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“There are all these different uniquenesses to these farms, so the hops are going to have slightly different characteristics.”

Hop Selection for the Brew Crew

Each year, we’re invited out to the Yakima Valley to select our lot of hops for the upcoming year. It’s an incredible honor to be invited, so Ryan flies out with Innovation Director Brian Hink, allowing us to ensure that the hops we use for, say Cape May IPA, are the Cape May IPA-iest hops we can get. We’re looking for consistency, so that when you crack a can brewed in January, it’ll taste the same as a can brewed in September.

So, in keeping with a few of our Core Values — like Be a Pro, Make it Better, and, of course, Have Fun — Hank and Innovation Director Brian Hink set up our very own Hops Selection for the Brew Crew, tucked into a corner of our loading dock, where we got down and dirty and tested our schnozzes alongside the best snouts at CMBC.

“I’m excited to learn more about hops,” Sales Associate Jenna Rae Rohana said on the way there. “It’s really cool that we get to do things like this.”

See, here’s the thing about hops: there’s enough variety out there — even within the same varietal — that hops can be confusing. We work with a product that uses hops, but — and Jenna Rae’s the perfect example — we don’t necessarily come into contact with them in our day-to-day. Sales certainly doesn’t see hops on a regular basis; it’s even rare that someone on the packaging line comes into contact with them. Only the brewers and cellarmen see them all the time, and, even then, only in their pelletized form. We almost never see a full-blown hop cone. 

Brian compared hops to apples.

“There’s a bunch of different varietals out there,” he said. “Think of apples: you’ve got Fuji, McIntosh, Red Delicious, Honey Crisp (which is the best). And like a Red Delicious tastes like a Red Delicious and a Fuji apple tastes like a Fuji — all of these apples have different characteristics. Same with hops. We use Centennial and Chinook, Amarillo, Simcoe, Citra — there’s a few of them. There are all these different varietals of hops, but they come from different farms. Each farmer’s going to have their own differences and uniquenesses to them.”

If Farmer Bob and Farmer Sally are both growing Centennial hops, Farmer Bob may get more rain, or Farmer Sally’s fields may see slightly more sun, or Farmer Bob may be deeper in the valley so it’s just a tiny bit more humid, or Farmer Sally’s soil has a tad more nitrogen — these minor variations in growing conditions can create differences in the hops, even within the same varietal

“There are all these different uniquenesses to these farms,” Brian said, “so the hops are going to have slightly different characteristics.”

So, each year, we head out to the Yakima Valley to give these hops a whirl.

“And we have to keep our personal biases out of it,” Brian says. “This Cascade may be an awesome lot of Cascade, but is it Cape May IPA? I can’t pick what I want; I have to pick what’s best for the brand.”

Brian points to a lot of Chinook he came across last year — it had extraordinary blueberry notes, which isn’t something you don’t typically find in Chinook. While he was drawn to it, Cape May IPA isn’t known for having blueberry notes, so we had to leave it behind in Yakima and choose a lot better suited for IPA.

We use three main hops providers: Yakima Chief Hops (YCH), BSG, and Hopsteiner. Before we head out, we already have a certain amount of hops on contract: we’re committed to buying so many pounds of Chinook from BSG, so we head out there to decide which lots we want.

For our mini-introduction to hops selection, we had Simcoe from Yakima Chief, Sultana from Hopsteiner, and El Dorado from BSG. After these guys harvest the hops, they press them into 200-pound bales. Then, to pull samples, they basically drill a hole into the middle and pull out a random sample.

We got into our rubbings. Since you don’t really have the luxury of taking the sample home, brewing up a beer, and seeing if that lot of hops is going to work for you, we do rubbings. Basically, we take a big handful of hops between our hands and rub them together, releasing all of that wonderful hops aroma.

“The heat and the friction from your hands opens up the lupulin glands which releases the oil, which will give you a better approximation of what aroma they’ll contribute to the final beer,” Brian explains.

We began with the Sultana — it used to be known as “Denali”, but there was a cease-and-desist, unfortunately, not from the mountain –, and we had five different lots from Hopsteiner. We use Sultana as the primary hop in Always Ready.

“One of these was the lot that we chose,” Brian told us.

We tried to keep them separated on our giant sheets of paper, but once we started rubbing, it became a bit difficult to keep them apart.

“I should have labeled these because now I can’t tell them apart,” said Warehouse Manager Polly Pollock-Bell.

“Typically, we’ll write the lot numbers on our paper,” Brian said.

And, friends, hop selection is messy. Not only were out hands covered in lupulin, but there were also bits of greenery everywhere, from our shirts to our shoes to our beards.

“The main character of Sultana is pineapple,” Brian explained. “So, if it’s more pineapple, more tropical, more citrusy, that’s awesome. If it’s more floral or diesel or onion/garlic — that’s not what we want.”

As far as this writer could tell, the differences between the lots were extraordinarily slight. Granted, he doesn’t have the most discerning palate to begin with; however, the pervading feeling amongst the six participants was that the hops were so strikingly similar that it was difficult to keep in mind the characteristics we were looking for.

For example, it was easy to say, “I like this one the best,” but having the wherewithal to determine if the one we liked best was also the right choice for Always Ready was a difficult task.

We dumped our Sultana and moved to the Simcoe from Yakima Chief. Typically, between varietals, you’d wash up and try to get all of the lupulin oil off your hands with salt scrubs and what-have-you, but, since the future of Coastal Evacuation wasn’t riding on this particular round of hop selection, we dug in with dirty hands.

There were two different lots of Simcoe, one of which smelled “more Simcoe-y”. However, whether or not that’s good for Snag & Drop, City to Shore, or Captain May IPA was beyond the ability of our noses.

However, by the time we got to the three samples of El Dorado from BSG, we were all able to pick the correct lot for Follow the Gull and Bounding Main

“In El Dorado,” Brian explained, “you’re typically looking for candied fruit characters, melon, candy orange. It used to be straight-up watermelon, but the hop’s gotten a little bit away from that.”

The hops from BSG came in vacuum-sealed packages, like the astronaut ice cream you used to get during field trips to The Franklin Institute. Inside, the hops were cut against the grain.

“Some of the things you want to look for in these bale cuts is to check if it’s still super moist,” Brian said, “or if it’s dried out, how it feels, how it looks. Those can be some early indicators. With the cross-cut, you can really see the hops and the lupulin glands.”

Even though those of us at the selection — from distribution, from marketing, from production, from sales, and from the Tasting Room — weren’t great at being able to point to the exact lot that we should choose for a given brew, we all learned a lot.

“I was expecting hops to smell like tobacco,” Polly said. “Like, dry. Grassy. I wasn’t expecting them to smell sweet and flavorful. I thought the flavor only came through the brewing process. I didn’t realize it was so bold.” 

“The brewing process actually strips a lot of this out,” Brian explained. “That’s where dry-hopping comes in. Anything on the hot side, you’re going to lose a lot of the aromatics unless you add them at the very, very end in the whirlpool.”

We’re lucky to have Brian heading out to Yakima each year. Through this activity, it’s clear that Cape May Brewing Company shouldn’t be sending anyone in the session we attended. However, with things like this, practice makes perfect. It’s not easy to develop this talent, but it is possible. Maybe one day one of us will have worked our way up to being able to select hops.

In the meantime, don’t miss out on the fruits of Ryan and Brian’s labor. Be sure to check our Beer Finder to find a retailer near you.