Sensory Tips to Recognize Smoke-Tainted Hops

As the West Coast was hit with a rash of wildfires, especially in 2021 with the Bootleg Fire in Oregon and the Dixie Fire in northern California, the reality that hops in the coming few seasons would have some effect and breweries are recognizing it.

“Smoke taint is a complex phenomenon that still needs more time, energy and trials to be completely understood,” admitted Sonder Brewing COO Chase Legler.

Speaking to Brewer in December of 2022, Fat Head’s Brewery‘s Matt Cole shared that he noticed that the crop from 2021 did have a smoke taint to it.

“It was amazing how much smoke was in the hop,” he said. “We tried to navigate through all that stuff.”

Despite suppliers’ efforts, some of the quality of hops may have been affected and Legler said they noticed.

“For our contracted hops, we perform a sensory evaluation and select a hop lot we deem as the highest quality,” he explained. “With this process, we hope to vet out any smoke-tainted hops.”

Smoke-tainted hops, he said, don’t generally smell “smokey.” Rather, they are usually described as beef jerky, earthy musty, sliced deli meat or hot dogs, and even Lays BBQ chips.

“Educating and proper sensory training to the brewers who are physically cutting hop bags open is crucial and needs to be a standard operating procedure,” he said. “Although, if you work with a well reputable broker the hops should be vetted beforehand and never make it to the brewer.”

Cole believes there’s probably a pecking order in how much volume you buy.

“It’s almost like beef, there’s a grading scale,” he said. “I truly believe that there is a Grade A, Grade B, Grade C. What ends up happening is there are times when we got to hop selection, we’re one of the first people to kind of start to look and there’s Ken Grossman in a room next door.

“We’re out there picking, I think, what’s the choicest of hops and it does give us a little bit of an advantage by having buying power.”

One of Sonder’s larger hop contracts is with Yakima Chief Hops and Legler said they are working in conjunction with many well-respected industries and even some competitors such as UC Davis, Oregon State University, Colorado State University, the American Society of Brewing Chemist, John I. Haas, and of course the growers to help combat any issues going forward.

“They are looking to determine the impact of smoke-tainted hops through brewing trials, identifying key contributing compounds in smoked tainted hops, and even developing new sensory methods for screening smoke taint with an ASBC method,” he said. “This is an industry-wide challenge and needs to be a collaborative effort to ensure brewers are not using smoke-tainted hops.”

File photo courtesy Santa Monica Brew Works

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