Ask the Experts
Homebrew expert Brad Smith, author of the Beersmith homebrewing software and the voice behind the Beersmith podcast, tackles questions about first wort hopping and whether you should steep dark grains and offers advice on selecting the perfect brewing pump.
What is first wort hopping and what does it do?
There are a lot of misconceptions about first wort hopping (FWH) and what it really accomplishes. The method itself is pretty simple. Rather than adding hops in the boil, you add the hops to the boil kettle fairly early in the sparging process, which gives them a chance to steep as you sparge your grains and drain more wort into the boil kettle. The hops remain while you bring the kettle to a boil and are left in for the entire boil period of typically 60–90 minutes.
The net effect of first wort hopping is fairly subtle. In blind-taste tests, most people find first wort hops to have a slightly smoother, less sharp, and slightly less bitter overall flavor. As a result, the method is primarily used in beers that are not overly hops-forward such as Continental beers, wheat beers, English styles, and many non-ipa American beers. Despite the mellowing effect of first wort hopping, scientific measurements of the wort generally indicate a slightly higher level of bitterness in the finished beer, typically 5–10 percent higher. In tasting, however, the opposite is true, with the vast majority of tasters (11 of 12 tasters in some early experiments by Dr. George Fix) preferring the first wort–hopped beer, which they found to be more harmonic, less sharp, and uniform in its bitterness.
Some misconceptions about first wort hopping track back to its origins. The technique itself is very old, having been used in German beers well over 100 years ago, but the technique was largely lost until Priess, Nuremburg, and Mitter published an article on it in 1995 (Brauwelt International, Vol IV, p. 308). In the late 1990s, many brewers experimented with turning their late-boil hops additions into first-wort hops additions, apparently thinking that steeping the hops in the first runnings off the mash was somehow equivalent to a late-boil addition. We know now that the two are not at all the same and that first-wort hops are essentially full-length boil hops that also take the
edge off the flavor a bit. They are a bittering addition and not at all equivalent to a late-hops or whirlpool addition.
That being said, first wort hopping is one of my favorite techniques when I’m looking to smooth and blend the flavor of my hops into the beer, and I use it extensively on just about any style of beer that is not “hops-forward.”
I heard it may be good to steep some dark grains instead of mashing them. Why? What’s the best way to do it?
Steeping the darkest roasted grains is a method that Gordon Strong introduced to me in his book Brewing Better Beer: Master Lessons for Advanced Homebrewers. The reason to steep grains instead of mashing them has to do with the length of time it takes to mash your grains. The best analogy I’ve heard is to think about brewing roasted coffee beans to make coffee. If you brew the coffee for the correct amount of time (about 2–4 minutes for a French press), you get a nice enjoyable cup of coffee. However, if you were to steep the same coffee beans for an hour or more, you would get coffee that was sharp, bitter, acrid, and overly strong.
Gordon Strong argues that the same applies to dark-roasted malts, such as chocolate, black patent, roasted barley, and probably even many of the dark crystal and colored malts, such as dark brown malt, Special B, and light chocolate. Leaving these dark-roasted malts in the hot mash water for an hour or more runs the risk of extracting many bitter, tannic compounds that can upset the balance of your beer. Further, these very dark malts don’t actually contribute much in the way of fermentable sugars, so they don’t really need to be mashed. Steeping them for a short period in hot water is sufficient to extract the flavor and body from them.
The original method for handling these dark “steeped” grains was to create a separate tea using the dark grains. Steep them for a short period of time (perhaps 5–15 minutes) in hot water and then strain the grains out to extract the tea. However, many brewers found this to be time consuming.
The current method, which is much quicker, is simply to sprinkle the dark grains over the top of the mash before you lauter/sparge your grain bed. This limits the steep time but still lets you extract the flavor and body from the roasted grains. It also saves time and makes for easy cleanup as you don’t have to deal with heating up and straining a separate tea.
What should I look for when selecting a brewing pump?
Selecting a brewing pump is not that hard. All of the major beer-pump manufacturers now make reliable, affordable pumps that can last for many years. The first criteria you need to insist on is that the pump is designed for high temperatures—ideally to at least boiling temperatures. You need high-temperature support to handle both the mash and the transfer of near-boiling wort through your chiller and into the fermentor. This, unfortunately, rules out the vast majority of “self-priming” pumps as most can’t support high temperatures.
The second feature you want is a magnetic drive, which means that the rotor is not physically attached to the drive shaft for the motor but instead is turned by a magnet. The magnetic-drive feature, which most modern pumps have, lets you pump slower than the full output rate by attaching a valve to the output of the pump. Pumps typically are either on or off and run around 8 gal/min (24 l/min), so you need a separate valve to control flow. The ability to throttle the rate at which the pump operates is critical both for mash recirculation and for controlling the flow through your chiller to control wort temperature.
Beyond those two basic features, there are certainly a number of “optional” features to consider. Most pumps come with either a “polysulfone” (plastic) head or a stainless-steel head. Many brewers prefer the stainless-steel head for durability and ease of cleaning. The standard connection for the pumps is a ½" MPT connector that works like a small garden hose screw-on connector. Some higher-end pumps have other types of connectors, such as tri-clover clamps. In addition, you will usually need accessories, such as a ball valve, a power switch of some kind, and a relief valve that releases air to help prime the pump.
The “classic” beer pump is the March 815, which has a 7 gal/min pump rate and a good reputation in the homebrew industry. Chugger also makes pumps that are near-clones of the March pumps and have good performance and value. Blichmann recently came out with its Riptide brewing pump, which has some very innovative features, including an enclosed motor that makes it almost silent, stainless head, and integrated flow control valve as well as integrated air relief valve for priming. I really like this pump as it is quiet, is very easy to disassemble with no tools, and requires no additional valves or accessories to use it. While the Riptide has a slightly higher price point, you save by not purchasing extra accessories. Any of the major homebrew pumps are a good value and will last you many years if you clean and maintain them properly.
If you have a question for the experts or want to share your expertise, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website at beerandbrewing.com.