Written by Adam LeClaire, Brewery Operations Manager
This past week John Stewart and I were fortunate enough to make the trip out to Yakima, Washington to participate in hop selection. As part of the Oskar Blues group of breweries, we were joined by brewers from their facilities in Austin, Brevard, and Longmont as well as Utah Brewers Cooperative and Cigar City. Hop selection is the seemingly simple process of evaluating the same hop variety grown by different farms and deciding which lot you would like to brew with for the coming year.
The process seems simple in theory – you get in a room and the hop broker lays out samples of hops grown at the farms they represent. You sniff the hops and pick which one you like best. In actuality, the process is much more demanding than that. The brokers usually present you with 5-12 different lots of the same hop, at which point you need to carefully evaluate each and determine which hops best fit your beers. Your hop descriptors need to be on point – are you smelling citrus? Pine? What about berry or stone fruit? Is there something you are smelling that you don’t like? How about garlic or onion? You need to be conscious of which characteristics you find favorable in each hop variety and how you will use them in your beers to showcase those characteristics.
Each person would rank the top three lots of each hop and we would total the votes. Surprisingly for having five people at the table, we usually came up with a strong consensus as to which lots we liked the best. From there we needed to look at how many pounds of that particular hop we had contracted and how many pounds were available from our chosen lot. If the lot we liked best didn’t cover our contract, we would add in our secondary choices until we had the correct quantity.
Although selection is the main reason for going to Yakima during the harvest – and a lot of brewers from the best breweries in the country are going to Yakima during the harvest – it isn’t the only reason. We had the opportunity on a few occasions to visit the farms and meet the people responsible for growing our hops. Many of the people we met grew up working in the hop industry or took over a multi-generational farm. Everyone was more than welcoming – they took us into the fields, walked us through their processing buildings, and took the time to hang out and have a beer with us. It was a great reminder that it takes a lot of passion from a lot of hardworking people to bring us the hops we use on a daily basis.