Origins and Purpose
Hop selection has evolved greatly with the rise of craft beer, abundance of varieties, and dominance of IPA styles. Prior to the early 2000’s, suppliers closely managed the relationships between growers and a small number of large brewers. Hop selection arose as a tool primarily used by very large brewers to hold suppliers accountable for delivering hops that met specifications. There were also relatively few varieties and the attributes brewers were looking for mainly revolved around bitterness and absence of faults like seed and poor drying.
In today’s hop market, hop selection is the brewer’s equivalent of the chef going to the farmers market to choose fresh produce and the best-looking fish. It’s become a community wide event that revolves around shared learning between brewers, suppliers, and farmers about what’s working, which aromas are desirable, how to grow and process for those attributes, and how to navigate the supply chain.
Objectives of Hop Selection
- Choose specific lots to fulfill contracts which meet the specific preferences of a brewer and ensure consistent hop character.
- Provide feedback to suppliers and farms about sensory attributes that are important to individual brewers.
- Learn about the hop supply chain and educate brewing staff about the complexity of hops across growing, processing, and analysis.
- Build and maintain relationships with suppliers, farmers, and other brewers who are in town during hop harvest. It’s a unique and rich time of year.
- Evaluate and provide brewer feedback on new experimental varieties for potential future commercialization.
Basic Requirements Before Selection – Suppliers
Hop quality has increased to a point where a high basic level of quality should be expected from any supplier. Consider working with suppliers who can assure you of the following aspects:
- Food safety programs in place from the farm to the package to limit foreign material and contamination.
- Constant cold storage of bales from the day of baling.
- Traceability and open sharing of which farm grew each lot or which lots and farms were blended in a pellet.
- Lab analysis from a qualified lab that includes at a minimum: Alpha, HSI (hop storage index), and Total Oil using ASBC methods.
Basic Requirements Before Selection – Brewers
Hop selection is most beneficial for a brewer who has consistent suppliers and a well-organized brewery producing consistent beer. For a brewer who knows the sensory attributes of their beer brands well and is experienced in sensory evaluation, beginning to make trips during hop harvest and selecting specific hop lots for your contracts is an excellent way to take your beer to the next level.
- Know your beer: This includes regular sensory evaluation, records of hop lots used in each batch, and a sense for how hop aromas in the hops you have been using have been translating into your beer.
- Prepare yourself and your team:
- Attend a hop school at a supplier or farm
- Tag along with another experienced brewer you’re close with
- Read up on evaluation of hops, and create your own brewery process and refine over many crop years
- Ensure your brewery decision makers understand your process and the value it brings to beer brand consistency
- Accurate hop contracts: Selection applies to contracted hops which the supplier then processes just for you. While some other brewers may be brewing with the same lot, there’s no guarantee there will be more if you’re under contracted. If you’re over contracted, don’t let this gem of a lot you discovered languish in storage until it’s stale.
- Good standing: Make sure your bills are paid and prior year inventory is under control leading up to selection. Address under and over contracting as best you can before harvest begins. Ship your remaining prior year contracted inventory before selecting a new crop year.
Logistics and Expectations
Communicate early: Check-in with your supplier well before harvest about your eligibility to select. If your contracts don’t meet your supplier’s volume requirements, they may be able to help you plan a worthwhile trip anyway. Consider grouping your needs with other small brewers to achieve minimum volume requirements for selection. Your supplier may be willing to mail you some bale cuts for your evaluation as an alternative.
When to go/pick windows: In the U.S. selection usually starts a few weeks into harvest and continues into October. Harvest begins in Washington and Idaho in the last week of August and in Oregon in mid-August. Every variety has a different picking window. Waiting until the varieties that are important to you are picked is generally a good idea or else you might show up and have nothing to select. Going early does not ensure better selection of lots either; the choice of lots shown to you is heavily dependent on logistics and luck. Communicate with your supplier to identify optimum timing.
What to Expect During a Selection Session
(Recognizing each supplier is a bit different):
- Your supplier will present samples from different lots of hops based on your contract needs. A lot is a homogenous set of baled hops totaling about 25,000-40,000 lbs. Samples may be cores or square brewer’s cuts taken directly from these bales at receiving.
- Your supplier will usually present 3-5 samples per variety, blind – that is, without identifying information – such that 50-80% of lots can be eliminated.
- Plan to evaluate samples for physical and aroma evaluation according to your process and criteria.
- Brewers record individual scores and comments on each lot, then compare those as a team, and finally provide them to the supplier to use as part of their quality assurance program. Suppliers should have a system for collecting this data.
- Suppliers provide analysis and background on each lot stating origin, grower, alpha, HSI, oil, and maybe more.
- Finally, the chosen lot or lots per variety are noted by the supplier and processing is organized. Processing and final availability of lots may take several months.
If You Cannot Select this Year
- Do everything else discussed here. Work closely with your sales rep to understand the lots you’ve been using, the farms they come from (especially if you select certain farms year after year) and what’s available in the next year. Your supplier or sales rep should provide the identity of the farm(s) that produced your favored lots.
- Before placing an order, ask to see Certificates of Analysis (COAs) for a few options, then choose based on your criteria like low HSI, state (Washington, Idaho, Oregon, etc.) grown, and best practice milestones achieved.
- Before committing to a lot, buy a box of a couple different options and brew with them. Pick your favorite and ask your supplier to allocate enough to you to cover your contract. If an allocation isn’t possible or this is a spot buy, be prepared to buy and ship your inventory.
- Get creative: Some suppliers offer group selections where small brewers can collaborate on lots to pick. Creative options are more likely to present themselves to brewers who show up as gracious, curious visitors.