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I recently discussed no-chill brewing, a post-boil technique that turns conventional homebrewing wisdom on its head. Another counterintuitive practice that nonetheless turns out great beer is first wort hopping. First wort hops are added to the kettle during runoff, immediately after Vorlauf, and allowed to steep in the hot wort as the mash is sparged. Once the full volume of wort has been collected, then the boil proceeds as usual. Those first wort hops, then, might remain in hot wort for as long as two hours.
The end effect of first wort hopping is a bitterness that tasters somtimes perceive as smoother than that imparted by your typical 60-minute bittering charge. Furthermore (and here’s the bit that leaves many of us scratching our heads), first wort hops can also lend additional complexity to the flavor and aroma of the finished beer.
Huh? When it comes to dropping hops cones into hot wort, the usual rules of thumb are:
- Early hops additions favor bitterness.
- Middle-to-late hops additions favor flavor.
- Very late hops additions favor aroma.
The standard explanation is that boiling isomerizes hops alpha acids, which is required for bitterness, while simultaneously driving off volatile aromatics. Ergo, add early for bitterness and later for flavor and aroma. So how is it that hops added to hot wort before the boil even starts can deliver what is often described as a more refined bitterness and more complex aroma?
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Firestone Walker Brewmaster Matt Brynildson notes in the Oxford Companion to Beer that “first wort hopping seems to take advantage of higher pre-boiled wort pHs, thus higher [hops] component solubility.” In other words, wort chemistry before the boil is such that those compounds that would normally be carried away on water vapor become somehow better locked into solution during the long pre-boil steep.
In the most widely cited article on the matter, “The Rediscovery of First Wort Hopping,” which appeared in Brauwelt International in 1995, researchers conducted a triangular tasting of two German Pilsners that used different hops schedules but were otherwise identical. The hops in question were—and this is key—Tettnang and Saaz, which are low alpha acid noble hops. Tasters preferred the first-wort-hopped Pils, saying it had “a fine, unobtrusive [hops] aroma” and “a more uniform bitterness,” and that it was “a more harmonic beer.”
With respect to this study, Brynildson goes on to say that “these beers were being critiqued in accordance with accepted and desired European [hops] qualities and would not likely be consistent with American [hops] characteristics or American craft [brewers’] notion of finer hoppy qualities.” In other words, first wort hopping your all-Amarillo triple IPA is likely to go unnoticed.
First wort hops are fun to play with, and it couldn’t be easier. Just take your favorite recipe and move some of the late additions ahead to the runoff. You can do it however you like, but a safe place to start is by including about a third of your total hops bill as first wort hops and ideally in a beer style that’s hoppy but not over the top, such as, well, German Pilsner. CB&B’s Doozie Dusseldorf Altbier Recipe or Shannon’s Pale Ale Recipe would be good candidates. Once you get a sense for how first wort hopping works (or doesn’t work) for you, then you can decide for yourself how often to use the technique.