The Shape of Hops to Come

Hops. What are they good for?

The supreme strobiles of the Humulus Lupulus plant do a whole lot of heavy lifting in the world of craft beer. IPAs continue to dominate the industry, driving innovation and creating subcategories that were unimaginable to brewers mere years ago. In our relatively short life as a brewery, we’ve seen trends wax and wane, styles come and go, and they’ve nearly always had one element in common: hops. What are hops and why do we like them? How has innovation in hopping techniques driven trends in craft brewing? How have our palates evolved in order to accomodate or influence the modern love affair with hoppy styles? What role does agriculture and terroir play in the world of hops? Where are we going from here?

In order to answer these questions and more, we sat down with our Director of Brewery Operations, Cole Hackbarth. Buckle up, bine-minded humulophiles, whilst Cole lays down some dank, piney knowledge. 

In terms of  specific varietals you and the production team are really excited about, what are we working with these days?

We’re always single hopping new varietals, a lot of which are just referred to by a number. That’s how they’re first released. Then they get a name once brewers decide they like it. So as far as named varietals, we’re working with Sabro and Idaho-7 in the first Cloud Harvest release. Those are kinda the two big ones we’re using to punch up the juiciness. Strata is another one that we’re pretty excited about. Strata is going to be going into an upcoming collaboration with Masthead out of Cleveland.

There’s always of course Citra, Mosaic, Simcoe, and Amarillo. While not new, these hops are always awesome if used in the right way, and we’ve been taking them in some new directions lately. Comet is starting to make a little bit of a resurgence, which is interesting because it’s a pretty old hop, developed back in the 70s. For a long time, Comet was considered too dank and aromatic, so a lot of brewers didn’t like it. Our palates were a bit less adventurous back then. People are just recently coming back around to it. Back when Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was the hoppiest thing you could easily get your hands on, it was more about building balanced but hop forward beers for the time. The heavily hopped IPAs we see in craft beer now had yet to develop.

People are starting to look at some of the public varietals and the older hops are making a comeback. Especially with the discovery of biotransformation where yeast is able to release a lot of flavor compounds, or I should say converting a lot of flavor compounds through fermentation, to really change the profile of a hop.

three men with hops on their hands

Cole, Bryant and Nick sampling hops at the annual harvest.

“The trend toward juicier IPAs has actually resulted in a lot of helpful research.”

Did that discovery come out of New England or was that before the haze craze?

It was certainly highlighted by the haze craze. I think that’s one of the things that came to light and the industry started doing a lot of research as hazies were growing and folks were trying to determine why hazies were fruiter than your classic West Coast IPA. Oregon State University and the Technical Director at Hopsteiner, John Paul Maye, did a lot of work on this (and still does). The juiciness of hazy IPAs piqued everyone’s curiosity. We’re still at the beginning of figuring out how this happens.

Belgian PhD research on winemaking has actually explained a lot. Winemakers have been looking at terpene conversion during fermentation for a long time—how it is possible to get fermented grapes to produce such a wide variety of flavors. It’s specifically through a process called biotransformation, in which yeast interacts with the terpenes present in grapes. Oregon State University and the Hop Research Council has been working with the University of Leuven to isolate a lot of those terpenes in various hop varietals and figure out which ones are being biotransformed, which ones impact flavor the most, and how we promote those terpenes during growth. So the trend toward juicier IPAs has actually resulted in a lot of helpful research, if you’re a craft beer fan. 

Looking less at varietals and more at technology and technique, have there been any developments in how we go about the brewing and fermentation process?

We recently acquired the hopback, which allows us to add hops pre-fermentation without boiling them and iosmerizing the acids into bitterness, so it’s lowering bitterness but still giving a greater hop impact to the beer. 

We’ve also got our dry hop pumps. Those grind up the pellets into a really fine slurry, which we recirculate for five hours. This gives us maximum active or post-fermentation oil extraction, depending on the amount of biotransformation we are trying to achieve. The dry hop pumps have allowed us to open up a lot of hop oils that we couldn’t get to before. For reference, sometimes brewers will have to dump eight, nine, ten pounds of hops per barrel, which is an insane amount of hops to get the desirable, juicy flavors. Thanks to the dry hop pumps we’re able to get those same flavors by using less hops and a more efficient process.

three men throwing hops over a table

8.5 BBL Brewing System

Our 8.5 BBL system at our Spring Grove Avenue distribution facility.

“It was a dial you could turn up, and, crucially, it was a dial that you could measure.”

How have consumers’ palates evolved over time?

