It never ceases to amaze me how reticent many brewers are to use whole cone hops when presented with the option. In the era of IPAs and heavily hopped beers, every brewer should have the full repertoire of hop products available to them and at their disposal. That being said, I felt it would be helpful to discuss some of the differences between pellet hops and whole hops, so that deciding between the two doesn’t have to be challenging.
Regardless of whether you’re considering whole cone hops (leaf hops is a misnomer as there are no hop leaves used) or pellet hops, you are looking at the same base compounds. The difference between the two is in the details. When considering hop pellets vs. whole cone hops you’re really thinking about which is the best for you or the particular brewing application that you are planning. There is no hands-down best between the two. There are simply variations between them that culminate in your preference for one or the other in some, or all, brewing contexts.
Hop pellets are simply whole cone hops that have undergone a special pelletization process. The whole hops are stripped from the bines during harvest, processed, and then pushed through special compression tubes that force the hop matter into firm pellets.
These pellets are used in an overwhelming majority of brewing applications for both commercial and hobby brewers. This is true for a myriad of pragmatic and logistical reasons. That being said, let’s look at some of the pro’s and con’s of working with hop pellets:
- Many more varietals available in hop pellets.
- Hop pellets oxidize slower and, ergo, have better storage potential.
- Hop pellets take up less space and are easier to store.
- Pellet hops are generally easier to split into abstract increments.
- Pellets are easier to add to carboys during dry-hopping.
- Hop pellets have a slightly higher utilization efficiency (10-15%)
- Hop pellets have a tendency to dissolve into a sludge in a liquid solution, and this can cause problems.
- If left un-bagged, the pellets tend to rise to the surface during the boil and form a layer on the rim of the kettle. This means they’re not being utilized.
- Some of the delicate aromatic compounds are lost during the pelletization process.
- Pellets can be more difficult to remove or separate from your wort/beer at various stages.
Whole Cone Hops
Whole cone hops, also known as whole hops, are simply the harvested, dried, and unprocessed form of the hop flower. They are the purest form of hops you can utilize in brewing, with the exception of fresh wet hops. The use of whole cone hops is often a point of pride for those commercial breweries that can make it work, and a necessity for those hobby brewers that have come to love them. In contrast with hop pellets, most of the benefits to working with whole cone hops come down to principle and a possibly superior organoleptic contribution to the final product.
- Whole cone hops retain more of their essential oils due to the fact they haven’t been processed.
- Whole cone hops incorporate into the wort much more easily than pellet hops and do not stick to the kettle.
- Whole cone hops are usually easier to remove from your beer after dry-hopping.
- There can be a greater aromatic impact from whole cone hops due to their retaining more intact essential oils.
- Whole cone hops take up more space and are more difficult to store.
- They can be difficult to get into carboys or fermentors with narrow openings.
- They can require special equipment in larger brewing systems.
- Whole cone hops can be difficult to weigh into abstract increments.
The decision to use pellet or whole cone hops will always come down to the brewer, their preferences, and to some degree what their system will allow. It takes experience with both forms of hops, an understanding of your brewing system, and a firm grasp on your recipe to come to a decision as to which you will use. There’s also a lot of personal preference in there. Working with whole cone hops always makes me feel more in touch with the hop farmers and the brewing craft than working with pellets. There’s just something about using the raw product that is more appealing to me. Also, I find hop pellets’ tendency to stick to the side of the kettle to be anathematic in the context of brewing and this almost always pushes me towards whole cone. However, that’s just my preference based on my experiences. So, it’s time to write that IPA recipe you’ve been planning and give those whole cone hops a go!