers now using exclusively FWH, I believe it can be used with a wide variety of hops to brew a wide variety of beer styles.
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