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Brewer's Blog - 2018 Hop Selection

We have a love affair with hops.  I’m not just talking about us as brewers, but more widely with us as consumers and enthusiasts of craft beer.  Highly hopped beers, such as our award-winning Vicious Mosquito IPA, make up more than half of craft beer sales across the United States.  Oregon embraces this IPA centric beer culture in a big way.  Perhaps it’s our proximity to the lush hop fields of the Willamette Valley?  Large breweries love to paint a romantic vision of brewmasters walking through the storied hop fields of Germany’s Hallertau region, rubbing hops in their hands and drinking beer out of fancy glassware.  This all makes for a fantastic TV commercial, but does it represent the reality of most craft beer brewers?

The answer is, unfortunately, no.  As brewers, we’re passionate about our craft, especially our hops.  However, very few of us understand the agricultural and business components surrounding our favorite flower.  Most successful breweries maintain forward hop contracts (futures) with hop brokers.  Those brokers use the forward contracts to communicate the needs of the brewers to the hop growers, allowing them to cultivate the requested varietals on the proper amount of acreage.  The growers grow, harvest and process the hops, then sell them to the brokers.  The brokers further process the hops, package them, store them and finally sell them to the brewers.  Sounds complex, doesn’t it?  It is, and lots of breweries struggle mightily in this area.  Savvy breweries, especially those with a commitment to quality and consistency, invest a significant amount of resources in creating well balanced hop contracts.

During or after the harvest, brewers will often travel to their hop broker’s field offices for a process called hop selection.  Hop selection is the process of brewers selecting their contracted hop varieties from numbered lots.  The process goes something like this – first the hops are harvested, kilned and packaged into 200-pound bales.  Those bales then go into massive cold storage facilities.

Bales will have core samples removed from them.  Some of those core samples are sent to a lab for chemical analysis to test for alpha acids, storability, oil content, etc.   Other core samples become what is known as a brewer’s cut.  That brewer’s cut is later presented to brewers in a structured environment for formal sensory evaluation.  Welcome to the selection room.  Selection rooms are secluded, well-lit and generally free from intrusive odors and noises.  Selection tables are colored blue, allowing for the natural green colors of hops to be more easily evaluated.

Selection typically begins with a quick visual inspection.  We look at coloring, stem and leaf content and then inspect for damage from windburn or pests.  

From there we move on to the hop rub.  One places the hops between their palms and aggressively rubs their hands together.  This action breaks the hop cones apart, exposing the lupulin glands and releasing the hop’s essential oils.  The brewer then buries their nose into this mess of shattered oily hops cones and evaluates the aromatic properties of the cut.

One of the primary functions of selection is to see if the brewer’s cut that has been provided is true to style.  Basically, we want to see if the sample matches industry parameters for a particular hop variety.  For example, Cascade hops should have a floral and grapefruit-citrus component.  Well established breweries, like Sunriver Brewing Company, will seek lots that match closely with lots we’ve used in years prior.  This is one our best tools for making consistent beer year over year.  Younger breweries, possibly at their first hop selection, will usually be looking for the best hop on the table.  Copious amounts of notes are taken, usually followed by lively discussion.

Hop selection is also an ideal time for brokers to present brewers with experimental hop varieties.  Brewers will provide the brokers with critical sensory feedback.  Brokers can then gauge potential brewer interest in a new product.

Other benefits of the hop selection often involve walking the hop fields, meeting the growers and their field hands, inspecting kilning and baling processes and touring hop pelletizing facilities.  Hop processing facilities are strictly regulated by the FDA and state specific departments of agriculture.  Hops are considered a food product by all regulatory entities.

Our brewery is fortunate enough to be located between the hop fields of the Oregon’s Willamette Valley and Washington’s Yakima Valley.  Sunriver Brewing Company assembled a team of our finest brewing talent and sensory specialists and embarked upon five separate hop selections this fall.  This allowed us to hand pick 90% of the nearly 44,000 pounds of hops that we’ll consume in the 2019 brewing year.  We hope you appreciate our efforts to provide you with finest, most flavorful and consistent beer.