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


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