In our welcome post on our new Blog, we promised to bring you the inside track from the craft beer industry, with posts and insider information from our fantastic suppliers to give you the opportunity to learn more about what goes into to creating the best craft beer ingredients which go into the best craft beer.
We also introduced you to our collab beer project with DEYA Brewing Company and Indie Hops in Oregon. DEYA and Indie Hops have produced three cracking beers showcasing the latest in hop flavors from the Indie Hops Flavor Project – an effort to craft brand new craft beer hop varieties which bring new flavours to the world of craft beer.
As part of our deep dive into the DEYA and Indie Hops collabs, and particularly all things hop development and Indie Hops, we’ve got a guest post penned by Indie Hops own Marketing and Comms guru Anca Solberg, whose skill with words and history with Indie Hops (she’s been with them on their journey from the very start) makes her uniquely placed to tell the Indie Hops story, and to take us the through the process of crafting the perfect craft beer hop. Over to you Anca:
“The first time we rubbed the hop, it was all that I could do to not just go, ‘Holy cow. This is crazy. These flavors are hypnotic,’” recalls Indie Hops Co-Founder & CEO Jim Solberg.
Jim Solberg was the first person to conduct sensory evaluation on this new genotype, and it hit the mark of what he was looking for. “We want new hop varieties that have flavor characteristics that are unique and that people are going to love to drink,“ explains Jim.
Each fall, you’ll find Jim along with Matt Sage — former brewer turned employee here at Indie Hops — rubbing and sniffing various piles of experimental hops. They give each other time to evaluate different genotypes and take copious notes. One of these new varieties could be interesting enough to advance to the next stage of our hop development program—The Indie Hops Flavor Project. “We evaluate about 150 new genotypes every year. So we have to stay well abreast of the marketplace from a hop standpoint, hop flavors that are out there, in order to really know if something is unique,” states Jim.
On a cool December day back in 2012, Matt had the same reaction as Jim —“What is that? That is unbelievable.” This particular hop had flavor notes they had never experienced in a hop before… “a nice combination of tropical, rounder, sweet fruits along with the tangier, brighter berries and citrus, just these beautiful combinations that manifest themselves into passion fruit and strawberry. And in addition to that, it came with, like a wafting cannabis of somebody smoking a joint around the corner. It just had all these things going on.”
And while both were stoked about this hop’s flavor profile, they also knew that they had to contain their excitement because this hop was still in the early stages of its hop development journey. “It takes a long time to develop a hop,” explains Jim. “There is a lot that has to be confirmed to be sure that the hop is viable. You’re wondering, ‘Is the hop going to have the disease resistance necessary in a commercial setting? Is it going to yield well enough to where you can bring it to market at a decent-value kind of a thing?’ Lots of questions to go, it’s early in the process, but that’s what we’re doing in the Flavor Project, is going through all those checks and balances to see if we have something that’s commercially viable for the growers and is excitable to beer drinkers.”
The fact that Jim and Matt had the chance to evaluate this hop from a sensory standpoint meant that it had already received initial agronomy approval from Dr. Shaun Townsend from Oregon State University’s Hop Breeding Program. “To develop hops, you have to start with plant breeding,” explains Jim. “You need to put plants together, a female plant pollinated with male pollen to degenerate offspring, to begin putting new genotype material into the program and have something to evaluate from a sensory standpoint.”
As the scientist in charge of Indie Hops breeding efforts, Dr. Shaun Townsend starts with thousands of seeds each year and puts the resulting plants through a “hop gauntlet”—exposing them to diseases, pests, and other adverse conditions. “He will make it a difficult situation for these plants,” states Jim Solberg. “Inoculate them in the greenhouse with downy mildew, powdery mildew, just a bunch of nasty stuff that hops don’t like generally, but some of them deal with it quite well. From an agronomy standpoint, that’s what we’re looking for—plants that have natural disease resistance so that they can then be grown commercially and require lower chemical inputs.”
Shaun also takes into account how hops are affected by climate change factors. “The reason I went into agricultural research is that I wanted to lower our environmental footprint, and plant breeding is an ideal way to do that,” states Shaun. “The idea is to produce plants that are extremely tolerant of diseases and pathogens, and other abiotic stresses like heat or less water availability.” It’s incredibly important for us here at Indie Hops to not just create great smelling hops, but to create the most sustainable environmentally friendly hop varieties too.
