Whenever I meet craft brewers, they inevitably ask two questions.
1) What new varieties are there?
2) Do you have any experimental varieties?
When I hear that I wonder if the people asking have tried every “old” variety already. On a recent trip, I asked a group of brewers that very question. In particular, I asked if they had tried Azacca®, ElDorado®, Comet, or even Cluster. Very few had tried those varieties despite the fact that some of those varieties have been around for decades.
Last week I was having lunch with a friend in Europe who works with a very reputable European hop merchant. He had just held a seminar for a group of brewers. I asked him how it went. He replied, “Oh … you know, it’s the same old thing … they all want to know what new varieties I have to offer them.” It seems brewers everywhere ask about new and experimental varieties that might be available. They are all looking for something that other brewers don’t have. It was then I realized what the craft beer industry is lacking.
In the rush to have the latest hop variety and sell more beer, it seems some brewers are forgetting the art of brewing. Just like painting or playing the guitar brewing requires practice and experimentation. Some brewers haven’t even considered mixing existing hop varieties or blending hop varieties with different types of malt to get the flavors they’re looking for. We have all heard that Edison reportedly tried 1,000 ways to invent the light bulb before he discovered the proper way to do it. I’m looking forward to seeing The Current War with Benedict Cumberbatch so I can see Hollywood’s rendition. BTW: the early reviews suggest a less than brilliant performance. Where is that relentless pursuit for perfection and willingness to experiment in the craft industry? There is no shortage of new exciting flavors of hops. There are literally hundreds of hop varieties commercially available today and hundreds more public varieties both experimental and forgotten that are not currently being grown. There is a lack of experience, creativity and most importantly time in today’s ultra competitive beer market.
Some dispute the idea often ascribed to Malcolm Gladwell from his book Outliers that you need at least 10,000 hours of experience in something to get really good at it, but I believe there is something to the idea. As the old saying goes, “practice makes perfect”. Old sayings are old sayings because generally they’re true. With the surge in interest in brewing during the past 10 years, most brewers in the industry today don’t have more than a few years of experience. Reaching 10,000 hours means committing the effort equivalent of a full-time job for five years! Even that doesn’t guarantee you’re any good. I could play baseball for the next 10,000 hours, but I still wouldn’t be good enough to play professionally. Many brewers today are far from reaching the 10,000-hour level but want to play in the major leagues anyway.
The craft industry today is more competitive than ever, and that is part of the reason so many are looking for a shortcut to success. I have given a few speeches to groups of brewers during the past year during which I ask, “Who got into this industry because they love beer.” Predictably everybody raises their hand. Next, I ask, “Who got into this business to make money.” Usually, very few hands go up. There are always fewer hands than in response to the first question. Brewers are artists who love to create, and when they do, the results can be amazing. To stay employed as brewers, however, they also need to pay the bills. That might be the uglier side of the business but it is no less important. It’s something that is becoming increasingly more difficult on the crowded shelves of today’s craft market. Don’t expect the competition to ease up anytime soon.
With the market so crowded and competitive, some brewers look around to see what’s selling fastest, or what other more accomplished and experienced brewers are doing and try to replicate it themselves. That’s like reading the last chapter of a book and assuming you know the whole story. Some of the “old timers” make their success look easy (by old timers, I mean anybody who has been brewing beer professionally for 10 years or more). It’s tempting to think successful they enjoyed overnight success and that it can be copied. The result is that today we have a lot of IPAs all made with the same 4-5 varieties. Where’s the craft in that? Success never happens overnight. But hey, who doesn’t like to try to find a good shortcut.
I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of craft brewers over the years. Most of them are very down-to-earth people who truly love what they do. I don’t think any of them set out to copy another guy just to make a buck. That’s not what craft is about. It’s about passion, art, flavor … and more passion. But passion alone doesn’t pay the bills. Hops have become more fad than flavor, a marketing strategy to help pay the bills. Today, they are a status symbol as much as they are an ingredient. While the popularity makes some hop growers feel like rock stars, the churn and insatiable desire for the latest and greatest hop variety is not good for anybody. The brewer hoards rush independently and predictably in the same direction, toward the newest variety. The newer and less public the better, resulting in a mass of similar styles and flavors. In a rush to grab market share, merchants and growers are tripping over themselves to give the customers what they as quickly as they want it. In the end, maybe the brewery with the craziest label wins. Who knows? Some are trying that too. Where did the focus on just making awesome beer go? You don’t need the newest variety to make good beer.
That leads us to experimentation … Did you know you can mix 60% Azacca® and 40% Pekko™ to get a similar flavor to that of Amarillo, but at a lower price? A common one you may have heard about is that you can mix 30% CTZ and 70% Cascade to get a “Centennial Type” hop flavor. That sort of thing is pretty important because the price of Centennial fluctuates wildly with the weather. Right now, Centennials are relatively cheap. Next year, they may cost a fortune. The thing is that when Centennials are not doing well due to the weather, Cascades and CTZ are usually just fine. Another one you may not know is that some brewers use the citrusy flavor of Comet as a substitute for Citra®, but at a much lower cost. The possible combinations can really go on and on.
There’s nothing wrong with new varieties. Don’t get me wrong. Everybody rushing toward the newest hop varieties and using them as a crutch, on the other hand, is not a good trend. My point is simply that brewers should experiment with the hundreds of varieties currently available if they want to get certain flavors that aren’t available now. Do you want a tangerine beer … why not just throw a bunch of tangerines in the mix? The possibilities are limited only by the brewer’s imagination. That also offers a great way to make a truly local craft beer that identifies with the community in which it was brewed. The Internet should be full of web pages with hop combinations that create awesome flavors. Why don’t we have that? Has the craft industry become so distracted by the business of being a craft brewer that they are leaving the craft behind? I hope not.
In the end, there are a few things we know for sure:
There is no guarantee that a new hop variety will lead to a successful beer.
There is no substitute for years of hard work, experimentation and learning by doing.
There is no shortcut to success.
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