Has anyone seen a marked improvement in hop flavor/quality from first wort hopping (adding hops at sparge) vs. late hopping vs. dry hopping vs. a hopback? Are there specific advantages to doing so? Hints for doing so?
I FWH a majority of my beers. I really like the improved hop flavor and smooth bitterness it gives me. I did an experiment a few years back with a split batch, one half using only FWH and the other half with the same amount of the same hops as only a 60 min. addition. I had the beers analyzed for IBU and although the FWH beer measured slightly higher, it actually tasted less bitter. That's because of chemical changes that happen as the FWH steep. Contrary to what some have written, you get no aroma contribution from FWH. It's all about hop flavor and smooth bitterness.
Doing first wort hops allow for more hop bitterness to be extracted. Adding the hops during the first runnings reduces the ph level of the wort and increases isomerization of the alpha acids in later hop additions. Typically you will get around 10% more IBUs than with a standard 60 minute boil.
If you want to test this start with 25% - 30% of your hop schedule and move it to FWH.
I tried FWH once and was under the impression that it would somehow add much less bitter than a 60 min addition. I don't remember why I though this, but in my experience it's not true at all, the hops in my beer were all bitter and no aroma.