Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Harvesting a Brew: Hop School with Tyler King

The words "harvest beer" may trigger thoughts of fresh or wet hopped beers. They are indeed delicious, and though we don't make a lot of beers that taste hugely hoppy, we use hops regularly in both our sours and barrel aged beers for balance and flavor. For our third post on what it takes to harvest a beer, our Senior Director of Brewing Operations Tyler King shares his experience in visiting the Pacific Northwest during hop harvest.

During my transition from BJ’s to The Bruery I was lucky enough to visit the beautiful Yakima Valley for the 2007 hop harvest. I guess I never thought of where hops came from before my trip. With my love of wine and the countryside, I always envisioned lush green mountainsides with 20 foot tall hop towers as far as the eye could see.

As my plane started its approach into Yakima Valley, I soon realized that I was in the middle of a desert and should have brought shoes. My first stop from the airport was Hopunion, one of the largest suppliers of hops for craft brewers; it even made an appearance on the show Dirty Jobs!

At Hopunion, I got to see my first bale (which is 200 lbs) of whole leaf hops and the machine that grinds and pelletizes them into the form that so many craft and home brewers use in our brews. During my tour I was "lucky" enough to see the damage caused by the spontaneous combustion of the hop bale that started the 2006 S.S. Steiner Warehouse fire that destroyed approximately 4% of the nation’s yearly hop supply. I still find it hard to believe that a bale of hops can generate enough heat and explode like a rocket through the roof. Science! Who knew?

After my tour and visit to Hopunion’s amazing bar and billiards room, we made our way to the hop fields. I was like a kid in a candy store. Walking through the fields, picking hops, rubbing them between my palms and stuffing my face in them was only something I’d seen on a Samuel Adams commercial.

We ended up walking through an experimental hop field that was growing high alpha acid hops that were the size of my palm! I’m pretty sure that at this point I was in an adult Disneyland: hops surrounding me like a rainforest and some of the best hoppy beer flowing from taps and coolers all around us.

After our fun-filled field trip to the farm, a few of us continued drinking in downtown Yakima. Needless to say, I ended up drinking too much and missed my 8 AM flight home the next day. I learned two things from my trip to Yakima: there were only two flights into So Cal that day and both were early in the morning, and that I love hops and I still know very little about them.

I consider myself lucky to be working at The Bruery. Although we don’t brew a lot of hoppy beers, we do love to experiment. This year I was able to acquire five different “wet” hop varieties to use in brewing. In the past we usually brewed one 15bbl batch of a fresh hopped beer; but this year I thought it would be interesting to use our pilot system to taste each wet variety against one another to see which one reigned supreme.

I’m not going to talk about the varieties used and how they taste. You need to try them yourself and form your own opinion. I will say, however, that Simcoe was my favorite this year with Centennial right behind it. Mosaic was my least favorite, but I can’t put that hop down as I think we received inferior hops.

I find it funny that most people think of us as a non-hoppy brewery because of what we make. Anyone who knows me, knows that you can usually find a nice bottle or can of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in my hand. In fact, one of my best beer moments was visiting Sierra Nevada during the hop harvest and trying Celebration straight from the brite tank. It was absolutely amazing!

So what does the hop harvest mean to me? Usually it’s a logistical nightmare of scheduling fresh hops and a reminder that I need to redo our hop contract for future years. It may not be a fun time for me, but without it, you wouldn’t be reading this blog and we wouldn’t have to such an amazing variety of beers out there!

Post written by Tyler King, our Sr. Director of Brewing Operations and Chairman of the Bro Bandana Board. Tyler has been with The Bruery before day one and helped build it from the ground up.

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