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This question is a follow-up to the original one regarding the effect on boil size on IBUs. (Effect of boil size on IBUs) I understand that the boil gravity tends to lessen the utilisation of hops and the extraction of alpha acids, because the sugars are just taking up the place.

Now, what would be the risk / downside of boiling hops beforehand in (near) water (none or small amount of brewing sugar / malt added), then letting the hopped water cool down and adding malts, or malt extract? In particular, would it not just make a lot more sense, when brewing with an unhopped malt extract, to simply boil hops in a small amount of water with a just little bit of extract added to it?

To illustrate a specific case: I have an unhopped malt extract, hop pellets, and a pot of only 6 litres for boiling them.

Also very importantly, how would one calculate the IBUs when implementing such a procedure?

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There are a bunch of factors to consider here. To name a few:

  • As you mention, zero to very little gravity will tend to increase the utilization rate as there will be less competitive inhibition from wort sugars.
  • Boiling in water alone will mean a higher pH (as malt phosphates, even in extract brewing, would normally react with hardness in/added to the water to naturally lower wort pH). Of course the exact pH of the boil will depend on your water supply, but high pH favors the dissolution of iso-alpha acids and will also increase utilization rates.
  • The Mg++ ion catylizes the isomerization reaction and should be more abundant in water than it is in wort (where it would react with phosphates [see above]). Higher levels, therefore, will favor more isomerization, and again increase utilization.
  • You will lose out on good hot-break formation, which is largely malt-derived protein agglomerating with malt/hop-derived polyphenols and precipitating as trub. Trub is known to carry iso-alpha acids out of the wort with it (hence its bitter taste), so once more your utilization will go up. You might also experience haze problems in your beer because of the unprecipitated malt protein (which only matters if you care about hazy beer).
  • Iso-alpha acids stick to yeast cells in fermentation, so if you're giving your yeast wort with very high leves (and this is not specific to this case, but a general occurance) it may not preform as well.

My guess is that calculating IBUs is going to be near-impossible outside of either relying on sensory evaluation of the finished beer or sending a sample to a lab for verification. One thing you can obviously say, though, is that the utilization will be significantly higher.

Also, remember that along with higher levels of iso-alpha acids you should see higher levels of other hop resin byproducts, not all of which are pleasant to taste. I've often read reports that over-utilization of hops in the kettle leads to a less agreeable hop flavor in the finished beer.

That being said, the risks might not have such negative impacts on your finished beer, and at the very least you could probably correct your utilization numbers by trying this procedure a few times and adjusting accordingly by taste. If it ends up being something that's convenient for you, why not go for it?

  • Thank you for a very detailed answer! It fully explained to me the importance of malts in boil and still it's quite encouraging for me to just go with the aforementioned method. – cccec Feb 27 '15 at 12:09
  • However, how would one go about determining the amount of hops to be added? If I'd just calculate the addition as if I were boiling the hops with the whole batch, while actually boiling the same amount of hops in the highly diluted version of the mash, does that mean that the utilisation and the consecutive IBUs would be a) lower (yes, the utilisation's higher, but I'll mix the bitter boil with the whole batch) b) higher (the utilisation is just so much higher), or c) comparable? I'm considering the third option, if only for the sake of simplicity. Do you think it's a safe way? – cccec Feb 27 '15 at 12:11
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    Again, determining the amount of hops will depend on a lot of things (mostly how much water out of the whole batch you choose to boil it in). I would honestly just try it with the regular hopping rate and see how it turns out. You probably won't find a formula for this calculation and the utilization may not bee that much higher. – Franklin P Combs Feb 27 '15 at 14:27

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