I think craft always has been, and still is about, looking for what’s new and different. In the early days, it was about whatever was not a mass market lager: anything darker, higher alcohol or more bitter, hoppier—that’s what people were looking for. People wanted to be challenged. They were bored with what was readily available. Every domestic brewer had a fancy label, but the liquid was all pretty much the same: adjunct heritage lager, which is a watered down version of something that was already 150 years old. That’s not to say that some of those beers aren’t incredibly well made, consistent and awesome. People wanted them all throughout the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties. Then the gen Xers wanted something different.

 I think hop research and the accessibility of new hop varietals hadn’t really caught up yet, and hoppy beers couldn’t reach the insane levels of fruit and juiciness that they have today. So instead it was how about bitter we could get them, “Let’s throw a bunch of hops in there!” Along with that came a lot of flavor and aroma.

It was a dial you could turn up, and, crucially, it was a dial that you could measure. The IBU measurement became standard. Everybody knew how to do it. So it’s like, cool, crank it up and let’s make some really hoppy beer, and that meant a really high IBU. That’s partly how the IPA was born and really took off. This was the early- to mid-nineties. 

A lot of people credit Bridgeport IPA as being the first real American IPA. Bridgeport opened in Portland in 1984. They were one of the early birds. It quickly became this battle about who could make the most bitter IPA, and who could really challenge your palate. Obviously Stone took this challenge to heart and really drove the extreme culture in craft by refusing to make fizzy yellow beer and telling people they weren’t worthy.

Trends tend to swing back the other way, though. After being challenged through the 90s and the early 2000s, more of the general population got into craft beer, and people didn’t want to be challenged so much. They wanted to enjoy what they drank and not feel like they weren’t worthy if they didn’t want to tolerate a super bitter hop bomb.

Fresh Citra hops from Haas

“We’re always brewing new styles, whether we think it can make it into a can or not.”

How do you balance those two poles of shelf stable regional presence versus in the weeds taproom culture?

I think we balance it by utilizing the smaller, pilot brewhouse at our Spring Grove facility. If you want some crazy barrel aged or sour beer, we do that on a very small scale, and we do a very good job at it. The other side of the equation is, you know, feed your footprint. We’re a regional brewery, and it’s highly competitive out there. So we do what we can to put something out there that’s as fresh as possible and tastes good no matter where you get it. It’s a balancing act.

There’s a reason we didn’t do a super hazy 12 ounce six pack—we were worried about shelf stability. We didn’t think that beer in Tennessee, or Pittsburgh, or Wisconsin would hold up to the same standard in three months that it did in the taproom the day after it was brewed. We didn’t want to do that. That’s where craft is getting really interesting. It’s more and more often small breweries and brewpubs leading the way. Which is great, once again craft beer has leveled the playing field for all producers no matter your size or location. The game is still to make interesting fresh beer, and that’s what the best do. It’s becoming more competitive to be where we’re at, and we’re lucky to be able to do things quickly. We have a great taproom that’s a huge space that we can take advantage of, to brew extreme innovative new beers and be hyper local. 

I’m always looking at new developments. We’re always brewing new styles, whether we think it can make it into a can or not, because what we learn from some of these styles that maybe won’t go to mass production can be used for another that will. Cloud Harvest is a perfect example of that. We learned what we needed to from brewing hazy IPAs. We took the juiciness, the biotransformation, and we put that into a beer that we could package and send out to the world and say “hey, this is going to be good no matter where you’re at.”

hands rubbing hops together

Can of rhinegeist Cloud Harvest IPA

“It takes a village to make beer.”

How important is that personal relationship we have with hop growers? As we’ve gone from an upstart brewery to a regional operation, how have those relationships changed?

It’s incredibly important, and more and more brewers are realizing that. It used to be raw materials were just raw materials. You could make beer with anything, so you just kinda ordered whatever was around. As things have gotten more competitive, and the consumer is more discerning, quality of materials and where you source them from is becoming more important. Transparency about the supply chain is equally important.

For Rhinegeist, building great relationships allowed us to grow as big as we are as quickly as we did. If we didn’t have friends in the industry with extra hops who we could call and say  “Holy shit, we need hops!” we would have been in trouble. It was a combination of brewers, brokers and growers that found the extra volume, and our personal relationships helped because people liked us. We had connections in the industry, and that’s what brought us the pounds we needed early on.

As we grow, we focus heavily on building those relationships. That’s why we had Crosby Hops and Virgil Gamache Farms here for a collaboration recently. It’s important for us to support our supply chain so that they can support us, whether it’s hop growers, malt from our friends at Origin Malt or new yeast strains from Omega Labs. It takes a village to make a beer.