When we think about hops, flowers and pellets come to mind first. Those little pale-green buds with papery, oily skins or little military green pellets which break open when pressed between thumb and finger. But what about adding hop bitterness, aroma and flavour from a jar?
Hops can go into beer as flowers, pellets, extract or oil. The Oxford Companion to Beer says that ‘more than 50% of all hops used by the brewing industry worldwide are processed into extracts.’ CO2 extract contains all of the good stuff you want from the hop – alpha acids, beta acids and oils – in a concentrated form. Hop Union explains that ‘the brewing characteristics of the original hops are maintained,’ so equivalent flower or pellet additions for bitterness or aroma will achieve the same results by using extract.
It’s possible to get a general extract which adds bitterness and aroma, as well as variety-specific oils. It’s also possible to get isomerized hop extract which is for the bittering addition and can be added instead of the bittering hops or to bolster an under-hopped beer. Then there are products such as Tetra-hop extract, which will give bitterness and flavour but have been treated to prevent lightstrike. This is, in my opinion, slightly different to the CO2 extract in that it is further processed and intended to eradicate a fault.
The efficiency of extract means that it’s used to reach the big levels of bitterness wanted in a lot of IPAs and other high-IBU brews. It’s also good for an extra lift of aroma. Russian River’s Pliny the Elder and Younger famously use hop extract in their production; Lagunitas use it in Hop Stoopid; Mikkeller uses it in the 1000 IBU beers. And there’s a nice, short overview from Mitch Steele of Stone Brewing on the use of extract here, where he explains the benefits which include a clean bitterness and less wasted wort through the trub of spent, soggy hop.
A few years ago, I think hop extract would’ve been a dirty word in craft breweries, some kind of cheat which doesn’t use the most natural of ingredients. Now it seems that it’s slipped into the smaller-scale of brewing without too much alarm, even if most breweries still favour the silver sacks of packed hops.
Part of me think it’s a bit strange to use extract but the other part doesn’t mind if it’s done to be able to give the best flavour or bitterness possible – extract seems to give a cleaner type of bitterness than flowers or pellets. It’s no different to adding chilli extract instead of chopping up fresh peppers – you just get a different type of flavour which you will struggle to match with fresh ingredients. Plus, when you taste a beer like Pliny, you don’t care how the hell it’s made because it’s so damn good.
Is hop extract one of those things which doesn’t bother you or is it somehow ‘cheating’? If you found out that one of your favourite beers used extract, would you think differently of it?