Quality Matters at Every Step: Hop Selection

If you’re a craft beer fan, you likely know hops are a key ingredient in the brewing process. Ensuring hop quality is a crucial factor in making exceptional beer, so we make that a priority at every step of production. Early on, we learned a hard lesson on how invaluable quality hops are when an oniony batch of Saaz hops led us to dispose of our first 90-barrel batch of Bibo. Since then, we’ve intensified our focus on sourcing and maintaining extremely high-quality hops, which starts with our annual hop selection.

Hop Selection – What is it, and why is it important?

We’ve always valued our relationships with our suppliers and farmers and the high-quality raw ingredients they provide. Hop selection is a culmination of our relationships with hop farmers and a beautiful opportunity for us to find the choicest hops in North America. It’s incredibly vital as it provides the opportunity to strengthen those relationships with the producers, offers the chance to see the farms and processing operations firsthand, and allows the first opportunity to purchase the very best hops available. Beginning in 2021, we expanded our hop selection ventures from one to three separate trips. The hop harvest occurs from August through September, and some varieties are harvested quite early, so sometimes, the prime harvest window can be challenging to predict. Being in the region amidst the action at harvest time gives us more flexibility and timeliness, which is an advantage in procuring the highest quality hops. The various lots we choose from are broken down by hop variety and farm of origin, as well as the specific field and day that each lot was harvested. A change in just a single day of harvest can affect the final hop aromas. With that in mind, we developed a hop sensory panel with our Quality Lab to train individuals in our production department to determine the characteristics of our targeted hop selections.

“We believe that focusing on hop quality has been a significant factor in our ability to produce outstanding beers. The connection to the value chain and, ultimately, to nature itself is one of the most beautiful parts of making beer and has been immensely rewarding for our team. Caring deeply about hops is yet another way we can drive forward our purpose to foster human connection.”

– Adam Beauchamp, COO

Hop Sensory Panel – Our efforts to select and maintain the highest quality hops.

We created our hop sensory panel in 2020 to determine the exact characteristics to seek during hop selection. We’ve since trained more than ten panelists to identify various hop varieties as ‘true to type’ – meaning the varieties contain similar traits to those selected in past years. This categorization allows us to create very consistent and delicious beers throughout the year. Additionally, we target hops with metrics that lend to good storage (we use each lot for twelve months) and for hops that don’t have detrimental aromas or physical qualities. The sensory training often involves our Quality Lab spiking hops with off aromas to determine if panelists can detect flaws. In addition to monitoring our hops throughout the year, which includes holding new shipments of hops until the panel clears them, our best-performing hop panelists attend hop harvest to select our lots for the year. Top panelists are those who are sensitive to the subtle shifts that can occur day to day during harvest that affect the final aromas.

“Our Hop Sensory Panel is really unique for a brewery and something we take great pride in. We had to work with different hop suppliers over several months to design the panel from the ground up. Since then, we’ve found the panel incredibly helpful in maintaining high-quality beers. Hop aromas are very delicate and degrade quickly, but our panelists can easily pick up on any deviations. This incredible attention to detail allows us to spot any issues before we brew and keep an eye on our selected lots throughout the year.” – Daniel LePage, Director of Quality

Looking Ahead – What we’re looking forward to with the future of hops.

It’s an incredibly fascinating time in the world of hops right now! The continued success of craft beer created a monumental shift in the hop industry. This shift resulted in an influx of new and exciting hop varieties and products pushing the boundaries in flavor and aroma. One exciting aspect of attending hop selection includes meeting with the researchers and breeders responsible for developing new hop varieties and products. It takes many years and thousands of crosses of experimental hop plants to arrive at one that is exceptionally flavorful and able to be grown commercially. There is an ever-expanding array of hop concentrates, extracts, powders, and syrups on the horizon in the industry. One of these hop innovations we’ve incorporated is the use of Cryo Hops in our year-round beers – Automatic and Cosmik Debris. These concentrated hop pellets can provide more flavor per pound and be more environmentally friendly than traditional hop pellets. Meeting with the research and development teams allows us to gain a sneak peek into new products coming down the pipeline, see firsthand how they are made, and taste beers made with the various products.

“Craft beer drinkers are an inherently curious bunch. It’s that curiosity that drove them to craft beer in the first place, and it’s that curiosity that leads them to want to try new beers, explore new flavors, and have novel experiences. As brewers, we share that curiosity, and that desire for new flavors has pushed the hop industry to respond in part. And it’s that curiosity that guarantees that the craft beer and hop industries will continue to collaborate and invest in new and exciting hop varieties that we all can enjoy well into the future.” – Evan Partridge, Director of Innovation