Harvest is a fun time of year to visit Yakima because there is so much happening. The town, these days, is crawling with brewers on any given day in September of each year. Hop selection is one of those fun things that really makes brewers feel involved in the hop buying process, but is it really useful? The short answer is NO. What?!?
All the big brewers do selection, don’t they? Yes, that’s true they do. It’s a habit from the old times that has hung on into the modern day, but is hop selection a valuable process? We wanted to find out so we spoke with an olfactory scientist, Dr. Avery Gilbert, founder of Synesthetics, Inc. in Fort Collins, Colorado. Dr. Gilbert possesses an amazing amount of knowledge on the sense of smell and can provide a wealth of information on the subject, so much so that he wrote a book called “What the Nose Knows” on the subject.
I discussed sniff ports on gas chromatograph equipment with Dr. Gilbert to find out if that was a viable substitute for hop selection. It turns out, according to him, they are great for, “identifying off-odors in natural or manufactured products”. That’s sounded promising at first. Potentially, it sounded like a GC machine with a sniff port could be used to determine if a variety is true to type. The problem with that is defining what “true to type” actually means. Today there are varieties that are harvested well outside their optimal picking windows and outside of their original growing areas giving them all different distinct flavors and aromas. Is there such a thing as “true to type” in today’s world? With the flood of demand for certain varieties, many growers are picking varieties well outside their ideal picking windows. That redefines what “true to type” really means, doesn’t it?
For a GC machine to be useful in determining type, there would first need to be a library of data defining the exact characteristics of each type. That has never been publically collected. Undoubtedly, it would fuel arguments and debate among growers and merchants as to who has the most “true to type” example of any variety. It would possibly lead to grades of hops like we hear of with beef. Who wants Grade B beef? I don’t even know the difference between Grade A beef and Grade B beef, but I know I don’t like the sound of Grade B anything. The same would apply for hops. It is not hard to imagine that that would cause problems. So … In short, that database is probably never going to happen meaning that automation of the selection process is most likely out of the question.
So, problem solved, we’re back to rubbing hands and sniffing hops being the best method again, right? Dr. Gilbert is a big fan of the sense of smell and people’s ability to distinguish very subtle differences. Regarding the idea of automating or standardizing the process, he shared with us, “When it comes to evaluating the quality and character of complex aromas (even when good rating scales exist) it is far cheaper and just as accurate to go with human noses.” But, he added some caveats. While there were many questions that arose, some of the more pertinent questions relating to the evaluation process that arose in his mind were:
- What are the buyers sniffing for in their sampling?
- Do the buyers use a standard list of aroma notes?
- Do the buyers use a standard rating scale?
- Does it all just come down to personal impressions?
Other questions Dr. Gilbert asked were whether participants in hop selection have any specific training as to how to identify and characterize different aromas. He was curious about the volume of sampling done at a single session. He emphasized that while the nose is a very sensitive instrument it possesses a sense that can suffer from fatigue if over stressed. He was also interested in the cleanliness and potential cross contamination between samples. That, he mentioned, could come in the form of a participant not washing their hands thoroughly between samples or even something as simple as drinking too much beer during the process.
In our opinion, there are serious flaws with the hop selection process that make it not worth the time and effort. Some of those flaws are:
- How representative is a beautiful one-pound sample relative to the 20,000 or 40,000 pound lot of hops from which it was pulled?
- What exactly is “true to type” and who is to say what is “normal”
- Aromas that are present in raw hops are not the same aromas present in finished beer.
- Who selects first? Is it the customer who buys the most from you, who pays the highest price, your favorite customer, or the order in which the hops were contracted?
- Who selects last? Are the people who select their hops last getting the same quality as those who went first?
- The inconvenience and additional expense of setting aside 3-4 times the amount of a contract so a brewer can select one of them. That delays pelleting schedules allowing all the hops to oxidize a bit more before they’re processed.
- Separation of specific brewer selections during processing. The smaller the order, the less likely it is that what was selected is actually what is received.
There’s more, but I don’t want to seem like I’m bagging too much on the process for those people for whom selection is a special memory. In short, the system is very flawed. It can be gamed in so many ways that there are no results that we can see being useful except for one. If the desired result is not actually the quality of the hops being selected, but rather the quality of the experience for the brewer and the creation of a perception that the brewer has personally selected the very batch of hops they will use to brew their beer, hop selection is a very useful tool indeed. Of course, merchants enjoy the chance to get their brewery customers on site at their facilities and spend time with them one on one to further develop their relationships. From that standpoint, the process of selection can be viewed as a resounding success. So, at the end of the day, maybe hop selection is mainly just a really successful sales and marketing tool that makes the customer feel great.
We believe that hop selection by brewers is not a good idea. It creates a hierarchy among a merchant’s customers, who, in our opinion, should all be treated equally. Merchants and growers, on the other hand, usually have very close relationships and a merchant can know from whom he should buy hops. The merchant, if he’s not busy entertaining sniffing customers, can visit growers every day if he chooses, conduct a visual and sensory inspection of the hops they are to receive. Case in point … I popped into a farm in 2016 while Cascades were being harvested. The particular batch on the kiln floor was ugly and I was told they were supposed to come to 47Hops. They looked terrible and didn’t smell so great either. I told the grower that I didn’t want that floor of hops. He was happy to redirect those hops somewhere else. The hops we ended up getting were beautiful and smelled amazing. Merchant selection is a much more effective form of selection in my opinion. Sure, the grower still could have mixed some of those nasty Cascades in with our batch. In this particular case, I know that didn’t happen. We think that working with growers we believe we can trust is the best and most proactive strategy for selection in the long run.