Monday, July 18, 2011

Drying Hops at Home

Growing hops isn’t for everyone because it requires outdoor space and the time to tend and harvest the crop, all this to make what you could buy for a couple dollars. However, growing hops does provides a couple of unique opportunities that you can’t get out of a Mylar bag.

Last year I used the first crop of my DC hops to brew a wet hopped ale, harvesting the hops off the bines during the mash and adding them to the boil without drying. Removing the water from any herb (including hops) changes the flavor, reducing the fresh grassy flavor and giving it a more straight forward flavor.  Hopunion does sell wet hops through homebrew stores for $20+/lb (but a pound is barely enough to brew one batch and the system still means there will be a few days between harvest, shipping, and brewing).

Even if you don’t want to use wet hops, drying your own has its own advantages. With home dried hops you know their entire history and can treat them gently from bine to kettle (no pesticides, shipping, industrial processing etc…). Going through every step of the process also allows you to learn what freshly dried hops smell like, giving you the experience to better judge the freshness of the hops you buy.

As I said, drying hops chases away some of their complexity, but how you dry them will determine the amount of aromatics lost.  To dry hops commercial hop processors use a heated air circulator called an oast.  While it is possible to build a small oast at home (The Homebrewer’s Garden has a diagram) it isn't worth it for only a couple pounds of hops. Using a food dehydrator would yield similar results.  The main issue with this method is that too much heat will cook the hops driving off their fresh aromatics completely (and even with the “right” amount you lose some of the more volatile molecules). 

Luckily there are several other methods available for homebrewers who want to dry their hops. The most common is to lay the hops on a metal window screen in a cool, dark, dry spot and allow a week for them to dry naturally. This can work well, but not everyone has the space to lay out screens of hops for a week. There is also some concern about the safety of window screens since they aren’t rated for food safety, not to mention the dust that can settle on the hops as they dry.

The speediest method for a small amount of hops is to use a microwave. Place the freshly picked hops in a plastic colander and microwave at 50% power, stirring every 30 seconds until the hops are mostly dry (they will continue drying for a few minutes after they are taken out). This technique worked well for me when I tried it a few years ago, while the dried hops had an odd seaside-brine aroma the beer I added them to tasted and smelled fine. That said, you are still heating the hops so delicate aromatics are being driven off and it is easy to overdo the drying since it goes so quickly.

Not entirely satisfied with any of these methods I wanted to try a rig I saw used on an episode of Good Eats to dry herbs. I picked about a gallon of hops and placed two layers between three furnace air filters (for safety avoid buying anything made of fiberglass).  I tried to keep the hops in a roughly single layer to ensure even drying.  When you stack them up make sure that all of the filters are facing with the airflow indicators pointing the same direction as the fan. Strap your hop sandwich to the front of a box fan using two bungee cords. You could probably get away with adding another filter and a third layer of hops, but if you try that I’d suggest shuffling the layers after 12 hours so they all dry at the same rate. Point the fan out a window and turn it on high, after about 24 hours your hops will be completely dry and ready to use (or vacuum seal and freeze for later).  I have been told that letting them dry too long can blow the lupulin off the hops, but I didn't have an issue.

I won’t be sure how well the fan drying method worked until I try the hops out in a beer, but I’m hoping that the low amount of heat and time from harvesting to drying to freezing will maximize their fresh aromatic character (they certainly smelled good when I bagged them up). The two plants should be ready for another harvest in a few weeks, before then I’ll pick up two slightly longer bungee cords that won’t hold the filters quite as hard.

17 comments:

jmcleod said...

I just stumbled on your blog, awesome stuff! I am a newbie and seeing your dedication with the hops growing is inspiring. Keep up the great work and thanks for sharing! I look forward to catching up with your older posts.

HolzBrew said...

Great looking hops! And nice drying apparatus as well. Do you grow those hops in your yard? What varieties do you grow?

Brandon said...

Awesome! All my plants are 2nd year. I was wondering what I was going to do in the fall...

Middle Class Middle Aged White Guy said...

...but the overriding questions are "How do you know when to pick them and what alpha you're getting"?

Jack said...

I used the same rig to dry my home grown hops. Like you, I haven't brewed with them yet. I vacuum-bagged them and threw the bags in the freezer, to be used pretty soon.

