Hop Selection - Part 3, Selection

  • November 5th, 2019
  • By Stephen Rich

Wine Making is agricultural, and Brewing is production. This often-referenced comparison of Brewing and Wine Making is accurate in a certain perspective. Wine makers spend immense effort on growing and projecting their grapes, then processing them in a way to reduce intervention and allow the grapes and their environment to shine through. Brewers can use raw materials from all across the globe – we buy malts, hops and yeasts for their specific qualities, and brew our vision of beer with them.

Simply, Wine Makers indulge in the characteristics of their specific environment, and Brewers find the characteristics they want from any environment. This environmental impact on character is called Terroir.

Terroir is the set of all environmental factors that affect a crop’s growth and resulting flavours, aromas, colour, feeling, etc. In the Brewing world, Hops are certainly our most notable use of Terroir, as hops grown all over the world, even in the same region, can show different sensations.

Not all hops are created equal, and even hops grown on the same farm can differ significantly lot to lot, and year to year. This is the purpose of Hop Selection – to examine the effect of terroir on each lot of hops, and choose the optimal hops for our beers. Our goal is always delicious, high quality, and consistent beer. The only way to ensure our beers are consistent is to confirm that our hops are as well.

THE RUB

Every year during the Hop Harvest, growers and sellers open up Hop Selection to their customers. This allows brewers to “test” the hops and choose the right lots for our upcoming brewing year. The only way to test the hops is by performing a hop rub.

Hops contain a sticky yellow/brown powdery oil called Lupulin. This is where all the bittering, aromatic, flavour, and anti-microbial properties of hops exist. This is what we’re after – and every hop will showcase its own unique characteristics.

Hop selection begins after Bailing, which you can read about in Part 2 of our Hop Selection Blog. The hops are now dried, bailed, and stable. This means the oils and aromas we detect now should be the same as what we brew with in the coming year. The only way to really understand the aroma and expected characteristic in the finished beer is to rub the hops.

At the Hop Rub, you may be examining two or more cultivars (varieties) of hops, and two to five lots of each one. It would be unrealistic to try to brew small test batches with each hop to find out how it will react and what characteristics it would produce in the beer. It would also be time consuming, with each brew taking one day, and the finished beer not ready to test for weeks. The hop rub is a quick, and effective way to examine the hops and choose which lot is best for us. By literally rubbing the hops we can expose the aromatic properties immediately, carefully smelling and taking notes to try to identify the differences between each lot.

Let’s use Cascade hops as an example, which we use in Doc Perdue’s Bobcat. For Bobcat, our cascade hops should be vibrant and bright, with a focus on the Grapefruit zest and floral to pine sensations. There can be some other fruit and citrus, but the Grapefruit should be most prominent.

Generally, the Hop Rub will happen in a dedicated room. There will be two to five samples from different lots laid out in front of you. You’ll be provided with a detailed report on the hops in question that will break down the oil components as well as the bittering potential. This way you can look at the hops analytically to help make the best decision for your beer.

But analytics don’t always tell the whole story. We enjoy beer using our palate and nose – we use sensory to enjoy beer. You have to use your nose to really understand the story these hops are telling.

The first step is to break a sample up in front of you and have a basic visual inspection. You’re looking for differences that may help you eliminate one or more lots, or may elevate another. A day of selection may include 20 or more lots, which can get very fatiguing. It is important to look for ways to streamline the process so you can make the most informed decisions. If four of these lots were bright green, but one showed a lot of brown or old looking leaf character, you may note that, or even push them aside right away.

Next, we’ll begin the rub. One lot at a time, I grab a handful with my left hand in a cupped form, then with right my right hand flat, I press the hops, rubbing and smashing them together vigorously. This is a messy but purposeful exercise. The activity breaks open the hops to expose the lupulin, then the heat generated from the rub opens up the aromatic components. Now, you dig into your handful of hops and gently examine the aroma.

You’ve got to get right into these hops, taking short, careful, and purposeful sniffs. I’m trying to think about all the aromas I smell, and break them apart into pieces. At first you may get a rush of citrus and tropical fruit. Write that down. Then with more attention, the citrus is more grapefruit then it is lemon or lime. Write that down. The tropical is also specifically mango and orange. Write that down. There is a soft pine character that smells like fresh pine needles, too. Write that down. Take down as many notes as you can, because when you move to the next lot of the same hop, it can become challenging to compare without them.

Going from lot to lot, I’m trying my hardest to identify the differences between the hops. Is one more citrus than the others? Which is the most aromatic? Which is the least? In the case of Cascade, I want all that grapefruit. So, which has the most, and which is most distinctly grapefruit? Do any of these have an aroma we don’t want for Bobcat? It’s challenging to distinguish sometimes. Each variety can take up to 30 minutes to review and define until you come up with a winner. By the end, your hands should be pretty green, or you’re not doing it right.

At the end of Hop Selection you should have chosen the specific lots that you’ll be brewing with for the next year or so, and you can be confident that the hops you get will allow you to brew the best and most consistent beer that you can. If you’re not at Hop Selection, you’ll get the hops that are selected for you, at the end after all the other Brewers have chosen theirs… You can see why it’s so important that we select our own hops.

Next time you’re enjoying a Boxing Bruin or Bobcat, have a good smell, and think about the hops in that beer. All those citrus and fruit sensations came from a hop that had a long journey to get to your glass. Those hops too aren’t just any old hops, they are Cowbell’s hops, that we chose specifically for you to enjoy.
Cheers!


Appendix:

The hop rub can get messy, with hops broken and scattered all over the table. It’s the only way to do it properly. This picture shows the aftermath of a 3-lot hop rub.

It’s a messy business, but someone has to do it! The hop oils stuck on your hands at the end of the rub are so sticky, that soap won’t get it off. Only alcohol will do the job. Most hop rubs are equipped with a large bottle of hand sanitizer, which has enough alcohol to remove the hop oils.

The “Brewers Cut” is the sample we get from a bail of hops that represents that lot. You can see in this image the blend of leaf and oil materials packed together in a beautiful garden of green and yellow.

Every lot Is different, and there is only one way to determine which will work best for your beers. Cleanse your palate, and get ready for the Hop Rub!