Pellet vs Whole Hops Experiment

In the January MUGZ meeting I had attendees sample two different beers without any prior knowledge of what they were drinking (our members are pretty gullible that way, but I like ’em!). Fortunately for them, the samples were totally safe. In fact, the only difference between these two beers was that one was brewed with whole hops and one was brewed with pellet hops.

I’ve wondered the benefit of brewing with whole hops over pellets since I began homebrewing. No brewing resource really seemed to settle on one being better than the other, so I eventually decided to find out for myself. I took the “Ordinary Bitter” recipe from Jamil Zainasheff’s excellent “Brewing Classic Styles” book and split the wort into two kettles on the same stove. From there, I boiled them simultaneously, taking care to keep the boil rates and stirring as close as possible to rule out any other variables beyond hops. I also made sure the hops came from the same retailer with the same alpha acids.

1/2oz of whole EKG on the left and a 1/2 of pelletized EKG on the right. What a difference!

1/2oz of whole EKG on the left and a 1/2 of pelletized EKG on the right. What a difference!

At 60 minutes, I tossed in a half ounce of East Kent Goldings, loose, into each kettle. As you can see from the photo above, there’s a huge difference in size, despite both weighing the same.

Neither boil seemed to behave differently during the 60 minutes. Two quarter-ounce additions went into each later on in the boil, per Jamil’s recipe. I was thinking that one batch would look differently during the boil, but they appeared almost identical and I had to be careful not to confuse the two kettles during cool-down.

pelletleftbehind wholeleftbehind








One thing I’d always heard about brewing with whole hops was that they absorbed a ton of the beer so care was required to make sure your target level didn’t come up short. However, after pouring both kettles through a strainer into their fermenters, the levels were surprisingly similar and the “hop junk” left behind was also similarly sized, albeit in different forms.

The only difference I noted during fermentation was that the whole hop batch appeared uniformly cloudy (think Hefeweizen) while the pellet batch stratified from the light trub to the darker wort (as is the case with most of my ales). However, both completed fermentation at about the same time and at the same FG. I racked and kegged into mini kegs after 10 days in the fermentor and visually, both samples appeared the same.

So what did our guinea pigs think? I like to keep m test subjects in the dark as long as possible with these blind taste tests and give them a chance to tell me their observations and any guesses they have on what the differences are. The (unknown to them) pellet sample was noted as having a “smoother, rounder” flavor profile while the whole hopped sample seemed a little “sharper” or acidic.

Before I revealed the details of the experiment, I had everyone vote on which they preferred. 13 people preferred the beer with pellet hops, 2 preferred the whole hopped beer, and 7 said there wasn’t enough of a difference to prefer one over the other.

So what do you think? Is there a reason to choose one type of hop over the other? Did this experiment change your mind about hop types?

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