MCMAWG, you know to pick them when (1) the cones start to feel slightly dry and papery, as opposed to dense and leafy, (2) some of the tips of the brachts start to yellow or brown, (3) the lupulin turns from bright yellow to a golden color and becomes quite sticky and very aromatic, and (4) when you squeeze a cone, it springs right back to form. An immature cone stays compressed for a short while when you squeeze it; a mature cone bounces right back.

As for alpha acid, you can only know for sure if you send your hops to a lab for testing. But your rhizome provider will tell you the average range for the variety, and you can assume your hops are in the middle of that range. For this reason, it's not wise to use homegrown hops for bittering. When used for flavoring and aroma, the alpha content isn't as important.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I've got two second year hop plants growing up twine to a poll that was their when I bought the house. One is Cascade, the other is probably Willamette (I got the rhizomes from another local homebrewer). I also have two ~6 year old plants at my parents’ house in Massachusetts, but they don’t get enough sun or water to produce much.

There is no way to know the percent of alpha acids when you pick the hops without getting them lab tested. This is cost prohibitive for homebrewers, but you have a couple options. You could guess, brew a style that has some range of bitterness you'd be happy with, learn from that first experiment and adjust for future batches (if your harvest is big enough). I usually just use commercial hops for bittering and save my homegrown for late boil aroma additions to avoid the issue all together.

Glad you guys enjoyed the post/rig, if anyone else tries it let me know if it works for you.

Erik said...

You might consider freezing the hops wet instead of drying them first: http://www.homebrewtalk.com/f92/hop-dryer-plans-121504/index2.html#post1353853

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I tried freezing my first harvest of wet hops last year, but when I defrosted them they looked like wilted spinach (I couldn't bring myself to use them out of a concern for imparting a grassy flavors from the ruptured cells). Interesting to hear that Moonlight and Russian River do it with good results, I might have to try it again so I can dry hop a wet hopped beer.

Ben Fogt said...

I did that a couple years ago, but there's no way I could do that anymore. Maybe using larger filters or building them from fabric and wood. The volume was just too high in the third and fourth year and beyond.

Even the window screen method failed with so much material to dry. I'm moving into a new place, so I have three years to contemplate the next drying rig. And I have pounds of dry hops to use until then.

Chris said...

I grow hops from some wild collected vines I found in a field near my house. They have the best flavor and very unique. This year I will do some wild collecting of hops and my garden. I also wild collect mulberry and elderberry for a great beer. I love my winter elderberry Christmas beer. I drink it when I start to get sick. It works great.

Chris said...

You should use a fish emalsion and kelp as a foliar feed twice a week till a couple weeks before harvest. The fish will add trace minerals and the kelp will give rapid growth. The flavors of your hops will be much better and stronger with the better health. Once a month you can do your Rapid Grow feeding. I also add wood ash for flowering.

Middle Class Middle Aged White Guy said...

Cool - thanks. I guess, though, before I worry about picking and drying, I need to come up with a trellis arrangement that works... I'm on "Version 3" and it was a massive FAIL. I now have Cascade, Willamette, Chinook and Nugget hops growing in the weeds with no trellises. :-(

There are also a crapload of wild hops around here - Central NY used to be one of the main hop growing regions of the US.

Anonymous said...

I grow my hops in a v-shape, from a central point up two supports made of jute twine. They connect to each end of a horizontal 1x1 about 8 feet long and supported horizontally about 18 inches from my deck rails.

They grow up the twine and cascade over the trellis. Access is easy when it's picking time (last night) and when you're ready to take the bines down, you simply cut the jute and roll it all up for the compost pile.

I plant them inside of a 12" round cement pipe or a bottomless plastic nursery pot to contain the spread.

karrey said...

So, what was the verdict on drying hops this way?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Here is the beer I ended up brewing with these hops, with additions for bittering and flameout. I dry hopped with wet hops too, and still it didn't have much hop aroma. I actually dumped the last of the bottles a few weeks ago, easier than scrubbing off a case of labels, and after two years, it wasn't getting any better.

John Weir said...

I grow cascade and centennial on my roof. The other day I broke a bine and this morning finally got to collecting the hops that were surprisingly dry already. Since Im a few weeks from brewing Im assuming I should take these dried on the bine hops and stick them in the freezer in a bag with as little air as possible? Any insight would be appreciated. I usually brew with these hops as I harvest them, so this is the first time Ive had to figure out how to store hops for a short period.
Thanx

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Sounds like a good plan. Make sure they are completely dry. I use a vacuum-bagger, but a ziploc and a drinking straw would be passable for short-term storage.

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