Changes such as warmer winters and earlier springs, reduced water availability during the growing season, increased spring flooding, and weather events such as the unprecedented heat wave that brought temps of 118 degrees Fahrenheit (87°C) to us here in the Pacific Northwest in 2021 have an effect on the hop plants themselves; and also influence how pests and their beneficial predators behave.
“We’ve already started addressing some of these variables in the breeding program, looking forward to future-proof our hops. So they’ll be more tolerant to heat, more tolerant to lack of water and so on,”
“There have probably been some pretty amazing hops that were never sent up to us for sensory evaluation because they didn’t meet Shaun’s agronomy goals,” explains Jim Solberg. “I shudder at that thought, but it sure beats getting super excited about a hop with crazy brewing character that we then find isn’t viable to grow commercially.”
A handful of promising new hops are advanced each year and planted out on commercial farms. At Indie Hops, we work work closely with growers Goschie Farms and Coleman Agriculture to evaluate how promising new hop varieties perform in this setting. Everything from how well a hop picks and processes to yield to consistency in character are evaluated on an ongoing basis. It’s also at the farm level that Jim and Matt are involved in determining appropriate harvest windows “of when the hop is at its optimum character for brewing in the field.”
Harvested hops are then utilized for pilot brews with commercial breweries, and feedback is collected from brewers and tasting rooms. All of this data is compiled over many years, and much thought is put into the whether or not it’s worth taking the risk to launch a hop commercially. Along the way, Jim is also thinking about what to name the hop and applying for patents. And then there is a decision that has to be made of whether or not to take the risk of launching a new hop into the market.
“We end up signing the contract for a six-year agreement to plant maybe forty acres at each farm, which ends up being a lot of hops, maybe eighty thousand dried hops from each farm. You're doing this at a time when it's a hop that nobody's really used, they're not using it in beers that they have in the marketplace. You have no contracts from brewers to buy it. You just have the confidence on how the market has reacted in your testing. So it's that leap of faith that you have to decide you're going to go ahead and take.. to take the chance on making a market for that hop.”
So what happened to that hypnotic hop from 2012? Jim decided to take the plunge, and Indie Hops launched it as Strata® from the 2018 commercial harvest. Named for its ability to impart many layers of flavor in beer, Strata® continues to hit the mark on delivering flavor that keeps beer drinkers coming back for more. It also checks the box of being a friendly one on the environment.
“Strata®, as an experimental hop then coming onto the commercial market has been remarkable in the little amount of inputs that we as growers need to assist it… It comes out of the ground, and it’s ready to climb the string that we’ve put in place for it. As far as diseases, our main diseases of powdery mildew and downy mildew, we have not had problems at all with that. So that saves a lot of work for us, but it also saves a lot of inputs that we really would rather not be putting on our product. It protects our environment when we’re not putting on additional inputs, and it protects our employees, and it makes for a really nice hop in a beer.”
Since Strata®, we’ve launched two more of our own additional varieties—Lórien® and Luminosa™ —out of Indie Hops Flavor Project. This fall, we embarked on a collaboration series with Loughran Brewers Select and DEYA Brewing Company to showcase each of unique Indie Hops hop varieties in three different beer styles. The first was a twist on DEYA’s iconic ‘Steady Rolling Man’ pale but featuring Strata® (‘Steady Rolling Strata’). The second was a table beer, ‘Shadows of Conversation’, featuring Lórien® (learn more about the process behind making a low alcohol table beer on our blog). The third collab beer was a hazy IPA ‘Into the Light’ featuring Luminosa™, which is our newest hop variety, launched this year!
“There’s a close relationship here where we all know and trust each other’s judgement,” says Jim Solberg. “Even though Luminosa™ is a new hop, Matt and I have enough sensory experience with it to help inform the brewing process and provide feedback on how the hop has performed in other pilot brews.” Jim and Matt also especially enjoy selection season, when they are able to spend time with brewers and distributors – it was great to have Gareth and Theo from DEYA, as well as the team from Loughran Brewing Stores, visit us for hop harvest this year.
"As hop developers, we want our customers to get the hops that speak to them and their tastes and preferences. We also enjoy getting to know our customers, and learn what’s going on in their world—and hopefully vice versa! And the most rewarding part—drinking beer! One of the things I love about what we're doing here at Indie Hops is we're building new things. I love the process of coming up with new products. I enjoy trying to picture the end of what we're trying to accomplish and identify the steps along the way to try and reach that end goal... To go through that product process and have it focused on an end product like beer, is just a really fun thing to be a part of. At the end of the day, we're just trying to make the world a better place to drink beer in.”
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