Hops in Hand – Hop Selection 2018

Water.  Malt.  Yeast.  Hops.  These are the four primary ingredients in beer.  All of them are hugely important to the final outcome, and that’s why we approach each one with tremendous care and leave nothing to chance.  When it comes to hops, that means getting on a plane to Seattle and driving from there to Yakima to visit farmers and hop brokers, talk to them about the state of the crop, and participate in a process known as “hop selection”.
Hop selection is exactly what it sounds like—for each hop variety that we buy, we are presented with several different lots for us to choose from.  The lots themselves are from different farms.  Much like wine grapes, hops exhibit “terroir”.  Even within the same variety, hops smell and taste very differently depending on the location of the farm and the weather throughout the growing season.  This selection process lets us experience that variation and choose the course of our brewery for the next year.
But what does it mean to “select” a lot?  Well, this is where things get superstitious.  The hops themselves come in a compressed little cake.  Every brewer has his or her own secret way of evaluating a lot.  For me, I first like to look at the overall health of the hop flowers.  Are they vibrant?  Are they brown?  Are they too dry?  Are they too wet?  Many of these factors are subjective, but in general it is a positive sign if they look good and feel good.  After checking out the appearance, we evaluate them for aroma by grabbing a bunch and rubbing them between our hands.  This warms them up a bit and mobilizes many of the aroma compounds to make them easier to distinguish.  Are they fruity?  Are they spicy?  Are they earthy?  The range of aromas and flavors is astonishing.

For me, the key for our team is to understand clearly what we intend to use this hop for and then select the lot that most clearly meets that need.  For hops we intend to use in IPAs, we are looking for clear, bright fruity aromas.  For other hops (like the Tettnanger that is used in Hackensack Lager) we may be looking for particular floral notes.  It’s all about identifying a target and finding hops that hit the bullseye. If you’re thinking that this is important to get right, you’re correct.  Once you make a selection there’s really no going back.  Having a team you trust working with you is critical—there’s lots of discussion and back-and-forth, lots of checks and balances.  I love taking our brew team to hop selection for that very reason.  Brewing is a creative pursuit and a brewer choosing hops is like a painter choosing her colors.

We selected for 14 varieties of hops during the 2018 crop year, all in one afternoon.  That’s a tremendous amount of smelling and debating.  But we got it done, and I’m happy to report that the 2018 crop year is my favorite year yet (I preferred 2016 over 2017, and now I like 2018 more than 2016).  All of the hops showed remarkable clarity in their aroma presentation with very high overall health.  It’ll be an exciting 2019!
Of course, we’re professional brewers, so there’s no way this is all work and no play. We used the trip to visit some old friends and make some new ones at a few breweries in Seattle, and also spent quite a bit of social time with the many brewers visiting Yakima for the same reason.  It’s a whirlwind trip and a ton of work for sure, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.  It is imperative for us to be at the forefront choosing the best possible ingredients to ensure we’re making the best, most innovative beer we can for our customers.  Cheers!