Tuesday 17 January 2012

Hop Extract and Oils

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?


  1. I think pure extracts aren't really bothersome, its the ones that have been isomerised that are used that are an issue. They should also be used to complement hopping with pellets/flowers rather than as a replacement for cost efficiency.

    Using hop extract in beer is I guess no different than using vanilla extract in a cheesecake.

  2. And Orval, Chimay, Westvleteren... etc. Which brewers, I think, use extract along with pellet and whole hops. Clearly, it's possible to produce great beers which include extracts. I don't know that great beers can be made with extract alone - although you would be able to bottle them in clear glass!

  3. Years ago I'd have said a vehement no to extracts, but now with the advent of co2 ones its possible to have "instant bitterness" in a can which smells, tastes and acts like real hops but doesn't waste beer. I'm not saying they are a silver bullet and should be used universally, but we at Steel City are looking at them as we make bitter beers and they seem a great way to improve efficiency whilst keeping a very similar character.

  4. Like Steve said, I look at it like using vanilla extract rather than vanilla bean when baking. If it produces a good product, by all means, do it. Imitation hop extract, or for that matter imitation vanilla, is another matter. If it's some concocted hop-ish flavoring then I'd stay away. I have heard that Ballantine used hop oil for years—that beer was really popular here in the States, so they seemed to be doing something right.

  5. Svijanský Rytíř has been one of my favourite beers from more than five years. It's the beer I that I most often buy by the case to drink at home. A year and a half ago it came out that it was cold hopped with tetrahops, which made a lot of noise in the brewing industry here, made Pilsner Urquell think they could somehow profit from it (which backfired enormously), etc. etc.

    To make the story short, I know it is brewed with tetrahops, and I don't like it any less than I did when I wasn't aware of it. In other words, I don't care.

    The problem to me is not so much the use of hop extracts, but what sort of extracts are used and how.

  6. I'd love to try two beers brewed to the same recipe but one with the bittering charge replaced with extract. I bet you wouldn't be able to tell the difference.

    An even better test would be two beers where one has had the aroma/flavour additions replaced with extract. I bet you then could tell the difference!


  7. Isn't it all the other stuff other than the efficient that makes something more interesting? The microflora of wee lifeforms on the skin of great cheese? The effect of air and time on something when handled with skill? I am told my grandfather who lived on the coast would not eat fish that had not sat out for over a day. It didn't have enough taste. Surely no extract can improve or come near the complexity of flavours that an original form of anything can provide.

  8. Just to highlight another use for hop extract, when I worked for a large brewery we used hop extract to top up bitterness in order to ensure consistency across multiple batches of a beer. This would allow for the same bitterness irrespective of the qualities of the hops being used or the extraction from them in the boil. They also used caramel for colour consistency.

    Neither of these things is that important for smaller craft type breweries but as soon as you start supplying to pub chains/supermarkets etc. then consistency is very important. Even if it is to be consistently bland or bitter.

  9. Is this a sly rejoinder to Brewdog's last blog post Mark? Its certainly a nice counter-point to their chest-beating more hops-than-thee schtick. I tend to think that we could do with a little less artisan mystique and a bit more brewing science in the UK micro sector. Hop extracts should just be treated as another tool in making great beer, if that also leads to greater efficiencies then double win. I mean, if its good enough for Vinnie, right?

  10. I don't think we can tell the difference, frankly. In the past, we've loved beers, only to have people say "A-ha! But you shouldn't, cos it's got hop extract in!"

    And, of course, Doom Bar (one of Britain's least characterful beers) uses only whole leaf hops...

  11. Some of the flavour of bittering hops does carry through to the final beer so using extract will alter the character of the beer. Whether it's enough for most people to notice no doubt depends on what other flavours are in the beer.

  12. StringersBeer - Yes, I knew about Chimay but not the others. It's not just an IPA thing!

    Gazza - It's interesting to see the change in perception.

    PF - Interesting - like the difference, to use Steve's example, between using a vanilla extract and essence? One is pure, one is synthetic?

    Mark - I'd like to try that test, too!

    Alan - What if the extract is somehow better, though? What if the bitterness is cleaner and the aroma cleaner?

    Sam - Yep, I've heard of that, too.

    @braukerl - Not to do with anyone and I have no idea if Brewdog uses extract - when I was there we used flowers and pellets. Extracts are another tool, indeed, but one not many people know about so it's interesting to see what drinkers think.

    Bailey - I don't think I'd know if I was drinking extract?! Which, I think, makes it a good thing... (or am I being duped?!)

    Ed - Interesting...

  13. Mark- You misunderstand me. BD were trumpeting the specific weights of dry hops they use. I just thought your piece was an interesting counterpoint.

    As to what the (beer-geek)drinker thinks I suspect that it is in the hands of the PR guys to some extent. It could be portrayed as the orange-squash to whole leaf's freshly juiced orange. On the other hand they could be sold as akin to olive oil i.e. a separate and complimentary product with its own rarefied qualities. Either way, I doubt many (if any) of us will discern it until we are told.

  14. With respect, did I ever mention I consider "clean" a flaw? Standardization and simplification may work for the aroma of washing up soaps but not consumables. Velveeta cheese is clean. Somewhere I hear The Specials and "Dawning of a New Era" playing when I think of the concept of a clean taste.

  15. @braukerl - I see! Using a lot of dry hop is not necessarily a good thing, in my mind. Maybe oil would be better?!

    Alan - Not at all. But is using the pure extract that different from using the actual product? What about vegetal or harsh flavours or things which cannot be controlled? I'm all for the fresh stuff but interested in the Devil's Advocate corner of the extract use!

  16. "Yes at all" is apparently the only available response.

    Only the weird and industrialized is "pure". Surfing along with the flavours or things that cannot be controlled is the hallmark of an artisan. Hop oil is a short cut if not a cheat. But it is useful in mass brewing and not repulsive so is acceptable to a point. It is the cousin to malt extract though one that is not as likely to create yik. But it will take from the range of possible expressions necessarily as a reducer of variables. Most skilled in any field are they who master the widest range of variables.

    1. Agreed. Happy accidents to discover.

  17. As above one thought may be to look at it as being a bit like adding some sort of sugar instead of purely using malt, which is another thing done when producing big beers.

  18. It was only this weekend I was drinking chilled keg Smithwick's in the middle of Ireland that I remarked to my drinking partner that it would be great to have a little bottle of hop extract to take on business trips, stag weekends, to weddings & parties etc. A few drops of bitter, piny, hop goodness to liven up the dullest of beers. Keg and middle-of-the-road bottled ales would obviously benefit, not sure about nitro-smooth muck, but uninteresting cask ales like GK IPA, Doom Bar, Deuchars etc could also be spiced up.

  19. Does the beer taste good? I don't see a problem if hop oils are used or not really, so long as it is made with care and passion.

  20. I agree with Peter's comment. We only use whole leaf hops but that doesn't mean I don't like beers which don't use them. As long as it tastes good and made with passion you can use whatever type of hops you like and use a cannon to dispense it in my mouth for all I care.

  21. BOOOOO! Cheat! Its just so unromantic! Like flavour-pills in The Jetsons!

  22. the late Bert Grant used to carry a phial of hop extract around with him to give a little boost to any bland beers he may encounter.
    And if you don't know who Bert Grant was...

  23. Where can I sell hops??I have got 10 tons ????????????????????