HOP SELECTION 2022
USA Hop Harvest Trip 2022
What is selection and why is it important?
Hop selection is a process where hop suppliers invite customers to choose specific batches of hops. To be invited for selection breweries need to have a very good relationship with the hop supplier and have to sign a contract promising to purchase a certain amount (a very large amount) of hops for that year.
It is a privilege to be invited to select hops with our suppliers as it gives us access to the best quality hops and allows us to select for certain aroma and flavour characteristics. Helping us to make the tastiest, most consistent beer.
Although hop varieties have distinct characteristics; Mosaic smells different to Citra, which smells different to Simcoe etc. There is a lot of variation even within the variety. Like wine grapes, the same varieties grown in different geographical locations will manifest slightly different aroma and flavour characteristics. Being able to select a specific lot means we can prioritise certain aromas and flavours and minimise others.
Mosaic is a very important hop for DEYA as it is the dominant hop in Steady Rolling Man. Mosaic shows several key flavour attributes. Tropical, Blueberry, Stone Fruit, Dank, etc. It is also sometimes described as a bit ‘sweaty’ smelling. Some brewers prefer the dank, sweaty mosaic, others want the clean fruity character. DEYA are somewhere in the middle leaning towards the fruit. We want mostly tropical fruit and blueberry, with a little bit of dankness underneath. Being able to select from a range of lots means we can pick one which suits our preferences and keep Steady Rolling Man up there with the best pale ales in the land.
Another key thing about selecting hops is that, once selected, we will get that single lot for the entire year. This means a much greater level of consistency for our customers. Breweries that don’t get to select lots will often be given several different lots throughout the year, with little warning when the lots will change. This can lead to changes in the flavour and aroma of the beers.
How does it work?
The process is fun and pretty simple. The hop suppliers will present the brewers with several samples of whole leaf hops, which will have been harvested very recently (usually about a week or two beforehand). The brewers will then rub the hop cones to release the aromatic oils and assess them based on aroma.
Theo should have some pictures of us rubbing and sniffing.
When we do selection we like to do it ‘blind’. This means all we know about each lot is the hop variety and the lot number. We make make notes on the aroma quality and intensity of the samples, rank them in order of preference then submit our choices. Although it is a straightforward process it is a big decision for us, as stated above we will get that single lot for the whole year, so there is more than a little bit of pressure to make the best decision.
Once we have decided we then look at all of other information about the hop lots. Things like the oil content, the bitterness levels, the name of the farm that grew the hops, the location of the farm that grew the hops, the date they were harvested, the temperature that they were dried at after harvesting etc, etc.. All these things add up to make a big difference to the hop aroma.
This information about the selected lots is stored on our file with the hop supplier, so with each year of selection we will be building up a picture of our preferences. At some point in a few years time we will have enough information for our suppliers to do ‘pre-selection’ for us. This means they will only show us lots that already fit within our preferences, meaning we can be even more precise with our choices.
We have been working with Indie Hops for a few years now. The main variety we purchase from them is Strata, a relatively new variety, with quite a complex aroma profile.
Indie hops are a fairly small company who work directly with a handful of hop farms. They have some exciting varieties on offer, including Strata, Lorien, and brand new variety Luminosa. Watch out for these in upcoming releases.
It was great to meet them in person as covid/lockdown has meant that all of our previous dealings with them has been remotely.
Theo and I were given 8 lots of Strata to choose from. Assessing 8 lots of the same variety was quite a challenge. Also this year the standard was particularly high, all the lots being exceptional quality. Juicy orange, mango, fresh grapefruit, hard candy and marajuana, quite complex!
We also smelled samples of Lorien, which we use in Shadows of Conversation and Luminosa, a new hop variety being used in an upcoming release.
Crosby Hops are a hop farm and merchant. They have a 600 acre farm in the Willamette Valley in Oregon and have close connections with other high quality hop growers in the region. Something that sets Crosby Hops apart is the physical characteristics of their hop pellets. They are soft, squishy and disperse very readily into beer, allowing the aroma to be extracted very easily. This is all down to how they run their pelletising facility. Slower speeds, and colder temperatures is what results in some of the best hop pellets out there. Last year we changed our supplier of El Dorado to Crosby Hops and the difference in quality has been night and day.
With Crosby we selected El Dorado, which was giving us: Lemon, fruit punch and jelly baby vibes, delicious.
Yakima Chief Hops
Yakima Chief Hops is a Cooperative of hop growers based in the Yakima Valley in Washington. They pride themselves on fostering communication between the growers and the breweries, encouraging the sharing of knowledge and transparent feedback. At Yakima we selected
We also got to smell some interesting samples of new hop varieties that don’t even have a name yet. We will be keeping our eyes peeled for when these are released as trial batches. Gotta stay ahead of the curve!
