Choosing the perfect hops

Our tale of the hops pilgrimage of Karl Schmitz, manager, and Johan Sogge, lead brewer, of Third Street Brewhouse/Cold Spring Brewing Co., to Yakima Valley, Washington—largest hops producer in the U.S.—continues today on the choice of hops.

The goal for the Third Street pair was to pick the lots of hops they wanted for their craft beer operation. It’s also a chance to test experimental hops.

Schmitz said there can be a big difference in hops, even if they are the same variety. Weather and location in a field can make a difference, similar to wine grapes, in hop essence.

“There are always hops you definitely wouldn’t want,” Schmitz said. He aims for consistency and going to the valley can help assure the bales Third Street receives match the line of beers it has established.

“Smell is what predicts the taste,” Schmitz said. “If it smells bad, you don’t want it in your beer.”

The hops selection process includes grinding the dried hops between the hands to release the oils, then burying one’s nose into a handful of the aromatic leafy pile. Subtle notes can be picked up by repeating the process over and over for each lot and variety: Fruity. Piney. Spruce tip. Red berry. Garlic. Orange cream. These were some of the terms used throughout the process to describe the varieties, which included Bravo, Sterling, Sorachi Ace, Columbus, Glacier, Calypso, Denali and Ekuanot.

Schmitz and Sogge had to choose from varieties that Third Street is already under contract for, but testing the experimental hops is good for future considerations. “You realize how much better it could be,” Schmitz said of the selection process. “We can have better ingredients, better fitting hops.”

The scale of the hops processing facilities is massive. Thousands of acres of harvested hops cones are moved from the field to cleaning and separation belts, then through a kiln and drying stage within 48 hours. Then they are packaged and cold stored before being pelletized and shipped around the world in 200-pound bales.

In the fields, hops are harvested by running special combines through the endless rows, cutting the bines from the lattice structures, performing an initial separation and filling up a truck bed within minutes. The trucks deliver to the cleaning facility and the process continues.

Schmitz and Sogge said it was a memorable and valuable experience. They were amazed by the size of the fields and equipment. “The processing facility and the kilns were massive,” Sogge said.

The pair said they’ll never look at hops the same way again. They agreed, “All brewers should experience the walk through a hop field at least once in their brewing career.”

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