Hops, Stoopid

Hops come to brewers either as thumb-sized bundles of leaves called cones or flowers (the botanical term is strobilus, and they’re closer to pine cones than actual flowers), or ground up and packed into tiny, rabbit-food-like pellets. The cone-vs.-pellet debate is long and popular.

Lagunitas uses pellets. They have to, because whole cones won’t fit into the air cannon head brewer Jeremy Marshall uses to fire hops at 70 psi into the fermenters. That’s called dry hopping, and Lagunitas dry-hops a lot of their beers. We saw these boxes of hops last time we were up at the brewery. “Sum” is for Summit, a really bitter, grapefruity hop. Fill in the blank for the other one.

Anchor uses whole cones. These come in 200-pound, burlap-wrapped bales. Anchor brewers split these open into wooden troughs in their hop storage room and shovel them from there into trash cans to dump into the copper boil kettles. Jeremy says he likes pellets because the oil glands in the cones get broken up when they’re pelletized, and the broken-up oils dissolve more easily into the beer. Anchor brewers say whole cones are better because the glands are intact. (For what it’s worth, a hop grower we met said it doesn’t matter.) Larry Sidor, the head brewer at Deschutes, told me he used to use pellets but stopped when he saw a pelletizer in action. His voice took on the hushed shadow of atrocities witnessed: “it destroyed them.”

Pellets are easier to transport and arguably easier to use, but they’re harder to make. In fact, one of the reasons the Upstate New York hop industry will never get back to its glory-day levels before it was decimated by Prohibition and a downy mildew plague, is that there aren’t enough pelletizing plants there. Hops grown in New York sometimes get shipped across the country to be processed. Even on the west coast, small growers have to ship their hops to big producers like Haas or Yakima Chief who run their own pelletizers. Organic hops face an even tighter bottleneck. Organic hops must be organically pelletized, and there are only four certified organic pelletizers in the country (all in Yakima, WA).

Why all this hop talk? Our local homebrew shop just got this year’s shipment of root cuttings and we’re ready to plant our own hop yard out back.