Tuesday, June 29, 2010

West Coast Hop-A-Bout 2010: We love your pellets, we’re grateful for your investment, we admire your passion, but….

You load sixteen tons an' what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
St Peter don't you call me cause I can't go.
I owe my soul to the company store.
-- Jimmy Dean, hop dealer unknown

The setting: eager new hop merchant on hop-a-bout up the West Coast stopping off at craft breweries to field test big fat fresh 100% uncut Oregon-grown hop pellets. After six days and over a dozen brewer rap sessions, a dialogue blueprint has taken shape.

The dialogue goes something like the below. Note, this is a work of Rogue IPA induced fiction and none of the rhetoric is meant to be attributed to any particularly disgruntled brewer; as a whole brewers tend to be a "don't let the bastards grind you down" lot, as the happy-wappy snapshots attest):

Click here for more.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Less is More – Larry Sidor, Deschutes Brewery’s Head Hopster

Larry Sidor is a whole hop guy. It’s basically non-negotiable. Having worked for a Yakima hop merchant and an industrial brewer back in the day, Larry has seen first-hand the ravages that processing inflicts upon the noble flower. The Master Brewer for Deschutes who has brought us Abyss, Dissident, Red Chair IPA and Green Lakes Organic Ale (my personal favorite) is a big fan of fresh, wholesome ingredients.

“As a rule, the less we tamper with it, the more I’ll probably like it,” he says.

So you can imagine my trepidation as I walked inside the Deschutes Brewery in Bend with my cooler of hop pellets to meet up with our hop purist. As I told one brewer earlier about my hop ambitions, my goal is to one day create a hop pellet that earns the blessing of Larry Sidor, the High Hop Priestess. I was of course prepared for a polite but firm woodshedding.

What I got instead was a captivating tutorial by a man who not only knows his craft but is eager to learn more. Although Larry is a stickler for whole cones, occasionally, when a beer screams out for pellets (and he's a few bales short), he will listen. Larry had on hand four pelletted varieties from four different suppliers: three from Yakima and one from Germany.

The first noticeable difference was the diameter. Yakima numbers 1 and 2 were 4 mm diameter, Yakima #3 was 6 mm, and the French variety was also 6 mm. Our pellets were 6 mm, and in general they were longer.

The second detectable difference was the Yakima varieties were harder and more baked. A few showed tell-tale signs of “rat-tailing,” a new word I picked up which, as Larry, explained, meant a harder “shell” on the outside of the pellet, indicating excessive heat during pelletization. As previously reported, Indie Hops has been able to lower the temperature at the die of it's spanking new 'patient' pelleting mill without coolants to 104F – 110F, whereas the Yakima standard is 130F.

Third, the Yakima varieties crumbled into a fine powder, the French pellets broke up into a coarser grind, and the IH pellets offered the coarsest grind. I asked the Hop Oracle about the importance of the coarseness of the pellet grist to the craft brewer.

“You have to go back to the beginning. We started pelleting hops back in the mid 1960’s for one reason: whole hops occupied too much valuable space, which translated into higher shipping and refrigeration costs. By increasing the bulk density, we could store and ship more pellets at a lower cost. But the downside was a loss in hop quality.”

“There’s nothing magic about a 4 mm pellet. The smaller the grind, the more cut surface, which means more leaching of vegetative materials into the beer,” Larry rolled on, clearly enjoying his platform. “The English have used ‘plugs,” which are about 25 mm, which they inserted into the bunghole of the cask, but I’ve never seen them produced in the US. A puck-sized pellet with a coarser grind would be … interesting.

We then dropped the hop pellets into a pint half-filled with hot water. The IH brew had the biggest fluid absorption and fiber expansion rates. The pellets on contact sort of blossomed like a dehydrated chili of Brussels sprouts (or, maybe, like a chia pet?).

Next, we performed the flagpole test: we stuck a butter knife in the center of each solution to see if the mass was dense enough to hold the utensil firmly upright. The only Hell Broth to survive the “ramrod salute” test: Indie Hops. Thicker is richer.

