The Hops Situation Brewers Must Consider


Certainly hops are a major aspect of brewing. Considering, it’s vital to a brewermaster that they know as much as possible about the hop varieties they may encounter. We let our curiosity get the best of us and reached out to Jim Solberg, the CEO of Indie Hops, to get some answers to our questions:

BM: What has changed in hop varieties over the past 10-20 years?

JS: During the past 10-20 years there were two tremendous shifts in hop demand that affected the varietal mix, especially in the U.S. First, the pursuit of more alpha acid per acre by major industrial brewers moved hop growers away from aroma/flavor varieties and into high alpha/high yield varieties. Around 2007, that trend had created such a shift that suddenly the aroma/flavor hops that had always been there for the “fledgling” craft industry weren’t there any longer. At the same time, craft breweries began experiencing unprecedented growth in demand for their products, with the strongest demand going to hop-driven beers. That’s a recipe for disaster of course, but luck was on the side of craft, and global alpha acid supplies had grown to an excessive level, so growers were interested again in planting more aroma/flavor varieties. That trend continues to this day, so now we see a much broader range of hop varieties being grown and supplied to the market. This is pertinent to brewers because this wealth of wonderful hop varieties has been possible because most craft brewers have realized they need to project their needs and forward contract for hop supply. It appears that tight supply will continue to be the story for aroma/flavor varieties for at least the next few years, especially for new varieties that capture the interest of craft beer consumers.

BM: What are some key facts about the use of hops that brewers may not be taking into consideration?

JS: Although it’s clear that craft brewers are indeed crafty when it comes to finding ways to use hops, we do see some recurring themes that put brewers in difficult situations. The tendency to fall in love with a given hop variety and feature that one-dimensional character to drive an important brand is one example. It’s one thing if you’re a very large brewery and on top of the supply situation so that you get first pick of hop lots and can blend hop lots to achieve the character you’re looking for year after year. But, for 98 percent of the craft breweries out there this is not the case. Not only is the supply of the hop risky, but the character will likely change from year to year, setting up the rollercoaster ride of “dude, this beer is tasting awesome lately..” to, “duuuude…this beer just doesn’t taste the same…”. There’s a lot to be said for the well crafted multi-variety blends that utilize different hop profiles in a complementary way, giving depth and consistency to the beer. And, when you can’t get one of the hops, there’s almost always an alternative that will make a similar contribution to the blend.

Another thing we see often is breweries dry hopping for a much longer time period than necessary. Maximum hop character (extraction of the hop oils that provide the primary aroma/flavor of that hop) is achieved very quickly as long as the beer can be re-circulated or kept gently moving in some way so that the whole volume of beer has equal exposure to the hop material over a 5-10 hour period (depending on temperature). Who wouldn’t like to shorten their turn times these days?

BM: What are some unique characteristics to today’s hops that you feel brewers may need to know?

JS: I think a very important consideration that hop growers and suppliers are aware of, but many brewers are not aware of, is that the current hop demand and supply situation is putting more and more pressure on producing hops of consistent quality. For the many brewers out there who still think of a given hop variety as somewhat of a commodity, there are likely to be some big surprises. With hops being grown in more locations than ever before, and with harvest windows becoming broader, we will see greater variation in hop aroma/flavor character within the same variety. While some varieties are quite stable and have a nice broad harvest window without significant character change, many varieties are the opposite. A bold “dank” hop can become a garlic/onion bomb, and the sensational tropical fruit hop might move into the diesel/machine oil category. This is one more reason to avoid depending too heavily on one or two hop varieties, and trying to have a couple of options in key aroma/flavor “buckets” (i.e. citrus; tropical; spicy; herbal, etc.).

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