Hop extracts have left homebrew hell and been reinvented for the craft age

Colin Wilson, Totally Natural Solutions


Those of us old enough to remember buying homebrew kits from Boots will recall sachets and bottles of malt and hop extract, tipped into a bucket and left to mature into disappointing mediocrity. The rise of all-grain brewing at home was a revelation which, once experienced, invariably resulted in a promise to never go back. This was the journey taken by many of today’s most celebrated craft breweries.

So, when Colin Wilson and two colleagues decided in 2014 that what the UK’s burgeoning craft beer industry really needed was high quality liquid hop extract, they knew it would be a tough sell. Unlike the hop extracts of yore though, Totally Natural Solutions (TNS) uses a modern process which is able to isolate and capture those all-important volatile hop compounds and put them into an easy to use soluble product, aimed squarely at the craft community.

“We call it the ‘emotional hurdle’,” says Colin with a laugh. “People look at it and go ‘this is what the industrial brewers do’. But the litmus test was really how good does the resulting beer taste; once we’d got past that, we were able to start talking about the benefits over using pellets. 

“If you take dry hopping for example, it’s the ubiquitous craft brewing technology, but involves using hops in a highly inefficient way to extract aromas and flavours. If done properly, you get great beer, but you still end up losing 10-20% of your beer because solid hop products act like a sponge, and that’s very expensive. If done incorrectly, you get inconsistency, refermentation, unwanted infections and so on.

“A brewer only has to suffer those problems once for you to step in and say hold on, we’ve got a solution – it may not be what you want to hear, but how about we try it? Once brewers have been shown how good these products are then a lot of the prejudices go away.”

We want to work with people in the UK and have a strong supply chain that's local here

The process by which TNS extracts hop compounds is proprietary and patented, using only low temperatures, low pressure and no solvents. It is, as the name promises, totally natural.

“If you want to preserve a volatile oil, you have to treat it really kindly,” explains Colin. “If you use solvents, as has been done in the past, at some point you’ll have to remove the solvent, which also strips out a lot of the volatiles. We have a two-stage process, involving a low temperature distillation, and then a CO2 fractionation. That’s what allows us to extract very efficiently, maintaining all the volatile components that give us great flavour, aroma and other properties.

One of the major drawbacks to more conventional hop extracts is they tend to be very homogenised, with a generic ‘hoppy’ character rather than the distinct flavours and aromas that craft brewers have come to prize in modern varieties.

“If you’re a brewer, you’re clearly going to be able to spot the difference between Citra and Goldings. The products we put in front of you are true to type, so will showcase those differences.”

This ability to isolate specific characteristics is thanks in large part to Totally Natural Solutions’ fractional extraction, which gives an incredibly fine degree of control over which compounds are extracted.

“It’s fractions of fractions, really, almost down to individual groups of molecules. We can take the methyl ester fraction out a hop, that’s responsible for so many of those big juicy fruit flavours. You just wouldn’t be able to do that with a conventional solvent extraction. It would be a far bigger chunk with a more generic character. It’s a tuneable technology that, working hand-in-hand with brewers, we can use to create an individual flavour.”

Beyond simple convenience, this ability has huge practical implications for brewers looking to ‘play’ the hops in their beers. It is possible to add flavour without aroma, floral notes without bitterness, or even desirable hop characteristics which have nothing to do with taste.

“Some of the components, the chemical constituents of hops, don’t necessarily have a high impact on aromas and flavours – in fact, there’s no flavour or aroma – but they do mask other undesirable flavours or create a smooth mouthfeel. So, when you then put that into a low alcohol application, it’s adding body to the beer and helping you balance out the lack of alcohol. That’s what’s behind our Hop Zero range; it basically masks the flavour defects often associated with low alcohol beer, by building body and changing the mouthfeel, giving you dryness without alcohol.”

Colin is particularly excited about working with the UK hop growing industry, which is still climbing out of the doldrums, as more craft brewers come round to the subtle and sophisticated character of our home-grown hops.

“We don’t grow hops, we just work with the growers, not telling them what to grow, but using our technology to add value to their crop. Our extracts offer three times as much utilisation as T-90 pellets, so Britain can really punch above its weight in terms of actual hop acreage. We’re generally very passionate about re-establishing the UK industry – it’s been hammered for a long time and there’s no single voice representing it, so we want to work with people in the UK and have a strong supply chain that’s local here.

“We’re only just beginning to learn about the powers of the technology. We have a really vibrant pipeline of new products and new ideas. Arguably too many! There is a huge challenge coming to the whole hop industry in terms of sustainability, with climate change on one hand – affecting some of the well-established varieties and their ability to grow – and ever-increasing demand. Our tech will only grow in the technical understanding of its abilities, in its acceptance by brewers big and small, and in the kind of effects we can produce. Brewers should come and try a sample – if you’ve spent the time to educate yourself, you’ll see you have an amazing resource.”

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