Thursday, September 9, 2010

Tonya Cornett: Big Things from a Small Package. Plus Notes Towards Solving the Vexing Packaging Conundrum

Tonya Cornett has won just about every award but you wouldn’t know it from talking to her. She’s not one to boast. But taste her beers and it’s clear why the halls of Bend Brewing Company are adorned with tons of her medals, mostly gold.

I dropped by to pick Tonya’s brain about hops, naturally. Where most brewers tend toward the crustier side, Tonya is a breath of fresh air. Cheerful, buoyant and smooth. As she said, she doesn’t wear her beers on her sleeves, daring you to knock them off. She wants your criticism, as she’s always looking for ways to improve even those bellwether beers that have won her so many accolades, beers like Outback X and her big bold Hophead Imperial IPA.

Tonya’s been brewing up fabulous beers for over 8 years at BBC and 15 years in all. She mainly works alone in a tight brewhouse that’s best compared to the engine room of a vintage WWII US attack sub. A web of hoses like the roots of a giant Doug Fir treacherously line the floors. The rest is stainless tanks, kettles, handles, valves and a cold room. The diminutive but not tiny -- I won’t use the word ‘swarthy’ to describe our chipper, ginger-haired, bob-tailed brewer -- is like one of those resilient five star chefs who manages to churn out the most mouth-watering delights from the humblest of kitchens.

The eminently likeable Tonya has a reputation for exceeding expectations, except her own. "I don’t think I’m ever completely satisfied. I’ve learned that brewing is an evolutionary process. You set a goal and patiently take baby steps towards it. When you’re close, that’s when you need to stop and re-evaluate, asking yourself: how can I make this even better?"

To improve, Tonya is a big fan of experimentation. She was the first brewer in the beer hotbed that is Bend, Oregon to use pellets for dry hopping, several years ago. “They thought I was crazy, but now it’s fairly well accepted, except at Deschutes of course where they use whole cones.” I got the impression she was far more proud of that “first” than being the first female to ever win the small brewpub brewmaster of the year award at the World Beer Cup in 2008. Everyone’s impressed with a pioneer it seems, except the pioneer.

As far as hops go, Tonya admits to obsessing on the details of getting the aromas and flavor just right. “It’s funny,” she laughed. “Customers really have no idea how much thought goes into getting that aroma just right.” At the same time, she’s an alpha monster who loves bittering workhorses like Galena, Nugget, Northern Brewer and Perle.

The funny thing about meticulous, uncompromising craft brewers like Tonya – and this is where I go off script and wing it -- is that when it comes to ordering hops, and accepting them, they often sound powerless. Tonya, like so many otherwise stalwart brewers, has never ever rejected hops , even ones that were intolerably cheesy. If the alpha acid was below the custom, she still took and paid for the hops and simply made adjustments on the fly.

Like her brethren, she’s often worried about the shape and hardness of her pellets. “Sometimes they come in baked and shiny. Brittle. They just cleave apart, and it makes me wonder how they behave in the tanks during dryhopping.” She, like others, worries about these things, but like a seasoned trauma doctor in the ER, she’s learned to triage the urgent from the merely important.

Asked why she didn’t’ hold suppliers to her own standards of excellence, Tonya matter of factly admitted what I’ve gleaned from so many smaller craft brewers: "I have so much going on, so many batches and ingredients that keep me on my toes. I really don’t have the time and manpower to send the hop pellets back, though I should. I feel stuck with what I got. I certainly wouldn’t try to sell them to my friends – that’d be a good way to make enemies."

And this is the rub of it. Brewers like Tonya have high standards but because of limited resources they have to make do with the cards they’ve been dealt. They want to learn more about where their hops were grown and why terroir is important. They want to know for each batch the hop chemistry, including oil content and composition. They want to know why a pellet is designed the way it is, and they want to know if there’s a relationship between that design and the oil extraction and dispersability. They want to know how to optimize oil utilization.

In short, they want to be educated. And that’s where a hop merchant comes in.

Take a look at packaging, for example. How many brewers today specify that they want their pellets packaged in a soft or hard pack? How many know what the optimal residual oxygen content should be? Brewers certainly would like to refrain from having to break up cementious bricks of pellets with a hammer and chisel, but how does a brewer know that the pellets in a soft pack are preserved correctly? Can a soft pack of pellets (think bag of potato chips) still be relatively oxygen free? How does one know? What’s the standard? And why?

Tonya expressed both puzzlement and frustration over these packaging questions. She recently received four (4) 11 pound bags of Cascades from a supplier [see the pictures above]. Two were hard as a brick. The other two were loose, as if the bag had been punctured. Were they punctured? No hole was visible. The supplier simply sent the bags with no explanation, no attempt to educate.

"I guess you sometimes fall into the ‘small brewer mentality’, where you just take what you get and forget that you have a choice," confessed Tonya earnestly. "Believe me, I’d like to have the data. I’d like to hold them [the hop merchant] to a standard, like a warranty, but we’re not Deschutes. Show me a merchant who provides me with the data and tells me why it’s important and I’ll vote with my dollars."

Heard that. Just as we are committed to protecting our pellets from excessive heat, we also want to insure that our pellets are packaged in an inert environment in such a way that facilitates ease of use. Stay tuned for further news on the packaging and pellet design fronts. In addition, with the help of our friends at Oregon State, we’re looking at developing a science-based hop substitution chart. The effort is to provide as much valid information to the brewer and let them decide.

When it comes to enhancing hop flavor, packaging is a critical issue from start to finish, from the hopyard to the brewhouse. Nature designed the hop flower to protect the snugly tucked lupulin glands. IH is designing pellets to protect and enhance those aromatic oils. Brewers understand the need to protect the hop metabolites in their beer by using darker glass t bottle. The emphasis on hop oil protection carries all the way to the bar where the brew is served.

As Tonya stressed as we sat down at the bar to sample her work, while the bartender happily pulled a draught into a warm wide mouthed glass, “I can’t stand it when I see a hoppy IPA poured into an ice cold pint glass. You have to let the oils in these beers breathe.” You have to wait until the time is right. Until then, we’ll be striving to protect those magic oils from the ravages of oxygen, heat and all manner of slap-dashery.

Roger Worthington

PS Thanks for using our Centennials in your Elk Lake and good luck at the Alpha King Challenge. Readers: check out Tonya’s unlabeled scarlett IPA (9% ABV, 80 IBU, Centennial and Chinook), to my tastes, a podium contender at the upcoming World Beer Cup.

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