If there’s one thing that makes the US craft beer scene stand out, it’s the hops! Some of the most hop-forward beers in the world are brewed here in the USA, many of them exclusively with All-American hops. Every so often craft breweries or homebrew enthusiasts try different techniques to add a more hoppy taste to their beer.
Whether it’s the continual adding of the hops during the entire boil period as with Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA, or late hop additions with a torpedo-like vessel as in Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo IPA, the finished beer often takes on a more complex or more bitter hop profile. One method which has recently been rediscovered and goes against the conventional homebrewing wisdom of adding hops during the boil is first wort hopping.
Something of a time capsule German brewing technique, first wort hopping (FWH) descended into obscurity, but thanks to a Brauwelt report entitled “The Rediscovery of First Wort Hopping” published in 1995, it was exhumed from the dust and debris of decades gone by.
While FWH still hasn’t reclaimed the popularity it enjoyed in the mid to late 1800s, many brewers swear by this technique for a more complex bitterness to their beer.
First Wort Hopping Explaine
As I’m sure you’re aware, the SOP for combining your hops and hot wort is to wait until the wort is a-boilin’ and a-bubblin’, then, in accordance with a well-thought-out schedule, you add the hops, bit by bit, in order to optimize aromatics and bittering.
First wort hopping, on the other hand, strays from this well-trodden path.
Rather than wait until your wort is boiling, you add an amount of your hops just beforehand, then proceed as normal.
It doesn’t exactly remap the brewing landscape, but, depending on who you ask, it can have some pretty epic results.
Why Do People Use the First Wort Hopping Technique
The primary goal of FWH is to create a refined bitterness, a smoother taste with fewer teeth, if you will.
The secondary goal is more of a happy symptom of the FWH process.
With hops already integrated into the wort, when it comes to adding the first part of your scheduled hops, you don’t have to worry about your boil kettle going bananas.
Who Came up With First Wort Hopping?
Unfortunately, this is one brewing tidbit that really has been lost to the ages.
We just don’t know who invented FWH, but we can assert that it was likely discovered by accident through playful experimentation, as is the case with most brewing techniques.
It’s also possible that a novice (or drunk) brewer simply made a mistake when working on their batch, absentmindedly placing some hops in the wort before boiling it.
Perhaps they realized what they’d done, but didn’t want to start over, so just carried on to see how the beer would turn out.
How Does First Wort Hopping Work?
The science behind this intriguing technique revolves around the two sides of hops, alpha acids and oils.
See, the oil content of hops is thermally volatile, so when you add it after boiling the wort, it reacts and instantaneously boils off.
But, if you add to the wort before boiling, the oil is afforded a grace period and becomes a more soluble compound.
Then, when you finally do bring your wort to the boil, significantly more hop oil remains in the wort, and it’s this oil that carries that signature hops aroma.
When it comes to the smooth bitterness evoked by FWH, the science isn’t as conclusive; however, we do know that it has a lot to do with cohumulone, which is one of the primary alpha acids in hops.
Cohumulone is the most aggressive of the bitter acids and is always quite prominent in the wort of standard beer, yet brews that have been given the FWH treatment have slightly lower cohumulone levels.
Why? No one is 100% sure, but it’s widely considered to be the result of lower pH in the wort due to the preliminary addition of hops.
Does First Wort Hopping Actually Work?
Brewing has taken on an almost mythic and magical countenance over the years, its practice, steeped in tradition, reminiscent of folkloric tales of witches hunched over cauldrons concocting casting spells and concocting potions with strange ingredients and esoteric methods.
This is largely due to the open-ended nature of the discipline and its rewarding of experimentation, but the downside of this rather whimsical history is that a lot of the things we hear are pseudo-scientific slices of mumbo jumbo.
The question is, does first wort hopping belong to this nonsensical category?
Well, the answer isn’t very clear-cut, as this is still a hotly debated topic across brewing communities, but stick with me and we’ll dig into said debate to see if you can be convinced either way.
What Do the Experts Say About First Wort Hopping?
Many experts have concluded that first wort hopping does indeed have the intended impact on a brew.
For instance, the author of Brewing Better Beer, Gordon Strong, is adamant that FWH adds complexity and a smooth finish, and John Palmer concurs in the publication How to Brew.
But here’s the thing… these testimonials are nothing more than anecdotal evidence. Let’s take a look at what scientific studies unveil about this mysterious technique.
What Does The Research Say About First Wort Hopping?
Let’s take a look at three of the most famous FWH studies.
The publication that brought first wort hopping back from the dead in 1995 contained details of a study carried out by two breweries.
Each brewed a pilsner, both of which were identical but for the fact one of them had been first wort hopped.
During the subsequent taste test, participants almost unanimously preferred the FWH pilsner, describing a smoother, more fragrant drink with pleasantly uniform bitterness.
Yet chemical analysis revealed that there were more IBUs in the FWH batch.
Brulosophy’s FWH experiment followed the same principles as the one detailed in Brauwelt.
They crafted identical beers, one that had been first wort hopped, and another in which the hops were added after 60 minutes.
They repeated this test twice with blind tasters. In the first, 15 out of 39 tasters could isolate the FWH brew — Not impressive.
In their second, only 7 of 21 tasters could differentiate the brews accurately — Not much better. These results could simply be the product of random guessing.
Oregon State University
In this study, it was found via chemical analysis that FWH beer contained fractionally more polyphenols, a wide category of molecules.
Some polyphenols result in more substantial haze or astringency, while others contribute to complex hop flavoring.
This bodes well, as it lends credence to the idea that FWH beer is more fragrant and “hoppy”, but during the taste test, it was concluded that there was no sensory disparity between the beers when imbibed.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the experts say, and being that the research is contradictory, it can’t be trusted either.
The only way to truly test the legitimacy of first wort hopping is to give it a try yourself and see if you notice the difference!
If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy our post on ‘What Is Beer Lacing?‘.