Last week I organized a panel of respected beer connoisseurs Brian Yaeger, Charles Culp and "SNOB" Ritch Marvin to go along with myself to the Indie Hops offices and evaluate new test hop varietals bred at Oregon State University. It's not often the public or even media get a first hand chance to taste and more importantly smell new hops in development and the opportunity was thanks to Jim Solberg co-owner of Indie Hops.
In case you did not know Oregon is the 2nd largest farming region for hops next to the Washington's Yakima Valley. We also have Oregon State University which in addition to having one of the only fermentation sciences programs in the country also does quite a bit of hop research and breeding.
Jim Solberg who I had teamed up with last year to present at the Fresh Hop Workshop was kind enough to shoot me an email about helping evaluate the latest breeds of of hop varietals from Oregon State University, a program they have helped to develop and sunk many dollars into. Indie Hops is really a hop broker, essentially the middle man between hop farmers and brewers, an essential position but perhaps one not known for being as progressive as Indie Hops. I first wrote about Indie Hops in May of 2010 when they reported development of new hop pelletizing technology that was able to keep more volatile oils intact. At the time they also blessed OSU with a 1 million dollar grant that brought brewers to town to try out the latest hop varietals and they overwhelmingly voted for the more tropical varieties that are just becoming popular now like Nelson Sauvin from New Zealand. One of the Indie Hops success stories has been the Meridian Hop which has made it's way into quite a few beers in the last year, one of the more popular of the bunch of new varieties over recent years.
At their small offices in the Ford Building in Southeast Portland we gathered to evaluate by aroma alone about a dozen brand new hop varietals. Each small pile of hops placed around the board room table represented just one plant cross breeded at OSU. So little of each kind exists that you cannot actually brew with one but instead use the simple method of rubbing the flower between your fingers to release the sticky lupulin and subtle aromas.
Methodically making ourselves around the room we spent nearly 5 hours breathing in these new hops and discussing their merits and negatives. There was a clear trend in the hops we evaluated toward citrusy and lemony aromas but stranger elements of pepper, tea and body odor were also detected. Among the best of the crop had distinct notes of lemon balm and peaches. After the simple rub and smell aroma testing was finished Jim and Matt Sage of Indie Hops made three french presses of the more popular variety. The french press method takes a more neutral beer like a macro lager or light Pale Ale, allows the whole cone hops to steep and then presses them out to get more of a sense of how the hops aroma effects the flavor. This method of steeping or dry hopping produces little to no bitterness but allows the hops flavor to stand on it's own. Many of the more citrusy varieties turned more piney but the funky and dank hop that reeked of BO remained the same.
Jim builds the french press of hops like so:
"we use a mild base beer with minimal to no hop aroma/flavor. 24oz of beer to .10 ounce of hop material. Press the hops to the bottom then pull the plunge back half way. Let sit one hour at room temp, pressing the hops through the beer every 15 minutes. That's all it takes to get a good read on the dry hop character."
After a terrific afternoon of evaluating hops I still had many questions about the business of Indie Hops and Jim Solberg was happy to clear up any of those questions in the following Q and A.
Q: What is the most popular hop variety that you sell?
JS: Centennial, with Cascade, Crystal and Meridian not far back. The "C" hops of course due to the demand for hoppy "american" ales. Meridian because it is so unique and we're the only supplier right now.
Q: How does your partnership with Oregon State University work?
JS: We work with OSU on two fronts:
1) Basic research coordinated between the Crop and Soil Sciences and the Fermentation Sciences departments. We work with them to design studies that shed light on things like how hop maturity (harvest date) affects hop oil/resin development; and what actually happens in terms of hop oils extraction during dry-hopping (at different time points along the way). These things, over time, help us work with hop growers and improve our chances of working with high quality hops. 2) We are partnered with OSU on a hop breeding program. This is a long process, but some exciting new varieties are already showing themselves and are moving into farm/brewing trials. These trials are where the single new plant is multiplied into enough plants for farm testing, which also gives us enough hops to pilot brew with. In a few years, you'll see some new and exciting hop varieties from this program that brewers will work their magic with.
Q: When developing new hop varieties what are you looking for?
JS: The hop needs to be unique. No sense "bringing sand to the beach" sort of thing. It also of course needs to have great brewing characteristics. If we meet these requirements, it has a chance, and then it comes down to determining whether or not the new variety can hold up to disease pressure. We're looking hard for plants that have great disease resistance, which could open up the potential for organically grown hops.
Q: How do you determine what hop varieties to grow up and produce more of?
JS: Other than the obvious case of high demand leading to expansion of that hop, we've been pulling the trigger on hops that haven't been so easy to find. Usually these hops are scarce because one of the major "macro" breweries hasn't pulled it through by using it. Hops like Santiam, Ultra, Horizon, and Columbia are worth pursuing to us because they are great hops, they're unique, and they're a bit hard to find.
Q: I havent heart of "Ultra" hops before, can you tell me about them?
JS: Ultra was the fourth of four USDA releases that were bred from Hallertau m.f. (female) in an effort by A-B to have US-grown alternatives to classic european hops.
The thing about Ultra is, it's daddy is Czech Saaz, so there are a few spicy things going on as well. It was grown for brewing trials about 13 years ago in Oregon, and local brewers then who got a hold some really liked it. Then, since none of the big guys gave it the thumbs up for their fizzy swill, it disappeared. A few of them know we'll have a first harvest this year and are going to get back on it. Low alpha, so not an IPA hop, but plenty of beers to make it shine.
Q: How many Organic hops varieties do you sell? Is that something that is more in demand and will new hop varietals be grown as Organic?
JS: We're working with seven varieties in our organic program.
We think that organic hop supply is probably the primary restriction on brewing organic beer. Organic hop yields are 40-50% of conventional yields, and it costs twice as much to take care of the same acreage. Organically grown hops are also at greater risk of severe crop failure…they're unstable. That's not a comfortable situation for the breweries. We'd like to be part of changing that because we think the demand is there for organic beer. It's just hard for breweries to take the risk and try to put the beer out there when a key ingredient is unstable and the beer is less profitable.
Q: Are there any new varieties produced with OSU that your really excited about?
JS: Yes! We've found a wide spectrum of aromas/flavors thus far. Covering everything from "dank" resiny "american" aromas that could be great options for new IPA character, to more balanced, complex hops that show off nicely in milder beer styles. My personal favorite thus far is a hop that is very pungent and to me has an hypnotic blend of sweet rhubarb/wafting joint smoke/sweet onion and even mild "BO" in a good way if that's possible! It tastes great dry-hopped in beer too. It's exciting that we might be playing with some new hops that will be big hits in the craft world down the road.
Q: What are the current challenges in the hop growing industry right now, do you see any big changes coming?
JS: The biggest challenge is keeping up with the growth of craft. Hoppy beers right now are fueling that growth, and many small breweries still have a difficult time planning ahead in a way that help suppliers expand acreage in time. As for big changes, I personally believe what is currently happening will continue for a number of years, maybe just at a slower pace. There's a pretty clear consumer shift moving toward craft that I believe is permanent. Perhaps a minor change will be to see more balance as a greater number of flavorful, lower alcohol beers become available and reach a broader consumer base. We'll be around to find out!