Next we compared the pellet fiber expansion with the Real Deal, a cup of compressed whole hops (see photo below). During dry hopping, Larry puts the cones into a bag which he secures to the bottom of the tank. As he explained, the ethanol and Co2 in the wort combine to help extract the lovely oils from the lupulin.

Larry posited that a whole cone is better able to preserve the precious lupulin glands by virtue of a sort of “anti-oxidant barrier” contained in the tannins. “When you chop up the hop and rupture the glands, the only shield left is the foil used to bag the pellets,” he said, again in the easy manner of a professor with a boatload of diplomas. “The outer bracts of the whole cone, as well as the in tact membrane of the lupulin gland, provide a natural barrier to oxidation.”

This struck me as an interesting notion, the idea that the cone’s skin of natural anti-oxidants served to insulate the lupulin from degeneration. After class adjourned, I did a bit of digging. First, a bit of hop morphology. Most of the tiny, grandular lupulin glands are located at the base of the bract but others are scattered on the external bracts (or scales). Preserving all of them in tact sounds awfully difficult. The process of picking, drying and then tightly compressing the flowers into bales inescapably ruptures the glands, not to mention the agitation that occurs during transportation and storage.

In sum, a pristine hop for the commercial brewer is a worthy goal but, practically speaking, highly unlikely. At the same time, proper handling of the cone should be able to provide some measure of protection to the internal lupulin glands congregating in the heart of the cone.

Second, the theory that the flower’s natural anti-oxidants coat and insulate the glands from the ravages of heat and air has an elegant appeal, but is it supported by science? I’m not sure, not because I’ve ever done any hop research, which I haven’t, but simply because I don’t know.

I’m a big fan of tannins conceptually, which contain the powerful flavonoids quercetin and xanthohumol, but it’s my impression that the tannins are a chemical constituent inside the leaves and stem; they are not a structural component, nor are they located inside the glands. And, of course, while tannins offer promise neutraceutically, they don’t endear themselves to good tasting brews.

What does make sense is that the anti-oxidants, if they can survive whole cone or pellet processing, could contribute to the storage quality of the plant material. I’ll have to talk to my friends at OSU about that. Good hop food for thought.

In a nutshell, it’s hard for humans not to disturb the noble flower. To prove the point, Larry trotted out a foiled brick of Hallertau Saphir whole cones from Germany, which looked like it had been processed at the bottom of the Mid-Atlantic trench. In the effort to maximize bulk density, the Deutsch processor essentially crushed the cones flat as silver dollars, which doesn’t bode well for either the lupulin glands or the brewer trying to carefully measure out a quart or two.

Larry Sidor’s enthusiasm for hops and brewing is contagious. As my partner Jim says, “The day you stop getting better is the day you start getting worse.” Jim’s the son of a famous high school football coach, so his cornball fire-up clich├ęs are forgivable. In a good but inspirational way Larry exemplifies this ballyhooed spirit of forever striving for higher quality.

”I’ve seen pellets from 2 to 4 to 6 to 7 millimeters. Why not pellet at 10 to 12 millimeters, or bigger?” Larry suggested, his mind churning with strategies for challenging the status quo. “I’m excited about the coarseness of your pellets, but why stop at a few hundred microns? Why not remove the screen from your hammer mill altogether? That would be perfect.”

“Perfect” as is in more like a whole cone. Larry, thank you, we’re on it. We’re here to challenge the pellet orthodoxy which elevates bulk density over oil preservation. Meanwhile, get ready to test out our new bigger and coarser pellets, you may be pleasantly surprised…

Roger Worthington

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Chad Kennedy to Hop Merchants: Less Flower Powder, More Flower Power

Portland, Or. I recently sat down with Chad Kennedy, Brewmaster at Laurelwood Brewing Company, to get his unabashed feedback on our hop pellet design, coarseness, feel and solubility. Chad’s a perfect judge – he’s hard core about getting it right, yet he has a playful spirit that can turn impressively wonkish on a dime. He’s candid, calls it like he sees, feels and smells it, and if he had a dogma, I’m guessing it would be something hip like: question authority, but don’t be a jerk about it.

