Wednesday, November 3, 2010

MacTarnahan’s Puts Indie Hops to the Test

Portland, OR. We’ve been asking for brewer feedback and we got some.

MacTarnahan’s, which has been brewing award-winning craft brews in Portland since 1986, heard about our new hop pellets and decided to test them out against their current inventory.

Everybody knows that MacTarnahan’s flagship beer is their Amber Ale, which is truly an Oregon original. This bold, copperish “English style” pale ale showcases Cascade hops and Cascade only. They’re used for bittering, aroma and they dry hop with it as well. Talk about your all-purpose utility hop.

Now many brewers who are blessed with a leading money winner object to change. They got a winner and they stick with it. Mostly, this is a reasonable strategy, except for two things:

First, natural ingredients, like hops, over time, can lose their edge (or “brightness”). Heck, hop flavor can swing from the same variety during the same year from the same farmer but grown on different farms or harvested at different times.

Second, whether you’re on top or trying to get there, complacency is the enemy of progress. Yes, yes, there are those who would fall back on the old nostrum – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Sounds good, but leaving well enough alone in the ever-changing craft beer world sometimes just isn’t good enough.

So imagine our surprise, and elation, when veteran brewers Tom Bleigh and Vasili Gletsos (the new Head Brewer for North American Breweries(NW Divison/Portland location), which owns a bunch of crafties, like Magic Hat, Pyramid and MacTarnahan’s), informed us that they wanted to pit our Cascade pellets against their current vendors’ in test batches of their most popular brew, Mac’s Amber Ale.

According to Tom, Plant Manager of what most people know as the Portland Brewing Company, tinkering with a winning recipe in the pursuit of perfection shouldn’t come as any surprise. Although his brewery is under new ownership, the commitment to excellence, he says, has actually gone up.

“We’re constantly looking for ways to improve our beers and our brewing process so that it’s focused on being efficient, environmentally friendly, and insuring quality in raw ingredients and finished products,” said Tom, who’s been brewing since 2001. “I firmly believe that if we focus on what matters most: quality and safety, success will follow.”

Tom acknowledges that getting hops right is a full-time job. It’s never one thing, he says. Instead, it’s a combination of factors that lead to desirable hops, from the farm, to the harvest date, to the pelletizing, to the packaging, to brewing, to the bottling and finally to the delivery and pour.

“Naturally, we’re very pleased with our hops,” assured Tom, whose prestigious brews speak for themselves. “But we were interested in what you guys, Indie Hops, were saying about your new pellet design and the Willamette Valley terroir. We wanted to see if there were any differences from Washington grown Cascade pellets.”

The experiment went down like this. Macs brewed up three batches: two using Cascade pellets from two existing vendors, and one using Indie Hops’ 2009 Cascade Pellets. They chose their Amber Ale as the medium.

And, to evaluate how or whether the hops would perform under actual “battle field” conditions, they subjected the three batches to a “force test.” They exposed to the beers to the type of peak heat temperatures that would basically simulate a six pack getting locked inside the trunk of a car in August for a few days (not that any customer would do such a thing to Mac’s Amber Ale, or any good ale for that matter). The idea was to speed up the oxidation process that naturally occurs under predictable conditions.

In total, three test brews split between “fresh” and “forced” conditions. After evaluating the brews internally, Tom and Vasili invited Indie Hops over to wet our collective whistles and – and this is the sweaty palm part -- put our money where our mouth is. They didn’t tell us what was what, of course. They wanted our no BS feedback.

Oh Lord, please pick the right one!! Jim and Matt each blindly sampled and rated all three. Jim recalls the pucker factor. “First, I’m not a pro taster. And second, one of the samples didn’t taste so hot, but I couldn’t be harsh – what if it was ours? I’m confident, but I’m not dumb!”

How did it turn out? Did Jim and Matt agree on the winner? And who was the winning hop merchant? Indie Hops or our friends up North?

Well, let’s just say that it’s better to be good than lucky. We’re thankful to Tom and Vasili and all the guys and gals at MacTarnahan for putting our theories to the test. Feedback is great, but validation is awesome!

With a proven winner like Mac’s Amber Ale, is it possible to increase expectations? We think so. In the war against mediocre beers, there’s no room for complacency.

Roger Worthington

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