Dry Hopped Kombucha

I’ve been experimenting with adding hops to kombucha for a more beer-like experience. In brewing terms, I’m dry hopping kombucha. Dry hopping is generally done for aroma, and doesn’t generally produce much bitterness, so dry hopped kombucha should emphasize all of the ancillary hop flavors that most people probably don’t think about. But I have to wonder if the kombucha’s low pH might affect the hops in such a way as to realize some of the bitterness too.

I’ve tried three different hops (Strisselspalt, Mosaic, Cascade), in two different forms (pellets, whole cone), with many different batches of kombucha. Each variety of hops has it’s own characteristics, and the different forms will have an effect on the flavors that can be extracted as well as a number of practical factors.

If you’d like to read more about hops or dry hopping, read the link in the first paragraph. It’s important if you want to try it yourself, but outside the scope of this post and already well documented in far more detail than you need for kombucha. However, this article on bitterness and dry hopping is really interesting, and directly relevant to what I’m doing.

  • Strisselspalt (pellets). Strisselspalt is a very mild variety of hops (flavor-wise) that it has a great reputation for aroma, so the results aren’t too surprising. In the end, I decided that either strisselspalt doesn’t pair well with kombucha, or I’m not using it correctly. Pellets were added to disposable paper filter bag and dropped in quart jar with kombucha.
    • regular kombucha, fermented 23 days to pH 3.0: tart
      • 1 tb hops steeped for 1 week: light bitterness, herbal, but too reminiscent of dill pickles.
    • glucose kombucha, fermented 16 days to pH 3.0: The flavor was very dry (not sweet and very astringent), but not very sour.
      • 2 tb hops stepped for 1 week: After 1 week there was a pleasant but faint hop aroma (too subtle for me, and there was little to no flavor impact.
    • regular kombucha
      • 1 tb hops steeped for 4 weeks: strange unpleasant bitterness and pickle-notes.
  • Mosaic (pellets). Mosaic has been described as a “fruit bomb”, “tropical”, and “exotic”. It has high alpha-acids, so it seemed like a good way to see if the kombucha culture could draw out the hoppy bitterness without the heat used by brewing. The pellets were measured and rubbed out (doubling volume), then added to disposable paper filter bag and dropped in quart jar with kombucha.
    • vodka kombucha, fermented for 21 days to pH 3.2.
      • 2 tb hops steeped for 1 week: tasted good, getting gradually stronger each day.
    • tincture kombucha, fermented 21 days to pH 3.2.
      • 1 tb hops steeped for 1 week: tasted mild, getting gradually stronger each day.
  • Cascade (whole cone dried). Cascade is described as moderately bitter, with distinct floral, spicy, and citrus aromas. One of my favorite beers, Anchor Liberty Ale, uses Cascade exclusively. While whole cone hops is roughly equivalent to hop pellets by weight (close enough for a quart jar), it is quite a bit more voluminous.
    • Ceylon kombucha,
      • 4 tb steeped for 1 week: the flavor here wasn’t very strong, but was definitely noticeable. However, it was less interesting than Mosaic.
    • Kombucha fermented on hops: I added 4 tb hops to the beginning of a typical kombucha fermentation. FWIW: this is not dry hopping, and a different process than the other mentioned samples.
      • Bottled after 3 weeks, pH 3.0. This is more sour than I’d like. The hops flavor is good, quite a bit bigger than my last use of cascade, and rounder and fuller other hop additions, but it seems to be getting drowned out by the acid. I should try this again, but watch  the pH more closely.

Generally, for brewing, equal weights of whole or pelleted hops could be used (or 10% more whole), but I measured volume instead of weight. Since I don’t yet have a digital gram scale, I estimated based on how much whole I could cram into the same paper tea bag I used for the pelleted hops. It’s wildly inaccurate, but it’s what I did.

There’s less consensus, but the general opinion seems to be that most of the flavors and aromas are extracted in the first 2-3 days, and that after 10-14 days, vegetal off-flavors can develop (but may depend on the hop variety). Again, kombucha contains quite a bit more acid, and large varieties of microbes that aren’t in beer, so the ideal time for kombucha could be very different. Still, my 1-7 day timeframe isn’t that far off, so that’s nice. It’s worth noting that since I generally dry hop my kombucha in the refrigerator, the temperature is much colder than is generally used to dry hop beer.

Based on these experiments, my future endeavors will focus on hop varieties with more aggressive flavors and with a more fruity profile. Lots of hops have flavors of citrus or stone fruits, and it does seem like a natural fit for the tart flavors of kombucha. My inclination is to try pairing this with the cleaner flavor of a glucose kombucha, or maybe yerba mate or something else that has resulted in reduced acetic character (I should make a summary page). I’ve had too many savory additions to kombucha quickly resemble pickle juice, and I’m guessing that the acetic acid is responsible. I’ll probably tend to stay away from hops with dominant aromas that are earthy, herbal, or grassy (and maybe pine). FWIW, Strisselspalt, with which I was generally unhappy, is high in all but pine.

If you’re curious, this page is a great overview of the different ways hops are added to beer, and the different characteristics of many different varieties.

While conducting research for this post, I found a few articles on making tea from hops and the impact of your water temperature. Hops tea might be enjoyable on its own, but it also sounds right up my alley for a kombucha-fermented experiment. That same article also mentions a low-bitterness variety of hops ideal for making tea. It looks like it’s available in low quantities here or here, and I may eventually experiment with that.

On a tangential note, I’ve been interested in sour beers for over 20 years, but their widespread production and availability has been only a recent development (with even rediscovery of historical styles). In the last year I’ve tried a few different offerings from Destihl’s Wild Sour Series. I’ve  had the Flanders Red (way too sour) and Blueberry Gose (way too mild), and a few nights ago I tried Synchopathic. This is the closest I’ve had to hoppy drink I might make with a kombucha base. It had a strong (but not obnoxious) sourness (I should have checked the pH), and a certain beeriness to it (probably the malt), but not a lot of hops character. It claims to have “citrusy, fruity, and floral” hops character, so maybe it’s simply so well integrated that I’m not identifying the hops. It also has very low bitterness, which probably doesn’t help my overly-simplistic “hops is bitter” mindset (I should know better).

There’s a lot of potential overlap between making kombucha, wine, and beer that’s sour (or uses atypical yeasts). I expect my kombucha will begin to include more explorations into those areas.

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