Can You Use Unknown Hops?

from theweeklybrew

hopsIt’s been awhile since I’ve done a homebrewing post. This isn’t because I haven’t been brewing, It’s because my area of study has been primarily in brewing history lately, rather then the process. Just today though I realized that with the hop harvest recently that I could’ve been posting on that process.  So I figured I’d post today on an issue that I recently had.

In September I received an email from someone telling me they had some unknown hops they thought were fuggles and were wondering if I wanted to pick some. Considering the price of hops I was happy to go pick free hops. The problem was when I showed up I discovered they neither looked, nor smelled like fuggles. In fact I didn’t recognize the smell from any of the hops I’d used before. Usually in a case like this you identify the hops by leaf characteristics and the cones size shape and smell. Naturaly I brought up some hop databases and started comparing. Comparing leaves and cones proved difficult with this variety though. The next step in hop identification when comparison fails is genetic identification or a gas chromatography. These methods are expensive though and impractical.

After some more digging I found out the owner of the plants had purchased them discount at a nursery to use as cover on a fence. This meant there was a good chance these were a decorative variety. If you ask most brewers, or do some googling you’ll find most people don’t think that it is a good idea to use wild or decorative hops. Many people feel that these hops can’t be used for brewing. The reality is that although their not bread specifically for brewing these hops can be used for making beer.

The most difficult issue to overcome when brewing with mystery hops is alpha acids. Not knowing the bittering properties of hops makes it difficult to properly use them for bittering. The easiest way is to use trial and error. With these I started with 1.75oz. I figured it was safer to risk it being a high alpha hop and aging the bitterness out rather then having a sickly sweet brew from too little. Taste and aroma are much easier to gauge using a tea made from the hops. I just tried the brown ale I brewed with them turned out great.

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10 Responses to “Can You Use Unknown Hops?”

  1. A lot of “wild” hops are the Cluster variety.

  2. Jack R. says:

    I have noticed two breweries
    – Fort George, Astoria
    – Lucky Labrador, Portland
    invited people to contribute their backgarden hops to commercial brew(s). People were also invited with or without bines to help pick the cones from the bine.

    Venti’s have a keg from each aforementioned brewing cos. awaiting a suitable tap.

    Unrelated but Venti’s Cafe just tap a 1/6th barrel of Leavenworth – Freisan Pilsner.
    I reckon it will not last many days

  3. Dr Wort says:

    You can bitter a beer with ANY edible bittering agent. Rosemary, Oregano, Wormwood, etc. aka a Gruit.

  4. Jack R. says:

    @DrW – then you could use bitter fruit and create a double: Fruit Gruit beer. This may have a meaning in Cockney rhyming slang.

    @et al – I prefer lagers over ales. If I were going to grow a single variety of hops for future home brewing what is recommended?
    What should my second choice be?
    And a third?

    Are the dwarf varieties, 10 vis 18 feet, recommended or to be avoided?

  5. Dr Wort says:


    Hallertaur/Mt Hood/Crystal/Sterling/Saaz/Tettnanger…..

  6. Jared says:

    @ Doc

    You can bitter with other herbs, but the consideration of how much bitterness that herb will actually impart comes into play still.


    Sterling will hold up well in storage and is fairly disease/pest resistant. Saaz is another good choice but apparently can be prone to viral issues. Both cultivars are easily attainable in the US. If you could get your hands on Select or Tradition then I’d highly recomend those ones.

    Doc Worts list is also good (he left it while I was writing this)

    I would add Spalt, Hersbrucker, Styrian Golding, Liberty, Santiam, and Vanguard to the list as well

    There are dwarf varieties of hops out there, but I’m not sure about availability or wether they’d be suitable to lagers. Your best bet would be install a lattice and train them so that they don’t need the full height.

  7. Jack R. says:

    thanks for the list(s)

  8. Dr Wort says:

    @ Jared

    In the olden days they just went of bitterness by personal taste and guessing the amounts added.

    I love Vangard, but Jacl said he wants to make lagers so I picked more lager type hops. Spalt, Liberty are good too.

    Ignore the cranky Dr Wort…… he’s just for show… he means no harm 😉

  9. Jared says:


    I know Vanguard isn’t a typical lager hop, but it would work.

    I still guess on bittering, but many homebrewers are getting more scientific about hop additions.

  10. dr wort says:

    Guess on bittering? There are plenty of Beer Recipe Calculators out there. I rememebr doing calculations on paper. Dr george Fix used to teach a class on Hop additions. 70-25-5 were the percent of hops for three different additons. Wow! I did I remember that? Of course, IBU calculations were fairly easy.

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