Jeremy Marshall is the head brewer at Lagunitas Brewing Co. in Petaluma, California. Marshall began his brewing life as a homebrewer, honing his skills for “about eight years” before heading to the University of California at Davis to study the finer aspects of professional brewing. Every spring he throws hop parties with his fellow brewers to select the finest hops for a year of Lagunitas’ brews. After testing four or five varieties, “you’re pretty much shot. You can’t smell a thing,” he laughs. He has been creating beers like Lucky 13 Ale and Maximus at Lagunitas for four years.
We purchase all of our hops for the year at once. We’re fans of pellet hops, mainly because of storage constraints. We’re a small brewery and don’t have a big cooler to store all the whole cone hops we would need over the course of a year. Also, the loose structure and the way whole cones are stored allows more possibilities for an attack of oxygen. They will oxidize quicker than a pellet. Pellets are vacuum-sealed and purged and that tends to make them more stable with fewer breakdowns over the course of the year. More breweries are switching to pellet hops now.
When selecting hops for a recipe, I like to say the nose knows. We contract our hops and companies send over samples as whole cones. It’s called the brewer’s cut, so we have several batches to choose from. We do a hop rub where you rub them up with your hands and smell. Others like to make tea. When I think of hops, in general I divide them into aromatic qualities and bitterness qualities. Bitter qualities I think of for the beginning of the boiling, and aromatic for later in the boil, whirlpool or dry hopping. In the end, we pick the hops with the best organoleptic qualities — that is, the best overall qualities of aroma and bitterness.
At the homebrew store it’s basically a packaged thing, so you are at a slight disadvantage. The brewer needs to be somewhat familiar with the variety. Certain characteristics are universal, but there is always a little bit of variation. The homebrewer should always inspect the packaging when buying hops, whether pellets or cones. They can’t smell the hops for freshness, so they need to see if the packaging is loose. If so, it may have lost its seal allowing oxygen seepage and the hops won’t be as fresh. Pellets are better overall for freshness.
Once you get the hops home and open the package, you can do the same test we do. If you like what you smell, consider using it later in the process. The later you use it, the less you want to use, especially if it is a very pungent variety. If you’d use three ounces for the main boil, try two for the whirlpool and maybe half an ounce for dry hopping. What you smell and what you pick up on will be imparted into the beer. If you smell something you don’t like, consider using it at the beginning of the boil. Most of the volatiles will be driven off and you’ll just get the alpha acids.
Each year we see new hops being produced strictly for alpha, like Apollo and Summit which are around 18% alpha acids. When formulating a brew, I think it would be nice to get a lot of your IBUs from just a pinch of one of these new hops. In terms of flavor and aroma, it’s like I said: your nose knows. If it smells good, use it later in the recipe. Other brewers also consider the merit of using a larger charge of lower alpha hops. They believe it will lead to a more pleasant bitterness.
So much of brewing is steeped in tradition and on the craft side it’s all about wild and crazy experimentation. With our staple beers, like our IPA, the hops basically stay the same. We never introduce a new hop variety . But every year we come up with three or four crazy new seasonals that represent 20–30% of our annual production each year. Some we make several times, others we only do once, like Freak Out. We use these beers to play around with the crazy new hops. We tend to pick one hop and make it a focal point. When we did Freak Out, we featured Summit. We’re trying to get our hands on some of the newer varieties that are coming out, like Bravo and Apollo, so we’re going to be doing more of these Frank Zappa inspired brews. The next one is going to be called Absolutely Free (out in May). I imagine that we’ll also feature a brand new hop. We like experimenting with hop varieties we’ve never played with before. It keeps it fun.
Richard Norgrove, Jr. is head brewer and head of operations for Bear Republic Brewing Co. in Healdsburg, California. Norgrove was a mountain bike fabricator when he started assisting with brewing operations at the Marin Brewing Company. After observing business operations and new tank construction, he thought he should be doing this “in my own backyard.” He and his father formed Bear Republic in 1995.
We’re currently using pellet hops, for several reasons, mainly storage considerations, packaging and degradation because of the way they are processed. We don’t have a lot of storage capacity, plus I prefer pellets for the process and consistency variable. They can be tracked as they degrade over the year so we can make adjustments.
When selecting hops, I look for an aromatic character and bittering elements and how they relate to the aromatic qualities in the late kettle additions. Unfortunately, no one has come up with a mathematical formula, so the brewer has to create his own association with IBUs to aromatic characters. There are a lot of contributing factors to be considered, like kettle boil off, brew volume size, etc.
One of the things that happens a lot on a homebrew scale is that homebrew stores buy a large box of hops and package it themselves. If they don’t seal them right or take too long, the hops can oxidize, causing the leaves to turn white. The bittering element will still be there, but the aromatic qualities will be lost. The homebrewer also needs to find the largest pellets they can.
Hops change every year and subtle adjustments have to be made, but we don’t really change our recipes, we make slight variations. We use alot of Columbus, which is similar to Tomahawk and Zeus.
I know some brewers are using synthesized oils to get their bitterness. I see the advantage of that, but I like to use real things in my beers.
Other brewers are using high alpha hops to get those IBUs. When you get down to a homebrew level, that can be pretty important. Hops take up a lot of space in the batch and it takes up a lot of your yield. That’s why high alpha hops were developed.
We played around a lot last year with Simcoe and all of those beers came out well. But to be honest, I stick with the “Cs”: Cascade, Centennial and Columbus . . . and even Chinook.