I thought of this post to help newer brewers understand the types of hops they can buy. During the current hop shortage; storability is the most important thing to keep in mind when you finally find a precious ounce of your favorite hop. I hope this is mildly informative and entertaining.
Pellets are ground up whole hops, that are then pressed into a pellet form. The pressing creates a hop product with significantly less surface area than whole leaf hops. Therefore they have superior storage properties to other hops. The fact that they are ground up, means that once the pellets dissolve in the wort, the hop utilization goes up significantly because of the increased surface area of all the little bits. As a result you can’t just sub 1:1 pellet from whole leaf. Utilization can be improved from 10-25% with pellets over whole hops. So using more whole hops is required than pellets to get the same results.
Hop plugs are whole hops that have been pressed (no grinding) into discs that are about a 1/2-3/4 inch thick and have a diameter slightly larger than a quarter. When they are plopped into the wort they slowly expand and will look like whole leaf hops in the kettle. The advantage to plugs is that the storage is improved (not as good as pellets) and there is less manipulation of the hop flower (again, no grinding). Plus, their hockey puck design is ideal for pick up games on the frozen lake down the street. I’m just kidding about that last point, but I thought I would try to sneak one by you.
Whole Leaf Hops:
Whole leaf hops are just virgin picked hops dried and put in a bag, hopefully vacuum sealed. This is where plugs and pellets start from. Whole leaf are great when they are freshest, but will have the shortest shelf-life. When using whole leaf hops its important to plan the brew carefully so that an open bag of while leaf is used rather quickly. Once exposed to air whole leaf hops degrade faster than the other two forms.
Personally, I am a pellet fan. The main reason for this is storage benefits. In the past I would buy hop pellets by the pound. They come in a airtight bag that is nearly impervious to gas exchange. Once opened I press and seal the bag the best I can, often with a binder clip or two. Then I put the bag in a large ziploc bag, pressed and sealed to remove more air. I store these double bagged hops in the freezer. I have found that I can use a bag of hops and still have fresh hop character within 6-9 as long as I am careful each time. I have used hops that are over a year old with this storage methods and detected little change in quality. Being sure to rotate the stock of hops and plan out the brew session to use older hops first keeps me from letting the hop pellets get too old.