Introducing "Hop Bursting" (Part 1, History)

(See also Part Two, how the brewers do it.)

I owe Stone Brewing an apology.  Last week the brewery sent out a press release to go with its new release called Go To IPA.  It included a passage that seemed like PR babble to me, with a piece of jargon added on top like a cherry:
"To achieve these glorious hop qualities and still maintain a low ABV, a technique called 'hop bursting' was implemented. This contemporary approach involves infusion of a massive amount of hops during the final phase of the brewing process to coax out the robust flavors and aromas of the hops."

Since there's nothing new about adding a massive amounts of late hops (it is, indeed, almost obligatory in 2014), the idea that this was something contemporary or that it needed a new name seemed like PR gloss. I (unwisely) mocked Stone for trying to drum up excitement over a standard practice (but wisely did it only on Facebook).  In short order, hive mind tipped me off that the term "hop bursting" didn't originate with Stone and had a real if elusive definition.

I did a bit of Googling.  It turns out that hop bursting is not the act of merely adding a lot of late-addition hops--it's only adding late addition hops.  No bittering hops at all.  It's a homebrewing technique that apparently dates back about a decade.  The earliest reference I can find is Jamil Zainasheff, who adds this introduction to an article he wrote back in '05 for Zymurgy: "I hadn't heard of what people call 'hop bursting' at that time or I would have mentioned it in the article. In this article I describe the process of massive late hopping (or hop bursting) and it includes a great recipe called Evil Twin." I consulted Stan Hieronymus's For the Love of Hops and he confirms that it bubbled up from the homebrew-o-sphere.  

Homebrewers mainly go the full monty, adding no hops to the beer until about the last 20 minutes of the boil.  Because it takes a long time for hops to fully isomerize and add bitterness, the homebrewers add a truckload of late-addition hops in recompense.  One theory holds that these later hops impart a softer bitterness, IBU for IBU.  No one has done a lick of research though, and that theory has the aroma of rumor to me.  I think it's more likely that it tastes softer because there's less real bitterness. 

But is it really a new technique?  To this, I think we may have no quick answer, though I'll share an anecdote by way of hypothesis.  Unbeknownst to myself, I have apparently been hop bursting for a few years.  It's the hallmark of my long-term project to create the perfect pale ale.  The first time I tried it, I used a small sprinkling of mash hops, then came in hard at 20 minutes.  I've experimented by first-wort hopping and using a wee bitter charge, but the 20 minute mega-load is a standard.  Did I invent hop bursting?

I have been contacting a few breweries (more on what they report tomorrow) and Ben Edmunds, who recently made some hop-burst beers, referred me to Barley Brown's, where he said the technique has been in use for awhile.  Tyler Brown's response to my inquiry was instructive:
"To be honest, I don't recall ever hearing the term "Hop Bursting" until just recently.  After looking it up... it resembles some of the techniques we've been doing for years. I once kicked around the thought of doing a "No IBU Ale" where we added hops to the mash, none in the kettle or whirlpool, and then a ton of dry hops. In theory it would be a Zero IBU beer."

"To answer some of your question, a beer we brew: Turmoil, uses half of it's hop bill in dry hop, and out of the the entire hop bill, less than 10% is used early in the kettle. We've been brewing Turmoil for 10 years as of January."

So there you go.  If I thought of this technique myself and Barley Brown's thought of it themselves, what's the likelihood that it really only dates back a decade?  Like so many practices in the art of brewing, one should always be suspicious of claims of innovation.  My guess is that this has been done from time to time across the millennia.  I mean, German brewers used to add chimney soot to beer, so how would this have escaped their notice?

Nevertheless, it's obviously more than PR gloss.  The IPA era extends back about twenty years, and over that period, breweries have gone from hyper-bitter beers to hyper-juicy beers, shifting the moment they added the hops from earlier to later.  Hop bursting describes a technique that is the ultimate terminus of that trend, when no (or very few) early hops are used.  It's a useful term, and I suspect it describes a technique that will come into regular use in the coming years.

In Part 2 tomorrow, I'll describe some of the ways breweries are implementing hop bursting in their beers.