I broke out a sample of our Cascade hop pellets from the 2009 harvest at Goschie Farms (5.6% Alpha, 4.9% Beta). We pelleted these at our spanking new mill in late April after keeping them in cold storage since September 2009. Chad fished out a sample of 2009 Cascade pellets as well, processed by The Old Guard (I made that up), the farmer(s) unknown (AA 8.3%, doctor say’s whoa! That’s high).

That’s Old Guard pellets on the left, Indie Hops on the right. You can see immediately that our pellet diameter is twice as big. As Chad observed, “yours have a gummier, oilier, leafier feel . The other pellets feel dry. Your pellet appears to hold up better in packaging. The others are smaller, chipped, and fragmented. They’re friable.”

The dreaded friable word. A little context here. As an asbestos victims lawyer for many years, that word didn’t exactly conjure up a “warm fuzzy.” In the asbestos world, if a particle is friable, it means it’s tiny enough to be respired deep inside the lungs, where the fiber can work its venom on soft tissues. The last thing I ever want my hops to be called is ‘friable.” I transitioned from an asbestos lawyer to a hop guy for a simple reason – asbestos makes people suffer, and hops make people happy.

After rubbing the pellets, it was clear that the Old Guard pellets did reduce to a fine powder (picture the Turkish Espresso setting on the dial of your grocery store’s coffee bean grinder). Our pellets, conversely, were coarser. As Chad observed, “Yours look and feel like a hop plant. They’re true to the source. The others are pulverized just about beyond recognition. What are they? Alfalfa? Rabbit food? You can’t tell.”

After pondering a bit, Chad let go. “I mean, look. The purpose of pelletizing is simply to increase the hop density for ease of storage. That doesn’t mean you have to pulverize the plant into powder. You might get more weight, less volume, but is the quantity really worth the sacrifice in quality? Isn’t the point of our little craft beer revolution to put hand-crafted quality over mass quantity?”

Next we poured an equal volume of hot water onto an equal weight of hop pellets. Chad, clearly getting into the “plop, plop, fizz-bang” experiment, started his stopwatch. In exactly one minute, a clean line separating the hop material from the water appeared in the pint of Old Guard pellets (on the left). Meanwhile, the Indy Hop pellets were expanding as they absorbed water.

In about 2 ½ minutes, the strata of water in the Old Guard pint continued to grow, as the IH pellets remained buoyant and homogenous from stem to stern. What, if anything did this mean? Chad offered his brewer’s opinion:

“The goal is extraction. During dry hopping, we want to extract as much of the hop’s natural oil as we can. To do that with a pellet, we need to surround the particle with the wort. The gold standard for dry hopping is the whole cone, since it’s lupulin glands haven’t been nearly as damaged as much as a processed cone. But if the pellet particles immediately settle at the bottom of the tank, like a silt, then I’m not sure we’re getting near the flavor that we could with a less processed, or coarser pellet.”

To prove the point, Chad unholstered his red straw and stuck the business end into the green gook. In the Old Guard pint, there was greater resistance or push back at the base, indicating that the hop silt was hardening. Conversely, the resistance was much lighter but uniform from top to bottom in the Indie Hop concoction.

Again, what does this mean? Says Chad, “It tells me that a coarser grind in solution behaves more like a natural flower. A natural flower will float on top much longer than a finely ground pellet and slowly settle down, imparting its flavors all the way down. The coarser the grind, the greater likelihood of extracting a hop’s natural flavors.”

As for aroma, Chad passed both glasses around the brewhouse, which was blowing and going. The consensus was clear: the IH brew gave off a lemony, citrusy roma, whereas the other – not so much. As one of the rubber boot clad brewers summed it up, “The Indie Hop brew smelled more like it was supposed to,” that is, like a natural flower. True to the Source!

The true test of course will have to wait. Chad has agreed to an “apples to apples” comparison between IH Cascade pellets and that of one of Laurelwood’s traditional suppliers. We’ll let you know how that experiment goes.