As well as selecting hops with YCH we also visited their breeding centre and propagation facility. Here they are growing baby hop plants to supply to their cooperative of growers for the coming season.
They are currently investing huge amounts of time, money and resources into improving the quality of the hops that they grow.
They find the healthiest specimens they can of each variety, ones that are strong and disease free (hops are very susceptible to many diseases). They perform a lot of genetic testing to ensure that these specimens are disease free.
They take small cuttings and grow new baby hops in petri dishes.
They then propagate these further into incubators, then warm rooms and then finally, full scale greenhouses.
Starting from this lab, this year they will propagating millions of hop plants, which will go dormant over winter, to be planted in the fields next spring. Pretty cool stuff.
YCH also have an impressive sensory department, with a dedicated sensory team, who regularly assess the hops throughout the year. Starting with the freshly harvested hops and continuing throughout the whole year to assess the shelf life of the pellet hops and how they change during long term storage. An impressive dedication to quality assurance.
Growing and Processing Hops
We joined a farm tour in the Yakima valley where we were showed round Loftus Ranches, one of the highest regarded hop growers in the area. They are a family business and have their own on site brewery ‘Bale Breaker’, where needless to say the beers were delicious.
Hops are vines and are grown commercially on trellises. Loftus ranches is around 4000 acres in total, all of the trellis and wirework is put up by hand…ever year! An enormous amount of work. This one farm is larger than the entire UK hop acreage combined…mind.
Like any crop grown outside, there are a huge number of variables that affect the hops whilst they are growing, these include but are not limited to:
-Number of days of frost before growing season
-Number of rain-free days after the summer solstice
Hops are also susceptible to many pests and diseases and require careful management in the field. It’s a lot of time, effort and stress to bring the crop to harvest in good condition.
Hops in the northern hemisphere are ready to be harvested in September. The hop variety and local weather conditions will factor into the farmer’s decision on when to harvest each field. Once harvesting and processing starts it is a 24/7 operation and will be so for the next 8 weeks. The hops are cut down from the wirework and heaped onto trucks and driven to the processing centre, usually located close to the farm.
Once they arrive at the picking station they are unloaded from the truck manually and hung onto hooks to be taken into the picking machine.
Motorised rakes run down the hop bines and strip the cones from the vines, they fall onto a conveyor along with some leaf and stem material which must be removed.
A complicated series of angled conveyor belts shake the hops as they travel along, this serves to remove leaf and stem material which is of no use to the brewer. The hop cones are then carried to the drying room.
Hops picked from the field must be dried before they are suitable for storage. Drying will lower the moisture content from around 80% to around 10% by weight. This will prevent the hops from composting during storage and also serves to concentrate the aromatic oil compounds.
The hops are placed in huge drying beds, around 12m x 12m by 1.5m deep. Hot air is blown through the bed from underneath removing moisture.
Once the correct moisture level is achieved the hops are unloaded from the drying beds into a storage hanger. Here hops from several drying beds are combined together and allowed to rest for 24 hours, this allows them to cool and for the moisture levels to stabilise.
The hops are then ready to be put into bales. They are collected and conveyored into a hopper which weighs them into 90kg loads, which are compressed, bagged and stitched by hand. These bales are then placed in cold storage until they are ready to be pelletised.
Most modern breweries use pelletised hops, so the hop bales need to be broken down and the hops formed into pellets.
The bales are unwrapped and loaded into the bale-breaker, no prizes for guessing what that does. The hops are then pneumatically fed into a hammer mill which pulverises them into a fine powder.
This powder is then loaded into a hopper which feeds a pellet extruder. This extruder spins and the hop powder is compressed and formed into pellets.
As the hops are milled and formed into pellets a huge amount of friction generates heat. This heat build up would cook the aromatic oils in the hops which will lead to major degradation in the aroma qualities of the pellets. Because of this effect, the milling and pellet forming must be very carefully temperature controlled, it is critical that the machinery doesn’t get hotter than 42deg Celsius. The machinery is cooled with liquid nitrogen to help prevent heat build up and ensure we get beautifully aromatic hops to put into our beer.
Once the pellets are formed they are conveyed to the bagging station. Here the pellets are weighed into 5kg portions, and sealed in bags which are flushed with nitrogen. The flushing of the bags is extremely important to ensure that as little oxygen is present in the bag as possible. Any oxygen will cause degradation and staling of the hop aroma compounds.
Once they are sealed in the bags the bags are boxed up and the hops are stored in a huge cold room before being shipped out.
Phew! A lot of work in the pursuit of deliciousness. Next time you are enjoying a hoppy beer, spare a thought for all the people involved in getting the hops to us in top condition.