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 clichés 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

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