Thanks Chad. And congratulations to Laurelwood’s rising success. We don’t expect to be handed a spot in the starting rotation simply because our pellets look pretty. We know we have to earn our place in The Show. To quote John Lennon, “All we are saying, is give Indie Hops a chance… and we hope we pass the audition…”

Roger Worthington


Friday, June 4, 2010

In Pursuit of Hop Heaven: Getting High at The Indie Hops Mt. Hood Cycling Classic

Hood River, Or. Two races under my belt, two to go. Building up a mighty thirst. Maintaining my one-brew-a -day discipline, but can’t wait to go rogue on Sunday just after I finish the windy-grindy criterium around the iconic Full Sail Brewery.

I plan to celebrate with a brew I just discovered today – Full Sail’s “Hop Pursuit.” Great minds think alike? I stopped by Full Sail after finishing the notorious Columbia Gorge time trial (can you say “intentional infliction of emotional and cardio-pulmonary distress”), hoping to chat with brewer Jim Kelter.

Exactly one year ago today, before we had a pellet mill, before we had farm contracts, I met with Jim to talk about our pursuit of noble hops. Then, Indie Hops was just a dream. He suggested I come back when we had hops.

My mission today was to get Jim’s feedback on the diameter, coarseness, oiliness, dispersal, entrainment and aroma of our hop pellets. As you may have read, we’re proud of our new “patient” pelleting mill, but the only opinion that matters is that of the brewers. Their feedback is critical in our mission to “get it right.” Our goal is nothing short of the best designed hop pellet using the best aroma hops in the world.

Jim wasn’t in, but I hope to hook up with him on Sunday in our VIP tent. Full Sail has been a long time sponsor of the Mt. Hood Cycling Classic. Their support of cycling has always impressed me. The cork-screw criterium around their brewery is like a roller coaster – you’re constantly diving, angling, swooping and sprinting. On a sunny day the course presents challenges. If it rains, better notify the local ER to bring in a few more trauma doctors.
Here’s something funny. Several months ago, we filed for a trademark on the phrase “In Hop Pursuit.” The phrase captures our mission to both breed new aroma hop varieties as well as resurrect a few of the unsung heroes. Plus it reminds me of the mixture of harnessed rage, nut crazy discipline, and unrelenting desire that helped me win a few medals as a pursuit-ist on the velodrome Back in The Day (way back in The Day!).
Thank goodness my lawyer’s instinct to file first and ask questions later has mellowed as I’ve transitioned from litigator to budding hopmeister. I’m hoping Full Sail’s Hop Pursuit is a huge success and I want to be part of that glory! Since tomorrow I’ve got to climb 10,000 feet over 92 miles with a mountain finish at Mt Hood Meadows ski resort , I’m going to hold off on draining this bottle of Hop Pursuit that’s staring at me.

I admire the label, but the ingredients are making my mouth water. From their website:

“We brewed it with the less aggressive, old school craft brewing hops– Cascade, Willamette, and Mt. Hood– to celebrate more of the hop flavor and less of the hop bitterness. These give the beer a nice and fresh citrus herbal character without a lot of intensity; instead it has a softly flavorful character with touches of orange and lemon. We dry hopped for two weeks to amplify these delicate hop flavors.” (http://www.fullsailbrewing.com/brewmaster-reserve.cfm

Yes! Here’s to the “old school” greats, brought to you by the People’s Hopmeister, Dr. Al Haunold, my hop Svengali. Normally, before a big race, I’d be nervous . Plus, since I won this race last year, I’d be feeling the pressure to repeat (see cool shot of this hop-fiend on point: http://www.mthoodcyclingclassic.com/rider-list/featured-riders ).

But not this year. Knowing I’ve got a 22 ounce bottle of Hop Pursuit waiting for me at the finish line virtually ensures that even if the race is pure wicked Hell, soon enough I’ll be entering hop heaven.

Praise Hell. Get to Hop Heaven.

Roger Worthington
Reporting from the Indie Hops Mt. Hood Cycling Classic, Hood River, Or. Hop On! http://www.mthoodcyclingclassic.com/