By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Growing, harvesting and processing hops can be a finicky pain in the cask. That’s why scientists, farmers, processors and startups are looking at how technology might increase production and quality. From flyover drones to LED grow lights in hydroponic greenhouses, the market is filled with more experimentation and innovation than ever — but not all new tech is created equal.
The challenges are many, says Jim Solberg, CEO of Indie Hops, a Portland-based hop merchant dedicated to working with craft brewers. Here’s a breakdown of some of the tech being examined:
Unproven and Unlikely
Hops and cannabis are botanical cousins. Cannabis has a history of being grown in climate-controlled greenhouses with LED lights and hydroponics — nutrient-rich solutions — instead of soil. Could hops be grown the same way?
“People don’t necessarily think about the differences between the perennial nature of hops and the annual nature of cannabis,” says Solberg.
Hops have one growth and harvest cycle per year. “After the growing period, the rhizomes need a dormancy period,” explains Solberg. “There is a sort of cleaning up the rhizome does. It’s like us with how sleep helps us function. Hops need overwintering to help them do that. To take that same plant and force it through compressed growth and dormancy cycles at a commercial scale, there are just too many problems and costs to make it viable.”
Cannabis plants are often grown to only a few feet tall, but hops can easily surpass 20 feet. As a result, hops require exponentially more greenhouse space, nutrients, lighting and temperature control. Those factors add up to sky-high economic costs — plus, pests and disease could be an even greater problem in an enclosed space.
“For commercial hop growers, it makes no sense,” says Solberg, but he’s glad that people are trying things out on a small scale. “They might learn something that affects development in a big way.”
Not all ideas are duds though, and farmers and processors are willing to invest in new technologies.
Since farm labor continues to be a challenge, engineers are improving machines that aid with picking, cleaning, drying. At this point, expensive newer machines are only viable for large operations — but Solberg sees the potential to help farmers realize “big savings during the labor of the picking and cleaning process.”
Farmers are also working on how they monitor and adjust plant nutrition. Environmental conditions change every year, affecting both yield and brewing qualities. “You’re trying to optimize the plant’s health, influence its growth habits,” says Solberg. “Advances give more rapid testing of plant material that give a sense nutritionally of what’s going on in the plant. There have been improvements that help stabilize production from a hop standpoint. It doesn’t make it uniform, there are variations, but it does have a positive influence.”
Visitors to a hop field may also see drones flying overhead. Drone-snapped aerial images help farmers evaluate stresses on plants and make adjustments to irrigation or nutrients.
A persistent challenge is field testing hops to know when they are at the optimal condition for harvesting. “In the wine world, they focus on refractometers — they measure the sugar. It’s quick, but there isn’t anything like that for hops,” says Solberg. While there is still no “quick-and-dirty field instrument” for hops, Solberg is hopeful that one could be developed.
Most exciting to Solberg are advances in hop drying and processing. U.S. commercial processors usually dry hops in a 24–30-inch thick layer, laid on a screen floor. Furnaces below the mesh put out heated air that rises, drying the cones. Monitoring moisture levels and temperature has been difficult. “If you let it get too hot, the hop oils can degrade,” explains Solberg. “And these thick beds of hops, there’s not a way to have them mixed through the process. Hops on the bottom don’t get moved, so the bottom of the bed gets warmer than the top, so you have uneven drying.”
Large-scale, variable-speed fans, sensors and mode cells placed on and in the hop bed and along the floor connect to software and provide crucial data. “They can record the weight of the whole floor of hops, and then factor in the weight change for an accurate view of how much moisture has evaporated,” says Solberg.
Hop breeding programs such as Oregon State University’s are also testing varieties that can thrive in drought conditions and still provide a brewing-quality crop. “Water is a larger and larger issue,” says Solberg. “If new hop varieties have both great brewing characteristics but take less water to grow, that could be compelling.”
At a recent global hops symposium at OSU, experts from around the world presented new findings on some of the hundreds of compounds — most as yet unresearched — that comprise any given hop cone.
“Hops are way more complex and interactive than anybody would have imagined. The contribution hops give to beer isn’t just a linear thing,” says Solberg. “There are a lot of so-called hop aroma precursors that don’t contribute in their natural form. During the brewing process and during fermentation, the yeast can help the hop release an aroma component. It’s not present before brewing, but later it releases a clear flavor or aroma component in the beer. Some hops actually do release their aroma compounds during boil, which we used to think wasn’t the case.”
