Hop Sensory Analysis in 5 Easy Steps
The best way to understand what hops bring to a finished beer, is to brew a single hop beer. Since that's not always practical, here is an alternative way to evaluate a hop, whether in pellet, whole cone/leaf or fresh off the bine.
Step 1 - Gather your supplies
- Hops (more on this later).
- One French Press or a couple of coffee cups and a pour over filter (for each hop you'll be evaluating).
- Something to take notes in, and a way to take your notes.
- A place to analyze your hop(s) that is free from other strong odors.
- Some hot, but not boiling water. About 190 degrees Fahrenheit.
- A timer.
Step 2 - Steep your hops
If using a French Press, open your packet of hops and pour about a quarter of it into the French Press. Seal the hop packet and set aside. Add about a cup of your hot water to the French Press and put the filter on, leaving the plunger in the raised position.
If you don't have a French Press, you can use a pour over setup for coffee or similar strainer to achieve the same results. Open your hop packet and pour a little bit into the first coffee cup, close up the packet and set aside. Add about a cup of hot water. Close up the hop packet and set aside for now.
While you can test hop blends this way, it's a good idea to start with only have one variety at a time in each French Press or container
Step 3 - Set your timer
Set your timer for 15 minutes. While you wait for your hops to steep in the hot water, prep your notepad.
Some ideas of notes to take are:
- What type of hops are they?
- What year were the hops harvested?
- Where are they from?
- What is the volume of the packet?
- What is the Alpha Acid content?
- Do you know the Beta Acid or Total Oil Content of the hops?
- Where did you get the hops?
- How much did they cost?
Leave space for:
- Aroma impressions.
- Flavor impressions.
- Styles of beer you might want to brew with the hops.
Step 4 - Rub the hops
Look at how compact the pellets are. Do they break apart very easily or does it take a lot of pressure to open them up?
Rub the broken pellets between a couple of fingers or in between your hands. Do you feel the stickiness?
As you rub the hops, what aromas are you getting?
Try to be specific. Rather than "citrus", think about whether it smells like an orange, a lime, a grapefruit or a lemon. A regular lemon or a Meyer lemon?
Your next trip to the produce aisle is a great place to do some research.
Is the hop herbal? Earthy? Spicy? (Star anise, black pepper or clove? Ginger maybe licorice root?)
Do you get any garlic? Some hops, like Summit, Nelson Sauvin and Centennial contain more thiols than other hops. Thiols are an organic compund that contains sulphur.
If you’re sensitive to these compounds you may get unpleasant onion or garlic aromas while your non-sensitive neighbor gets fruit aromas.
What about old socks? Over ripe cheese? They may have been poorly packaged or somehow oxidized along the way.
Pineapple? Guava? Passion Fruit? Black Tea? Mint? Let your mind wander and find the aromas it finds. Remember that there are no wrong answers here. This is all about what you get from the hop. Everyone experiences things differently, so your neighbor might say "pineapple" thinking back to their recent trip to Hawaii, and you might say "papaya" thinking about the fruit salad at lunch. Both are okay.
Step 5 - Taste your hops
Plunge your French Press and pour a little of the liquid into a heat safe cup.
If using a pour over setup, put a filter in the cone and place over an empty coffee cup and strain the liquid.
Smell the aromas coming from the warm liquid. How do they compare to the aromas from the rub? You may notice that some aromas have intensified and some have mellowed or disappeared altogether.
Take a small amount of liquid into your mouth and draw some air in over it to release the flavors. If you've ever been to a wine tasting, you have probably seen someone do this or have done it yourself. You'll notice right away how bitter the liquid is, even on low alpha hops. Try and ignore the bitterness while focusing on the flavors in the liquid. Taste is a large part of smell, but you should notice some differences in this stage as well.
Take notes of your impressions. If nothing else, looking back in six months or a couple of years, you'll be amazed at how far your perception and description vocabulary has come. You'll also have a record of change over time in the hops you sample. Even if you buy the same variety from the same farm every year, you'll see differences.
That's it for a basic analysis.
If you’re going to include making the "hop tea" as part of all your hop evaluations, you may find yourself limited to a few samples in a session before the bitterness effectively numbs your taste buds. You’ll find that your ability to compensate over time will grow, but will likely be in the single digits.
Rather than just steeping you sample hops in hot water, but the French Press on a stir plate and use the magnetic bar to agitate the solution while your sample steeps. You will get a fuller expression of the hop, but this is not a necessary step.
When choosing more than one hop to evaluate at a time, pick a theme. It could be as simple as visiting your closest hop farm and buying a little bit of every variety they grow. Maybe you want to check out the five C's (Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Citra and Columbus), or New Zealand Hops. Were you able to find all of the hops listed on your favorite NEIPA? Sounds like a great session. How about the same variety grown by multiple farms? Have any open hops that have been hanging out in your freezer longer than you can remember? Compare those with a fresh pack of the same variety, preferably from the same supplier. Try the same variety in both leaf and pellet form (and cryo if you can find that).
If you want to share your notes with me, I'd love to see them! You can leave them in the comments below, email them to Jonathan@HopoftheMonthClub.com, DM me through Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.