Hops selection is always a big event in the fall for brewers and breweries. Pre-COVID, our team would fly out to Washington to try out the hops in-person, and now, we get hops overnighted to try to replicate the experience from the brewery as we plan our brews for the year.
Check out some of what goes on behind the scenes in the selection process with Production Planning Manager Brian Hink, Procurement Manager Mark Graves, and Brewery Operations Manager James Fox, as well as some of the hop-tastic photos we took during one of these sessions!
“We’re doing two different hop varietals today,” says Brian. “Mosaic and Idaho 7. Mosaic is one of the main hops in White Caps, and it’s also one of the main hops in Always Ready. Idaho 7 is a newer one that we’ve used before, but this will be something that we’re going to experiment more with in the future.”
“The way that selection works is that these are all different cuts of the same hop, so there are many, many fields out there that do the same type of hop. These are four different cuts and examples for each,” Brian shares.
Much like wine, hops are susceptible to different levels of sunlight, or slightly different access to water or soil, which will ultimately change the flavor and aroma. It’s why hops selection is so important—we have to dial in just the right aromas and characteristics that we need for each of our brews.
As Brian and Mark get into the testing, they started with each unique lot of Mosaic. Most of the process is a lot of handling hops, smelling them, considering them, trying again, writing down notes, going back to them, and repeating for each lot.
It’s very intense as an observer, because both Mark and Brian keep their cards close at hand until they’re ready to discuss each batch!
“Starting off on a high note,” Brian says.
“An Idaho-note,” Mark notes.
Brian lists off some letters and numbers. “Those are just their identifiers for this field or bale,” Brian explains.
Although it’s just Brian and Mark for now, Brian explains that hops selection usually happens with at least three people, so that there’s a tiebreaker vote as needed.
“Fortunately, Mark and I have been aligned on every one so far,” he says.
“You guys are two hops on a bine,” Social Media & Design Alchemist Courtney Rosenberg says, in an attempt to compete with Mark’s excellent punnery. “Mark is just shaking his head at me.”
“Just trying to interpret that Cascade of comments,” Mark says.
(Ed. note: Heh, Cascade. Like the hops? Get it? Yeah, you get it.)
“Ryan would go to hops selection and always come back with a sinus infection,” Courtney reminisces. “It would be back to back, snorting hops and then going to a high-altitude beer fest, because GABF would usually be right before or after depending on the year.”
As they discuss their final notes for Mosaic, Brian and Mark throw out phrases like:
“Prominent onion-garlic” and “Floral-fruity.”
They compared what elements were the most forward, which had more balance, and of course, the level of dankness for each batch.
We’re sure many of you have seen the news stories of fires and extreme temperatures in the West, especially the bout of 100+ degree weather that the Pacific Northwest got hit with earlier this year.
Any time there are drastic weather changes, it can affect hops, and we’re lucky to work with the great providers at YCH, Roy Farms, BSG, and other wonderful hop providers to make sure that the hops we select each year are the best fits for each of our brews despite these challenges!
As Brian and Mark wash off their hands with isopropyl alcohol to prep for the next hop, Brian talks about how to prepare for sensory testing.
“The best way to do sensory, and that’s any sensory, whether it’s hop selection or tasting, is right before you eat, like right before lunch,” Brian explains. “You’re hungry, so smells or tastes will be heightened. The worst thing you can do is eat something, especially buffalo chicken or something spicy, which is going to throw off your senses completely.”
“Black coffee or a handful of pretzels or saltines an hour or two before is fine, though,” he adds. “The best way to reset your palate, though, is to smell yourself, like your wrist or the inside of your shirt. Your scent will reset your senses.”
Then, it was time for the next hop: Idaho 7.
After some tense minutes of digging into the batches, Courtney asks: “Now, what is Idaho 7 supposed to bring out again?”
“Pineapple,” Brian says.
“Potatoes,” Mark says, without missing a beat.
(Ed. note: Ba dum, tisssss)
As they continued with Idaho 7, James Fox strolls in, just in time to try some of this new hop variant out!
Mark pulls out a fairly intact hop flower, and notes: “You see a lot of lupulin glands. See all the yellow in there? That’s where a lot of the aroma and flavor comes from.”
“It’s too bad they didn’t send seven samples of this one,” Mark says.
He waits a beat before continuing: “Then it would be Idaho...7.”
(Ed. note: The puns never end with this one!)
Not only is aroma and smell important here, but the feel of the hops is key, too.
You can also tell the moisture content in a sample from brown spots, or inconsistent colors, as well as the way it feels as you rub your hands together.
“When you’re rubbing them, you can feel the moisture,” James explains. “It gets real spongy and wet. You don’t want that moisture in there. It will dry out some when they get pelletized, but any carryover moisture will affect the longevity of the hops.”
When discussing the Idaho 7 batches, the three mentioned things like:
“I thought it had a very nice stone fruit aroma to it. It really popped, with some light floral.”
“A little more floral balance to it.”
“Bright pineapple, really intense aroma on that.”
After the final decisions have been made on these two hops, they start to clean up the conference table and excess hops. Mark glances down at his shirt.
“I look like I got in a fight with a salad bar,” he muses.
“Or like you’ve been rolling around in the grass outside,” Courtney says.
“If that looks bad, you should see the salad bar,” James says.
Mark laughs. “Where are the croutons!?”
And there you have it, folks! 2021’s hop selection is in the books, and we had a great time getting to observe it this year.
We’re excited to start planning all of our brews, and we can’t wait to show you all what we have in store! Stay tuned as we announce more releases and welcome back some seasonal favorites in the new year!