The symposium has given brewers “tremendous ideas,” says Solberg, just as he, farmers and other processors are hopeful for new ideas and innovations.
“Science, research and tech will have some big impact over the next five to 10 years,” he said. “Over time, new things will come of it.”
By Patty Mamula
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Hops, hops, hops. Everything’s coming up hops at Worthy Brewing Company.
Because of Roger Worthington’s ties to Indie Hops, a company that makes pellets, and its experimental aroma hop program with Oregon State University, Worthy is the main brewery to test out these new varieties.
As Zach Brenneman, Worthy’s head brewer, explained, “They’re working on developing aroma hops that have good brewing qualities, are disease resistant, have high yields and vigor. We may brew with one that consumers really love that’s disease resistant, but doesn’t have good yield.”
It can take years to find a hop that meets all the criteria. Worthy’s 5-barrel pilot brewing system was created for this trial-and-error process. Until the hops prove themselves consistently over time, they are simply identified by number. Last year, Worthy’s team brewed up four pale ales using the experimental varietals 1007-35, C1002-37, G9-1-374 and C115L-1.
“We use a very basic pale ale malt profile and our standard house yeast for these beers,” Brenneman said. “We make the same base beer for each of these brews to focus on the hops we are using. The finished beer will be 5% ABV and in the 30-40 IBU range.”
They served tastings of the four beers at the Bend brewery and several locations in Portland. Brenneman was at Produce Row Café sampling. “In talking with consumers there, I was interested to see how deep some people wanted to dive into this,” he said.
Some of the comments from the tasting cards:
“Would be good in a helles or kolsch.”
“Nice if you are sick of the IPA trend.”
“Super complex, but too assertive.”
“Almost too mellow for a pale ale (like a lager with hop character).”
“Not bad, just not my thing.”
More in-depth comments are solicited from tasters at Worthy. “Our panelists are given instructions on what we are looking for as we taste through each of the beers so that we can send back the best, most informative information about the breeding program hops we brewed with.”
So far, the brightest star of the program, most grown on OSU’s research fields, is Strata, formerly known as X-331. “It has outrageous oil and it’s more in your face. Tasters note its distinct tropical fruit flavor and its dank fragrance similar to cannabis,” said Brenneman. However, Strata was a surprise hit, especially for brewers. In initial sensory evaluations and onsite rub and sniff comparisons, it didn’t stand out.
Worthy’s blog post about Strata said the following: “Until the harvest this fall, the supply of Strata IPA is limited. The 2016 harvest from 9 acres, grown at Goschie and Coleman Farms, was around 18,000 pounds. It was considered a ‘baby’ harvest, the first after the establishment year. The one this fall will be the first mature crop. Reports from the farm are that it’s vigorously growing and yields should be above the average of 2,000 pounds an acre last season. This spring, Indie Hops planted another 60 acres in the valley.”
Worthy’s StrataSphere IPA won a gold medal in the Sessionable Hoppy category at the 2017 Oregon Beer Awards. While it can take 10 years or more to develop a new successful genotype, this one was on an accelerated path of about six years. Strata is an open-pollinated hop, which means seeds that breed true, developed from a German Perle hop.
Strata IPA has been a consistent favorite at Worthy, with its sales often equal to those of the flagship Worthy IPA and in some weeks exceeding it. It’s available in draft only, but after the harvest plans are to package it in 22-ounce bottles.
This fall, Brenneman looks forward to getting a jump on brewing with the experimental hops and plans to dive right in after the fresh-hop beers are finished. He receives the chosen hops from Jim Solberg at Indie Hops in 2-pound foil sacks that have been bagged under gas. Ten pounds of whole-leaf hops are then used for pilot batches. “Our goal is to do a late kettle add and then dry hop in 1 to 1 1/2 pounds per barrel,” he said.
This year Brenneman wants to brew them in pairs — maybe even two on the same day. He would like to have eight experimental beers available during several months to have more options for consumers to taste and compare.
The goal is to keep brewing well-made, balanced beers and involving consumers who are invested in what might be the next new big hop as well as bring new genes into the hop pool. Close to 90 percent of the hops that Worthy uses are Indie Hops grown in Oregon.
You’ll actually find six rows of experimental hops at Worthy’s ever-expanding brewery and pub as part of its demonstration garden. Shaun Townsend, OSU aroma hop breeder who’s directing the hop development program, chose the varieties that would be planted in Bend. Although most of the test fields are in the Willamette Valley, researchers wanted to see how climate and pests would impact hops in Central Oregon.
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