NW Indie Hops is a Willamette Valley-based Hops merchant company dedicated to providing the best and freshest hops to craft brewers and advancing research in hop breeding. Specifically, the company deals in aromatic hops. John Foyston at The Oregonian has already written a great article about NW Indie Hops (that I don't intend to rehash - go read it) that is a great read. What I do want to talk about is the beginning of a change in hops grown specifically for the craft brewing market.
By donating $1 million to Oregon State University's Hop Science department to advance research into hop breeding, NW Indie Hops has demonstrated its commitment to the future and to craft brewers by being the only hops merchant to sell 100% to craft brewers and not relying on high-volume sales to macros.
A clearer picture into OSU and NW Indie Hops vision and work is beginning to take shape...
During last week's annual Master Brewers Association of the Americas (MBAA) meeting, OSU gathered experienced pro brewers (mostly from Oregon, and all of whom will remain anonymous) for a Hop Sensory Panel, which is the first step in efforts to breed the next great aroma and flavor hop for craft brewers. Organized by OSU professors Tom Shellhammer and Shaun Townsend and supported by the $1 million grant from NW Indie Hops, the brewers were invited to taste a variety of single-hop beers brewed on campus at OSU's brewery (how cool is that?) in an effort to figure out which qualities brewers would like to get from their hops.
The consensus was to lean more towards tropical aromas (Guava-Mango aroma, as noted by Indie Hops) and preserving hop oils as being more important than high alpha acid content. In layman's terms, Alpha Acids, or AA, is a way to measure the bitterness of each variety and harvest, but is not necessarily a metric for flavor contribution. Hop oils are very delicate and are often lost when hops are pelletized or dried for packaging. This is one of reasons that fresh hop brewing is attractive - hops that are freshly picked and used in the brewing process before they are dried and lose some of the volatile oils.
The OSU researchers brewed 6 single-hop beers and a variety of dry-hopped brews to be tasted blind by the panel of experienced brewers. Then each brewer evaluated the hops based on their aroma and flavor and to describe the subtle secondary flavors such as mint, wood, mango and more. Afterwards, a larger discussion was held to discuss in-depth what kinds of flavors and aromas were most desired in a new breed of hop.
(OSU's Food Science department and brewery pictured)
To be able to see OSU and NW Indie Hops developing the next generation of hop breeds is a treat, and the fact that they are going about it right here in our backyard specifically for craft brewers is the sort of thing that helps determine the fate of Macro Beer vs. Craft Beer. For too long the hop purveyors have been focused entirely on providing hops to your InBevs and your Molson-Coors, with the craft brewers merely claiming the leftovers. The power that breweries such as InBev exert was recently in evidence when that company decided to stop using whole leaf hops and removed popular NW Willamette hops from their flagship Budweiser product and switched to hop extract. For years Budweiser has touted the use of Willamettes and the fact that they used whole flower hops, while many other industrial brewers had long ago switched to the easier to manage and more bang for your buck pelletized hops. I guess InBev, in their cost cutting, decided that the money saved in using cheap hop extracts was worth the marketing loss. Unfortunately, this move greatly hurt many Willamette Vvalley growers who had boatloads of Willamette hops growing for the big guys, as their businesses were largely based upon them and not the craft brewers.
During last year's hop harvest season I attended Hop Madness!, a great event where we were offered a trip to Dave Wills's business Fresh Hops, where he showed us rows upon rows of Willamettes that were still ripe for picking. Many of these hops were wilting on the vine. It was painful to see so many fresh hops taking on a dead, paper-like texture, browning and losing all of their aroma and oils. Wills assured us that they were still good for bittering and that was the only way to save them from being a waste.
There are still many craft brewers using Willamettes. You might think they would become easier to obtain after Budweiser's switch, but instead they have become even harder to obtain in large amounts since the farmers are digging the plants out to be replaced with different varieties now that the main buyer is out of the market. It takes at least 2 years (often more like 3) to get a full harvest from a hop vine, so growers were eager to get the Willamettes out and replace them.
Luckily for us, this is where companies like Indie Hops come in to save the day, bringing fresh, sustainable whole hops and investing in new pelletizing technology that will help preserve hops with subtle aromatic nuances while compacting them into a more convenient form for small brewers. In addition, NW Indie Hops is investing in Organic Hops. Contrary to popular belief, most Organic beer is not made with Organic Hops, as they are harder to obtain (often from New Zealand) and are available in fewer varietals. While hops often contribute much of a beer's flavor, they take up a very small portion of the overall ingredients and thus are not needed for a beer to be certified as organic. The USDA actually added hops to the list of ingredients not necessary to be certified as organic in organic beer, as long as they are up to but not above 5% of the total volume of ingredients. This move was controversial, as it makes it easier for breweries to make and market Organic beer while some see them as merely capitalizing on the markets demand for Organic Beer, a category growing even faster than the demand for Organic products in general.
Gayle Goschie, of Goschie Farms and NW Indie Hops, believes that Organic hops are worth the effort, though, and is making a strong commitment to make them more available in the NW. She hopes to encourage brewers to use them by committing Goschie Farms to put in 20 more acres of Organic hops. NWIH notes that last year only 75 acres of Organic hops were estimated to have been planted in the entire U.S.
I for one am most excited by the new breeds being developed, as homebrewers know some of the most recently bred varieties of hops have been some of the most exciting, as evidenced by the recent craze for Citra and Nelson-Sauvin hops and the growing popularity of Amarillos (which were also pioneered at OSU).
Who does not want to see the next tropical-oily-bug resistant-citrus hop developed exclusively for craft brewers?
(All photos used in article are from IndieHops.com)