Posted by Kevin Lara on October 17, 2018
To make the best beer, you need the best ingredients available. Seems simple enough, right? It goes a little deeper than that. While we happily brew with hops, water, yeast and barley all year long, finding the right ingredients is a long, thoughtful journey.
For craft beer, the “perfect hop” is a complicated answer. With over 80 different varieties of hops commercially available, as well as new experimental varieties being bred every year, finding the right hops to use for your beer is a journey in and of itself. So many possible flavors, aromas and characteristics can shape a beer in the most unprecedented ways. That’s where the expertise of the brewer comes in. While they imagine new, compelling flavors for their beer, it’s also up to them to find the right variety of hop to impart the aromas and flavors that they’ve imagined.
Planning for a new year of beer requires putting every idea we have on the table and narrowing down what we need to make small experimental pilots and larger core-brand beers a reality. In 2019, we have a vision for new, incredibly flavorful beers filling cans and hitting the draft lines in our taprooms. To achieve that vision as best as they possibly can, our head brewers hopped on a 3-hour flight to the Pacific Northwest in order to go straight to the source and find the “perfect hop” for themselves.
Welcome to Yakima
To the outsider, Yakima, Washington, is an ordinary town. It's population is just over 90,000. It's home to only two high schools. On Sundays, there's a farmers market in downtown.
But just south of this quiet town is a thriving agricultural region in Yakima Valley. Towards the end of summer, this eastern Washington region becomes something much more than just apple fields and vineyards: it becomes a mecca for breweries worldwide in search of the freshest, finest hops available in the United States.
We'll admit it: brewers are picky. But given how vital hops are to almost every beer that is brewed, it makes sense why brewers from all over the world make the drive—or fly overseas—to Yakima Valley just to select the hops themselves. The process is more than just picking what variety of hop you want to use. It's also answering a list of questions to determine the right conditions: where did the hops grow? How soon were they harvested? Did mites or bugs make their way on the bines? What did the farmers consider their best harvest? Who is that farmer?
Hop selection is one of the most crucial steps in preparation for another year of beer. With our plans for more exciting pilot projects, including a new year-round beer launching in 2019, our co-founder and head brewers made some very tough decisions for not only finding the right varieties, but also claiming the best batches available that best represented those aromas and profiles.
Visiting the Source
For some, sampling hops for their quality and aromas is good enough. But in order to get a better grasp of how hops are grown, processed and prepared for brewers, the FigFam went straight to the source to see how family-owned hop farms supply their harvest for the biggest hop suppliers. As a brewer, going straight to the source is an eye-opening spectacle. Hundreds and thousands of hops are stripped from the bines. As they’re dried, processed, baled, and stored in cold temperatures, it becomes immediately clear how many factors ultimately affect the final aromas.
Some of the most important advice, however, comes from the farmers themselves. In Yakima Valley, farmers surrounded by hops from the moment they’re planted to the day they’re harvested adds interesting insight into what the best hop varieties of the year are. So many factors play a role (weather, time of harvest, care, etc.) that most wouldn’t be able to understand. With farmers, it's always interesting to hear their take on what they found particularly interesting and what might be a good variety to keep an eye out for.
Hop Selection for 2019
This year, we visited our friends at Yakima Chief Hops and Hopsteiner to personally select, crush, smell, and discuss the hop varieties available from this year's harvest. While there are so many varieties that opened our senses to new possibilities for future beer, we narrowed down our selection to a group of hops that address our year-round core brand necessities, fun exciting experiments our brewers want to pursue, and above all, a brand-new core brand IPA to introduce a new flavor and style to the Figueroa Mountain lineup.
Here's a look at what we found this year in Yakima and are adding to our inventory for next year's big brewing projects:
Mosaic - Mosaic (HBC 369) contains high alpha content and features a unique and complex profile that translates favorably into a variety of beer styles. Named in honor of the artistic assortment of aromas and flavors it is capable of presenting, Mosaic plays a huge part in some of our biggest beers, including our Mosaic Pale Ale. Typical aroma profiles include blueberry, tangerine, papaya, and blossom.
Citra - Citra (HBC 394) features high alpha acid and total oil content with a low percentage of co-humulone. It is one of the top ten aroma varieties for craft brewers imparting distinct citrus and tropical fruit flavors.
Simcoe - Simcoe (YCR 14) is known for its brewing versatility and unique aroma characteristics. It continues to rise in popularity becoming one of the top ten varieties in the craft and home brewing industries. Classic profiles from aroma include passion fruit, citrus, and bubble gum.
Loral - Loral (HBC 291) was one of the most exciting varieties we sampled. Straddling the fence between old and new world hop aromatics, Loral has the ability to complement all beer styles, making it a very versatile hop in the brewery.
Cascade – Cascade is the most popular variety in craft brewing and is known for having a unique floral, spicy and citrus character with balanced bittering potential.
Centennial - Centennial is an aroma-type cultivar that has found favor as one of the most popular varieties in craft brewing. It is often referred to as a super-Cascade (containing nearly double the alpha content) and can be used for bittering purposes.
Denali - (Experimental X06277) Denali is known for its gigantic cones, high total oil content and fruity pineapple, pine and bright citrus notes, making this a very interesting experimental hop to take IPAs to the next level.
Apollo - Apollo packs punch. Traditionally a high-alpha bittering variety, Apollo also lends grapefruit citrus and resinous notes when applied as a dry-hop. "Think West Coast–style IPA’s and you know exactly what this hop delivers." Try substituting Apollo for Zeus or Nugget in your next brew.
Lemondrop - The name truly says it all. Lemondrop offers a "unique lemon-citrus character with a pleasant aroma." The bright citrus and subtle herbaceous notes are perfect for sessionable beers. While ales tend to bring out her sweeter side, Lemondrop is delicate and refined enough for quality lagers.