Whole hops refer to the complete hop cone, which is the inflorescence of a female plant. These hops are harvested, air dried, and then compressed into bales. The bales are stored in warehouses at approximately 26°F (this may vary depending on the climate) until they are needed by brewers or hop distributors, such as homebrew supply shops. When a shop orders hops, the bale is divided into smaller quantities, vacuum-sealed, and then sent to the shop. The hops may be further divided into saleable sizes and vacuum-sealed again.
Whole hops are the most natural and unprocessed form of the ingredient. They can act as a filter bed when straining the boiled wort, removing some of the hot break and other materials formed during the mash and boil.
Some brewers believe that whole hops are less harsh than hop pellets, although there is no empirical evidence to support this claim. Nevertheless, some large brewing companies exclusively use whole hops, whether it’s due to their natural state or the perceived improvement in the finished beer. The quality of beer produced with whole hops is undisputed.
An additional advantage is that whole hops are ideal for dry hopping. Since they undergo minimal processing, more volatile aromatic compounds, which brewers desire, remain intact. Furthermore, they do not sink and obstruct the siphoning process when it comes time to bottle the beer.
On paper, the disadvantages of whole hops may appear to outweigh their advantages. Whole hops float and are larger in size compared to pellets, resulting in a smaller surface area exposed to the surrounding liquid. This can be mitigated to some extent by using weighted hop bags, but the surface area will still be much smaller compared to pellets. The smaller surface area, along with the intact lupulin glands, means that it takes longer for the alpha acids to be extracted and utilized (isomerization), resulting in lower hop utilization, approximately 10 percent.
The loose nature of whole hops makes them more susceptible to oxygen exposure, which can lead to a quicker breakdown in quality compared to other forms. However, by storing whole hops correctly, using the freshest hops available, and resealing unused portions in vacuum-sealed bags, this issue can be largely avoided.
Another factor to consider is wort loss. Whole hops act like sponges, soaking up and retaining some of the wort, which cannot be recovered. While it is possible to press the hops and extract some of the liquid, there is a risk of extracting unwanted harsh flavors that may end up in the beer.
Inconsistent quality and specifications could also be considered a disadvantage, depending on one’s perspective. Ideally, brewers should always aim for the highest quality hops when purchasing. However, strict consistency is more of a concern for breweries trying to replicate the same beer repeatedly, whereas homebrewers do not tend to worry about it as much. Even if you are attempting to recreate the exact same batch of IPA from last year, any variations are likely to be minimal and hardly noticeable. Besides, a little variation never hurt a good homebrew.
It’s All Relative
The choice of which form of hops to use in a recipe or task, as well as personal preferences, will largely depend on your brewing setup. Both whole hops and hop pellets can be used to produce fantastic beer. Certain brewing equipment, such as hop bags and hopbacks, make handling whole hops easier.
Overall, it may seem that pellets have the advantage due to better hop utilization, as well as easier storage and handling. However, it would be unwise to completely disregard whole hops. They can find their own niche in imparting aromatic characteristics. At the very least, they can be used in conjunction with pellets, where pellets contribute to the majority of the bittering process while whole hops are reserved for delicate dry hopping operations. Regardless of the form of hops chosen, it is important to seek out the freshest hops, store them in the freezer, and vacuum-seal if possible.