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New Hop Evaluation: Tips from the Pros

It’s no longer a surprise to read a label of a new commercial beer release and find a hop variety you’ve never heard of before. Hop breeders are coming out with new varieties every year. It’s an exciting time to be a brewer, but it’s also hard to keep track of these breeds. Whether you are lucky enough to get your hands on an experimental hop, or just a variety you have never brewed with, evaluation is key.

Brewer: Jeremy Marshall, Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma, CA

Brewers are such specific animals — often falling hard for a hop that makes another brewer yawn. Statistics and research aren’t well developed at this time, the traditional bag of essential oils (e.g., myrcene, carophylene, geraniol, humulene epoxide, etc.) never seem to correspond to the actual merit of the hop. I will look at alpha acid, but never to assess bittering potential; rather, there does seem to be a relation with medium to medium-high alphas and good aroma potential; it makes sense because the soft resins contain all the brewing value — both essential oils and alpha (and beta).

When we get a new variety we talk a lot about the “bag whiff.” It doesn’t sound scientific but the key volatile components that Lagunitas is interested in are often detected best from a distance (due to sulphur thiols and such) so a bag whiff is always the place to start. Then move on into a direct hit (smell the hops directly) and then the standard rub that brewers love to do at hop harvest. Then we can take it further down the rungs into the vaporizer and/or infuser.

Obviously it makes sense to avoid testing a new hop (or any new ingredient) in a stout or darker beer. It also makes sense to avoid any other bold ingredients such as herbs or fruit but also consider loud grains like rye. Here is the rule I use: Test “gentle” hops such as noble German and Czech varieties (e.g. Hallertau and Saaz types) or spicy, earthy hops like Goldings derivatives in lagers and very low gravity pale ales. The nice thing about lagers is that the slow, cold fermentation will lock in your kettle hops very well. However an ale fermentation typically blasts off all the delicate kettle and whirlpool hop volatiles, thus dry hopping has always been associated with ales. Punchy American and Southern Hemisphere varieties go best with dry hopped pale ales and IPAs. I do not recommend imperial or high gravity styles when it comes to exploring new hops; the hop may get lost in the esters and fruity higher alcohols.

Considering that we often need to conduct a homebrew in order to keep up with the velocity at which new hops are coming at us, I would argue homebrewers are at an advantage to commercial brewers. Most young commercial craft brewers right now were homebrewers first and we often still homebrew, and this is the easiest way to keep our knowledge current.

I am always going back to certain hops finding that I still don’t see the hype. In that regard, trust your first instinct as the correct one. However, when another brewer makes a great beer with a hop we evaluated and didn’t like I get excited. Turns out the brewer has to be a snake charmer, and not every brewer can get the snake to dance. I know of a brewer near us getting great notes from the newer German varieties that we didn’t get much from; conversely, a lot of brewers can’t believe what we are able to get out of the less celebrated Australian varieties such as Vic SecretTM and EnigmaTM.

Brewer: Brendan McGivney,  Odell Brewing Company in Fort Collins, CO

With new hops we start with an organoleptic evaluation either in the field or, ideally, after the hops have been picked and kilned. We rub the hops and investigate the different aromatic components present in the variety. During the rub we also evaluate moisture, cone integrity and any evidence of disease pressure. We also look at any available data for a new variety — typically we are more interested in the oil fractions than the alpha acid content.

We have a standard recipe for new hop evaluation on our 5-barrel pilot system. The malt bill is fairly light in color and flavor to allow the hops to shine through. We adjust for alpha in the kettle but we use a standard quantity of hops in the whirlpool and hopback and we end up in the 35–40 IBU range. When pellets are not available for new varieties we utilize a similar recipe that is more hopback intense. Then we run all of our pilot beers through our daily taste panel to determine the different attributes of a new hop before deciding if we will further experiment with the new variety.

Customers can often find our pilot brews in our taproom, but the only experimental hop beer available in package is our Wolf Picker Pale Ale, released in our winter variety pack. Each year we focus on new hop varieties layered over a consistent malt bill in this beer. This year we used HBC (Hop Breeding Company) #472, HBC #438 and a new public variety called Cashmere. We pilot brewed single hop beers with each of these varieties before coming up with the hop blend.

Believe it or not I still homebrew after 20+ years in the industry and I make sure to evaluate hops from the homebrew shop. I would suggest that homebrewers who are looking at a variety they have not used before (or any hops for that matter) go through the rub and sniff test before committing to a variety. Sure, it would be a shame to waste $3–$5 on an ounce if you encounter subpar hops, but you would have a good idea of the hop quality before brewing with it. If a variety smells like garlic and burnt rubber it is a good indication that you may find those flavors in your finished beer.

Brewer: Tim Sciascia, Cellarmaker Brewing Co. in San Francisco, CA

Hop purveyors typically do an aromatic evaluation of new hops, which have become more detailed and accurate over the years. I think you have to take these descriptions with a grain of salt, but they can get you closer to the qualities you’re looking for faster. Then it’s time to order some so you can evaluate the aroma yourself. Statistics of oil levels, kilning temperatures, harvest dates, etc. can aid in narrowing down the pool of candidates for a single hop cultivar, but personal sensory evaluation is the true test.

Typically for Cellarmaker, we are looking for pungent IPA hops so we’ll use new hops in a base beer of very minimal malt flavor and use a neutral yeast strain that is going to stay out of the way of the hop. From there, dry hopping is going to translate the aroma most accurately. Of course we aren’t always looking for aroma, but the best flavor. Large whirlpool additions of the new hop gives us the clearest presentation of that profile.
For many varieties, we can tell if we want to use a new hop right away by smelling a freshly opened bag. Sometimes however, we will revisit a bag that’s been open for a few months and the hop has changed — miraculously, sometimes for the better. We are told that oxygen is bad for hops, and that’s very true over a long period of time. But other reactions happen other than staling. I’ve seen an overly onion/garlic hop lose that aroma and become even more fruity over a few months exposed to air. We are considering opening bags of certain hops at delivery for use at a much later date.

For us, new hops will always be used in conjunction with other hops we know very well so the qualities it brings to the beer will be glaringly obvious.

Unfortunately, availability at the homebrew level is limited. What I’d look for is the best hop quality coming out of your local homebrew shops. Ask how they repackage the hops they sell. Vacuum sealing is a must and storage temperatures matter.

Issue: May-June 2016