At Firestone Walker, we’ve become something of a “blending house” when it comes to hops, with beers such as Luponic Distortion and Mind Haze featuring blends of up to seven different cultivars on the dry-hopping side.
It’s truly amazing how hops can interplay with each other—as complements or amplifiers of flavors, or even to create new flavors through the alchemy of blending. It’s something I’m very passionate about, and I’d like to share some insight into how we go about it.
Boosting the Blends
My fascination with hop blending took off while visiting hop growers in Europe many years ago. I was actually hunting down more traditional hops for our beers. But as so often happens on these visits, I learned of new and exciting varieties with which I hadn’t yet brewed. I was in Germany selecting hops for our lagers when I was introduced to Mandarina Bavaria, Hüll Melon, and Hallertauer Blanc, all released by Anton Lutz and the Hüll hop-breeding team as new fruit-forward “flavor hops.” We later incorporated two of these hops in a then-new release, Easy Jack IPA, allowing us to ride the session IPA wave with our own unique story and flavor profile.
Mandarina Bavaria and Hüll Mellon—as their names suggest—deliver delicate orange, melon, and soft fruity notes that were very different from the Pacific Northwest “C-hops” suite of flavors with which we were so familiar. They seemed custom-built for a low-ABV, hop-driven, fresh-and-fruity session beer. The problem we ran into while formulating the dry hops was that these hops required some help in the form of amplification.
We found the perfect complement in Mosaic, another new hop at that time, which provided the needed punch of intensity that, by itself, was also very different from the classic C-hops. It possesses tropical lush notes without the pine. It didn’t require a big overall percentage in the blend—and in the end, Easy Jack never was a Mosaic-driven or even a clearly Mosaic-identifiable beer. But in our daily sensory panel lineup, it always carried a higher aromatic hop intensity than a beer such as Union Jack, yet it kept its distinctive German hop aroma. Mission accomplished.
Mixing & Matching
Returning to hop-growing regions each year has resulted in the inevitable introduction to other batches of experimental and soon-to-be-released cultivars, each with something interesting and enticing to offer. As a production brewery, with a limit to the number of new beers we can add to the portfolio, we can’t adopt every cool new hop that we find.
The answer to this problem came in the form of a rotational IPA—Luponic Distortion—where the dry-hop blend changes multiple times throughout the year. Luponic Distortion became the perfect vehicle to brew with experimental hops and varieties that didn’t hold a place in the regular lineup. We’ve completed 18 revolutions—that’s 18 different dry-hop blends—since the beer was first released, and we’ve learned an incredible amount about new varieties along the way.
Most importantly, we’ve developed some simple and effective ways to test new hops, smell and taste them in beer, and then do trial blends before we scale up to production brews. It always starts with a classic rub-and-sniff test of the potential hop, ideally in the context of other hops we know well. Grinding pellets up and assessing aroma quality—and then making blends of that ground material on the table—is the cheap and easy way to get some basic data collection rolling.
The more we do this, the better we get at predicting a hop’s performance and how to estimate its best use in a blend. Once we have identified hops of interest, we like to get them into beer to truly understand their potential. Most of this trial brewing work is done moving non-dry-hopped green beer from a selected production brew into a series of small-scale, one-barrel conical mini-fermentors—affectionally called our “Little MFers.” We can then dry hop exactly the same base beer with different single hops or blends and taste the results. We can also send samples of both the raw hops and finished dry-hopped beer to our lab for more thorough sensory work, along with GC-MS profiling (that’s gas chromatography-mass spectrometry), which allows us to capture quantifiable data and compare it over time. This has resulted in a massive database of variety-specific hop compounds—a fascinating subject for another discussion.
Going for Gestalt
As with many other brewers, formulating a new hoppy beer often starts with a specific hop of interest. Once you can identify and qualify the character of that hop, you can start to build a beer around it, including a complementary hop blend to support it. The hot-side hops should support and complement the dry hops as well. Using the hop rubs and trial brews, we can identify the key flavor elements of the hop, and that sets us up for success.
For example, the soft stone-fruit, peachy character of Cashmere seems absolutely perfect for a mid-strength hazy IPA, and it’s become a key element of our Mind Haze IPA. When formulating this beer, I loved the idea of staying away from the ubiquitous Citra-dominated hazy theme and finding a new and unique path using Cashmere. Complementary hops such as Idaho 7 and El Dorado provided additional soft citrus and tropical notes, while Azacca delivered some distinctive pineapple, further supporting the tropical theme. Mandarina and Melon fit well with this group, reminiscent of POG juice (passion fruit, orange, guava). As with Easy Jack, a little Mosaic amplifies this combination perfectly without bringing in dank, catty, or mercaptan-like notes—elements which, for me, ruin a hazy IPA.
Adding hops on the hot side is still an important part of brewing balanced beers, in my opinion. So, looping back to the hot side for a moment, Callista has become a key hop in our late-boil and whirlpool program. It’s a low-alpha aroma cultivar (2–4 percent alpha acids on average) with a tropical passion fruit and peach-like aroma and a high amount of biotransformation-ready linalool—a perfect late-hopping package for a low IBU, aroma-forward hazy beer.
Blending hops, like anything in brewing, takes time and practice. A fair amount can be learned through rubbing and smelling hop samples, whether whole leaf at the time of selection or pellets just prior to brewing. Performing small-scale single-hop trials is the next most powerful tool. (Editor’s note: For more about trialing hop aroma and flavor, see “Learning Lab: Hop Flavors and Aromas,” beerandbrewing.com.) With practice, and once you have an aroma description lexicon developed for tracking your results, you’ll start recognizing complementary flavors along with workhorse amplifiers, guiding you to pick the hops that work best together.
Who knows? Maybe you can even brew a bold, hazy IPA without using Citra.
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