Monday, September 27, 2010

Will Mad River's Whole Cone-centric Method to Aroma Madness Allow for Properly Designed Pellets? IH Mock-Examines Brewer Dylan Schatz.

Mad River Brewery in Humboldt County is on our radar. They're craft pioneers. They make great beer. They win medals. They're a touch wacky. And they've hitched their aroma wagon to the whole cone.

In short, Mad River offers up the sort of challenge that Indie Hops was born for. Any merchant can sell pellets to a brewer who's already sold on their virtues. But it takes a hop messiah to liberate the whole cone disciple from the chains of nostalgia, romance and tradition. Good Lord that sounds arrogant. The hop hubris! Have I gone too far? My conscience is starting to sting. But wait, we do sell whole cones, too. We just think that pellets, done right, can deliver unto beer more bang for the buck.

Like Deschutes and nearby Sierra Nevada, Mad River knows a few things about hops. They're sort of a micro version of Sierra Nevada. Indeed, they brew on the original 17 barrel system that launched Ken Grossman to greatness. Like SN, their operational mantras are recycle, re-use and reduce waste. Unlike SN, which uses whole cones only, Mad River does use pellets for bittering.

Ripe for conversion? Not exactly. But, to his credit, head brewer Dylan Schatz has an open mind about what whole cones can and cannot deliver. I recently spoke to Dylan after his triumphant return from the GABF in Denver. Mad River had just won the Small Brewery of the Year and three medals, including the Gold for his John Barleycorn Barleywine (which also took Gold in 2007).

A little background here. Dylan's been cooking up winning brews at Mad River since 2000. The brewery was established in 1989. Their flagship beer, Steelhead Extra Pale ale, took the Silver at the GABF this year, after winning the Gold in 2008. Mad River offers 12 styles (6 year-rounds, 4 seasonals and 2 draught only), has accounts in 30 states, and projects 11,500 barrels in 2010, up about 500 barrels from last year. They're growth curve is steadily upwards to the right. Clearly, their eye is on the prize.

For aroma hops, Dylan prefers Cascade, US Tettnanger, Willamette, and Amarillo. Mad River pushes the wort through a hop back before whirlpooling. They also dry hop with whole cones in a nylon bag. Their system is designed for the most part to use whole cones. And yet , as the conversation progressed, a question inside me began to burn and burn hotter. With at least trying not to sound argumentative, or arrogant, and prefacing the question with a disclosure that 20 years of trial lawyering have given me habits that are hard to break, I queried Dylan whether he had any ... Dear God ... evidence, empirical or anecdotal, that using whole cones was a better way to extract oils than pellets.

"Evidence? Like you mean courtroom evidence," Dylan asked, puzzled. "No, none of that. We just have a personal preference for whole leaf hops. Plus our beers are unfiltered, which means we don't want to clog our whirlpool and tanks with hop pellet sediment. "

No lawyer, even a recovering lawyer, is worth his wingtips if can't cook up at least one river-parting rebuttal. “Sir, are you saying that the method to Mad River’s madness, and by that mean I mean your steadfast reliance on whole cones for aroma, is based moreso on tradition, romance and nostalgia than the guiding light of science and reason?

To which Mr. Schatz – correctly I might add – took the Fifth, but added: “We prefer pure raw ingredients. “To which I just had to rebut, bad habits being both bad and hard to break, “But, sir, you do use pellets for bittering, correct?”


“And why, good sir, do you use pellets for bittering?”

“I am bound to admit that they offer good utilization in the boil. They’re concentrated. They’re stable. They store better. “

“Ah, the glory of efficiency. You’re saying pellets, properly designed, offer advantages in efficiency. Let me ask you, have you ever broken up a whole cone after dry hopping with same?


“Then you have seen, after pulling back the bracts, clusters of semi-full lupulin glans, clinging as Nature intended to the strig, still bursting with oil?”

“Well, I wouldn’t know if they were full or not, nor whether they were ‘ bursting.’”

“But you do send wort infused cones to a local rancher who in turns feeds the beery hops to free range cattle who, in turn, alternate between hobbly-gobbly, happy-wappy and sleepy-weepy, as if under the influence of humulus lupulus, which as we know is a close cousin to Cannabaceae family.”

“Sir, we live in Humboldt County, where all sorts of medicinal and spiritual weeds grow wild. I have indeed seen happy cows, but I can neither confirm nor deny whether their euphoria was the result of humulus lupulus.”

“But you can confirm that oil is aroma and flavor and your mission is to extract as much aroma and flavor and, on balance, you’d rather please your flavor-thirsty customers than the local manure- splattered ungulates.”

“It’s true that we’d rather help our customers slake their thirst first before the cows and pigs, but the pellets we’ve used just aren’t suitable. They’re made of dust, fall to the bottom, form a sludge and otherwise end up in our unfiltered beers. In addition, we are bound by a city permit that requires us to pre-treat our wastewater, which means removing suspended solids and oxygen demanding biomass.”

“I see. Would you be interested in a hop pellet whose particle size distribution was substantially greater than the standard? That is, for dry hopping, what if you packed a tightly knit bag with larger hop particle pellets, thus minimizing leaching?”

“I’d be interested. But I have one request.”

“Yes, what is it?”

“Whether we try out your ballyhooed big fat oily pellets or your Oregon-nursed whole cones, can you please pretty please screen out the safety glasses, chunks of tire, baling wire, corn cobs, license plates and desiccated bird carcasses? The pigs may like ‘em, but we don’t. Keep ‘em pure. We’re mad that way.”

“Yessir, we are on it. Our farmers hand pluck the artifacts on the drying room floors and we spent a buttload of money on a seed/vine separator. In the meantime, stay tuned for that vaunted empirical evidence out of Oregon State. We’re going to answer the optimal oil extraction question burning in every brewers brain once and for all. Cones vs. pellets? If pellets, how fat? How coarse?”

Stay tuned. And Mad River, be glad, stay Mad, but stand by to tweek your tried and true methods if, and this is IH being bold again, the research backs up our intuition. Hey, you gotta believe.

Roger Worthington

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