by Al Folsom
When buying hops for their next beer, homebrewers are often confused by the forms in which they are found. At Keystone Homebrew, we carry hops as whole (sometimes mistakenly called leaf), plugs, and pellets. Which is better, what should you use?

Quoting from the Hop Union Web site: “hop pellets are prepared from leaf hops which have been hammer-milled into a powder and the powder subsequently pelletized by passing through a conventional pellet die. They contain all the vegetative and lupulin material of raw leaf hops and can be used as a full replacement for leaf hops in the brewing process.”

Whole hops are the entire hop cones, or flowers, which have been systematically dried. The main difference is that they have not been powderized and compressed.

Plug hops, by the way, are simply whole hops that have been compressed into plugs about an inch in diameter. Their advantage over whole hops is in the ease of handling. When added to boiling wort, they will quickly expand to their original size, and perform identically to whole hops. This form of hop was originally intended as a way of adding dry hops to English cask conditioned ales, as the plugs just fit through the bung holes in the casks. One thing to note about plug hops: The only machines to manufacture plugs are in England! If you buy plugs of American hops, they have been shipped to England, processed, and re-imported. Think about that when you consider how fresh your hops are!

There is a popular belief that whole hops are “better” than pellets, somehow. Again quoting from Hop Union about whole hops: “The shortcomings are handling, storage, variability and a small level of physical contamination have to be borne in the mind with this product.” Again, the advantage is a perception, but the shortcomings are very real. While I would never argue that you should not use whole hops, be aware that they are not somehow magically better than pelletized forms. Some brewers have a perception that pelletized hops are harsher in some way than whole hops. I can only say that, using fresh pellet hops, I have never noticed this.

So, what are the real pros and cons that a homebrewer might see from whole hops? One advantage is that the hops will form a filter bed when straining, removing hot break and other material from your precious wort. However, if you are making a highly hopped beer using a lot of hops, a large percentage of your wort could be absorbed by whole hops. To reduce this loss, hop bags are used, removed from the wort at the end of the boil, and allowed to drain back into the kettle. This reduces the loss of wort, but also eliminates the advantage of the filter bed. One disadvantage with whole hops is in the recipe-design phase. Because of the larger storage requirements, most homebrew stores stock only a limited number of hops in whole form.

Pellet hops, on the other hand, take up very little room, and so many more varieties are typically available. In addition to the ease of handling and selection, pelletized hops will not absorb wort to the same extent as whole hops. Also, you do not need to worry about pellet hops clogging your equipment; and you can get by without using hop bags. However, if you do use the fine-pored hop bags, a good percentage of the hop sediment will be trapped in them.

Because pellet hops are initially powdered, the individual lupulin glands are burst open, which is not true for whole hops. This means that, on average, you will get 10-15% more bitterness (and hop flavor/aroma) out of an equivalent amount of pelletized hops versus whole hops. Failing to accommodate for this may be one reason pellet hops are perceived as harsher.

I think the belief that pellet hops are inferior to whole comes from the dark days of homebrewing, when the pellets might sit on the shelf for years. When I first started brewing in 1979, I was sold “hops” which appeared to be a gray powder. I shudder to remember that, especially with the variety and quality of hops available today. Turnover of hops at Keystone is rapid, so you don’t need to worry about old hops. When properly processed and packaged, and kept sealed in a oxygen-barrier container, whole hops and pellet hops have essentially equivalent brewing characteristics. Don’t be afraid to use the pellets! There’s a whole new world of hop varieties available to you to make your beers distinctive!