Brewer question: hop pellets vs. bales

Question:  Doug & Crew; Can you comment on the shift in the industry from whole hops to pellets? In the old days, I have been brewing for 20+ years, all that was available was whole leaf hops. In the last couple of years the industry seems to have completely embraced pellet hops to the point where I have to seek out online sources of whole leaf hops. It’s a hassle dealing with pellets at the homebrew level and yet, it’s the only thing that’s available now at my local home brew shop. Is it just the stability and commercial use of hops tha is driving this shift? Your insights are always appreciated.

 

Dear Steve,

Thanks for your question.  There are still some commercial brewers who use baled hops, but you’re right, with each passing year the trend toward using pellets and other processed hop products grows. That is definitely a trend, but it is not necessarily driven by brewers looking for the best quality experience with their hops.

With 47Hops, for example, we sell hops in bales to some brewers. The volumes are small, but they’re out there. We need to know about the order before harvest is finished in September for us to be able to offer that product. Once we begin pelleting in October, we like to pellet everything we can. We prefer not to leave bales sitting around in the warehouse in the hopes that somebody will come along looking for bales to buy. That’s risky. Hops degrade quickly and they would soon be worthless. Strictly from a business standpoint, that doesn’t make sense. You can’t use old hop bales for much once they have no brewing value. 

There are plenty of reasons why the industry has shifted to using pellets. They are not all what you might imagine though. Shifting to pellets simplifies storage and shipping due to reduced volume and an easier form factor relative to bales. That’s particularly important when you consider that hops are grown primarily in the Pacific Northwest of the US and in Bavaria, Germany, but they travel all over the world. 

Pellets also make brewing a less technical process in that people can more easily just follow a recipe. Not all brewers today have 20+ years of experience. Many don’t understand, or care to understand, all the nuisances associated with using raw hops. I was recently talking with a very talented brewer friend of mine who mentioned that he prefers to use pellets and whole cone hops rather than oils or extracts because the complexity and fullness of the flavors are much greater and richer the closer you get to the raw product. There are hundreds of oils interacting with one another in raw hops and you may not even know which is acting with which to give you that special something you’re looking for. The more processing that takes place, at least with today’s processing methods, the fewer of those oils remain. In some cases, that might be the desired outcome, but it’s more likely a negative, but accepted, side effect of a process that offers many other benefits.

The most common reason stated for using pellets is that they preserve the characteristics of the hop due to the ability to package them in inert gasses. You don’t need to pellet hops to get that effect though. You could pack raw hops in Mylar foils with inert gasses and have a similar result. We have done that for customers. Again, if we find out about the order at the right time of year, we can do that sort of stuff.  It just takes a little planning ahead. Raw hops packaged in boxes and foils takes up quite a bit of space, but it can be easily palletized and moved around the warehouse and shipped.

I’m not trying to make the case for pellets … or bales. Honestly, as a hop merchant, we just respond to the demands of our customers. In fact, every hop grower and merchant would probably prefer that all brewers use raw hops. Having a more perishable product would make the hop industry less prone to over supply problems that can linger for years. Everybody will tell you that raw hops are less efficiently utilized in the brewing process. I suppose that depends on what you’re using to measure efficiency. The Apple industry has made the red delicious apple variety much more efficient over the years. They stay red longer and can ship across the country without spoiling, but while they are red, but they are not very delicious! In my opinion, you’re better off eating the box they come in. The flavor you can get from some heirloom varieties is much better! Of course, that’s a subjective opinion and not the metric the industry is trying to optimize for in apples. Hop varieties and products have also been optimized for a process, but what or who is driving that process and is that in line with your goals?

Considering the fact that raw hops would make the hop industry much less volatile, it’s ironic that hop merchants have been the ones responsible for all the innovation in the industry. Of course, they’ve done all that to get the attention of the big brewers over the years. Due to fierce competition with one another, they are constantly inventing more and more ways to process hops better or more differently than their competition. 

At the end of the day, the customer dictates what the market offers. If everybody wants 20 pound boxes of raw hops packaged in Mylar foils in inert gas, and they are willing to pay the costs associated with packaging the hops that way, that’s exactly what we and everybody else will provide. As the customer, you need to make your demands known. If your usual homebrew shop or merchant won’t give you what you want, look somewhere else. Just because it’s not out there now doesn’t mean it can’t be. Anything is possible! Maybe you’ll start the trend of using raw hops in beer again.

Regards,

Doug

 

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