In our first blog post, we mentioned hop growers are often fond of us. We use heaps of whole-cone hops every day—thousands of pounds. But despite the big supply we have in Chico, the selection process during harvest is calculated and time consuming. Ken Grossman and a team of brewers embarked on this year’s search in September.
We hand select the majority of our hops from several states, namely Washington, Oregon and occasionally Idaho. The diversity is an effort to buffer any geographical crop anomalies. Weather this year cooperated in the last pre-harvest weeks, allowing for a stable final maturation period. In contrast, the 2011 crop matured very quickly due to high heat, which mandated early picking to prevent the flowers from becoming overripe.
Hop farmers generally have a slim window to get hops out of the fields and dried. They rely on planting several varieties that reach maturity sequentially over roughly a six-week window. Overall, this year we were pleased with what we gathered across the board. Cascade and Centennial, for example, were both sharp and selling out, and Sierra Nevada brewer Steve Dresler said Citra is undeniably "on fire."
However, despite the crop generally looking good, hops are agricultural, with soil that is subject to elements and weather patterns that are inherently volatile. Alpha levels seesaw each year—in every lot, for that matter—requiring that we constantly fine tune our recipes; we add or drop a few pounds to maintain our alpha level targets and resulting IBUs. And like most craft brewers, we always seek the most aromatic lots to give us flexibility as we strategize kettle additions versus dry hopping.
The desire for aroma may be what makes it tough to predict the outcome of the 2013 harvest. The craft brewing industry continues to flourish, which means more and more buyers seek the same premium lots. Select craft brands have also been acquired by larger companies and are being primed for a national stage, which again places more demand on farmers’ shoulders.
While quantity is on our minds, at the forefront for us is quality. We had team members in Yakima, Washington, before and during harvest working on a project to improve drying techniques for aroma hops. They helped analyze the benefits of limiting the kilning temperature. We’re also alongside growers providing direct feedback on certain agronomic practices to improve the quality of American hops.
And hop creativity certainly isn’t lacking. Experimental varieties, such as those we’ve put into Rhizing Bines<sup>™</sup> and Ruthless<sup>®</sup> Rye, will evolve the craft brewer’s toolbox. Here’s to brew logs of the future raising brows more than they already do.