Why I Love Hops

In this edition of Deep Thoughts With Dave Hoops, I talk about one of  my favorite beer ingredients—hops.

By Dave Hoops
Photos by Dave Hoops

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My name is Dave Hoops, Master Brewer at Fitger’s Brewhouse in Duluth, Minnesota. The hops used in brewing are the female flowers of the hop plant, Humulus Lupulus, a perennial producing vine that is trained to grow up strings on trellises. Hops are used primarily as a flavoring and stability agent in beer, where they impart a bitter, tangy, grassy, or fruity flavor.

Once a year during harvest season, some of the luckier brewers in America get to travel to Yakima, Washington to welcome the hop harvest. The Yakima Valley is one of the most fertile and significant hop producing regions in the United States. The brewers meet with growers, check out the hop harvest, and select the lots to brew with for the next year at hop selection.

Mature hops are harvested with combine-like machines that travel along the crop rows cutting the vines, or bines, at the bottom and top. The hops are laid in trailers and moved to the picking facility. Where the hop cones are separated from the vines. The remaining vines, along with stems and leaves sifted from picked cones, are removed to the composting area.

Trellises of Centennial

Trellises of Centennial

Next, the fresh cones are sent to hop kilns for drying. The kilns are usually set at about 135°F and the cycle takes about five hours. The dried hops are moved to a large building on a conveyer belt and stacked into a huge hop mountain for cooling and conditioning. It’s amazing to see and to breathe in the aromas. After this, the hops are baled and shipped to the pelleting plant where the hops are pelletized, packed in nitrogen infused bags, and kept cool. The last step of the journey is shipping to breweries.

While this is the most common process to take hops from harvest to our breweries, some beers are brewed with fresh green hops right off the vine.

Many of you have tried the fresh hop beers that are brewed in the fall. The hops used in these beers don’t go through any of the steps mentioned above. They are harvested and sent directly to the brewery overnight—an expensive process. The fresh hops are used immediately, at a factor of about 10 times the amount of pelletized hops. These beers tend to add have fresh green flavors, many floral notes, and herbal aromas. Fresh hop beers are meant to be enjoyed immediately. It’s no wonder why many beer fans anxiously anticipate the fall, when the fresh hop beers are just arriving.

Amarillo hops in the kiln

Amarillo hops in the kiln

During the rest of the year at the Fitger’s Brewhouse, most of our beer is brewed with pelletized hops that are a bit easier to dissolve in the boil. Brewers prize hops for higher oil contents that translate to higher aromas. This is why we go to the harvest and participate in hop selection. A typical selection will have seven or eight lots of the same hop variety from various farms and different harvesting times. We sample each lot by rubbing the hops vigorously between our palms and smelling. We choose the hop that displays the best aroma for the beers we plan to brew.

We have a known profile for the next year’s brewing that we do once a year at harvest. We usually have each hop variety we use contracted out four to five years so we will know what we are getting and the growers will know how many pounds they need to grow.

We have visited many farms in the Yakima Valley. My two favorites are B.T. Loftus Ranches in Moxee, Washington and Virgil Gamache Hops in Toppinish, Washington. We get Cascade and Mosaic varieties from Loftus and Amarillo from Gamache. These are three of my favorite hop varieties.

At Fitger’s Brewhouse, about 40% of the beers we brew are “North Shore Style” Pale Ales and IPA. North Shore Style is unfiltered and hop-centric (hops over malt), using Lake Superior water. These beers have a dry finish. We use anywhere from two to six pounds of hops per barrel for our North Shore beers.

Mountain of Centennial Hops conditioning

Mountain of Centennial Hops conditioning

Some of our favorite techniques for using hops are…

•             Mash Hopping: adding hops to the water we mash the grain in

•             First Wort Hopping: adding hops pre-boil, during the wort collection process

•             Late-Boil Hopping: adding the majority of a hop dose for a batch near the finish of the boil

•             Whirlpool Hopping: adding hops after the boil during the whirlpool cycle

•             Fermentation Dry Hopping: adding hops during vigorous fermentation

•             Pre-Chill Dry Hopping: adding hops before we chill the finished beer to move to conditioning

•             Conditioning Dry Hopping: adding hops to beer that is maturing cool

 

We use many of these techniques in our North Shore Style beers—sometimes all of them—depending on the recipe. The results are fun and exciting. My goal is for you to be able to smell the fresh hop aromas when the glass is sitting on the bar in front of you.

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