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The Brewer-Grower Feedback Loop

Maine Beer Company is known for its vibrant and bright hoppy beers, but the secret to their success is methodical work that starts at the very top of the supply chain—the hops fields of the Pacific Northwest.

Jamie Bogner October 11, 2017

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Maine Beer Company is known for its vibrant and bright hoppy beers, but the secret to their success is methodical work that starts at the very top of the supply chain—the hops fields of the Pacific Northwest. Their systematic approach to brewing small test batches, getting feedback from staff and customers, and sharing that feedback with their hops growers, illustrates the tight connection between today’s brewing innovation and the agriculture that has enabled it. We talked to Cofounder and Brewer Dan Kleban to dig into their process and philosophy.

CBB // Let’s start with some groundwork. What kind of background work do you do to set up some of your new beer ideas?

MBC // We’re a brewery that specializes in hoppy American-style ales; we pride ourselves on getting to know as many different hops varieties as we can. These days, there’s an incredible amount of innovation going on among hops breeders and processors. What we have done for a long time is try to get our hands on as many different varieties as we can. More interesting to us is getting our hands on experimental varieties that are not available to the public and are still a part of the proprietary breeding process.

What we do is we’ll bring these hops in—some of these experimental hops are grown on such a small scale that they’re not even pelletized. We have a base recipe that we use, and we make single-hop pilot beers with all of the varieties, using a consistent malt bill and hops schedule. That allows us to get an impression of what this single hop brings to a beer. Then we store that information away—we keep a repository, a library of all the different hops varieties that we can draw on. If we have an idea for a new IPA or pale ale or whatever it is, we can conjure up (in our heads) a flavor profile, then think about what hops varieties if we blend them together will get us there.

It’s almost always an iterative process—we brew all these beers on a small scale, 5 gallons at a time. We take a shot, and sometimes that gets us 90 percent to where we want to be, and sometimes it only gets us 50 percent to where we want to be. The more experienced we get, the better we get at it. We take our time, it’s very deliberative, and we keep building upon that beer—adding in, taking things out, until the point in time where we’re completely satisfied with the beer. It can take a long time, but in our minds, we’re not satisfied until we get exactly what we want.

CBB // Are those brewing-test beers ones you release, or are those just for you and the other brewers?

MBC // Sometimes we release those experiments. Some of the beers we’ve come out with over the past several years are the result of this process. When it was just me brewing and doing the recipe development all on my own, the process was more streamlined because I didn’t have a whole lot of time to be doing this kind of thing. But now we have a whole team of brewers who are part of the process.

Almost all of our beers start out at the 5-gallon scale—it’s a homebrew system we use in house here. Those beers will go on tap just for staff and brewers for informal feedback. If that new beer shows promise, we’ll ramp it up and do a 7-barrel batch. We currently have a 15-barrel brew- house and we’ll basically do a half batch on that brewhouse. We have a dedicated 7- barrel fermentor just for these pilot beers. These beers we’ll put on tap in our tasting room, and widen the audience. We’re on our 15th or 16th pilot right now. We’re not a brewery that’s constantly coming out with new beers in the marketplace. We have a core lineup of IPAs and pale ales that we focus on sending out to distribution. But we do think it’s important to keep innovating, give people who come here a treat, something different that they can’t just go out and get somewhere else.

CBB// In these tests, have you found interesting hops combinations that you thought might work but gave you results you weren’t happy with, or stuff you didn’t expect to work but were serendipitous finds in combination?

MBC // There are often times when you think a combination is going to work, and it doesn’t. This is all personal opinion (and I’m sure there are breweries out there who would have the exact opposite opinion), but we tried to use Nelson Sauvin, the New Zealand hop, in dry hopping several times because we thought it would pair well with some of the other hops we were using, but time and time again we found that we didn’t like something about how it interplayed with other hops we were using, and other factors that go into the results of dry hopping. So we’ve just kept it as a kettle hop, since it’s never worked as a dry hop.

With a lot of the newer German varietals coming out of Huell Institute, again we’ve found that dry hopping is not really where they shine the most. A lot of them are really pleasant in the kettle with a really nice complementary hops flavor, but we’ve shied away from using them in the dry hop because for whatever reason—whether it’s our method or the other hops we’re combining them with—they’re stronger in the kettle than the dry hop.

You’re always playing around with amounts of certain hops. Citra, for example, is so aggressive that we often choose to dial it back so that other hops can show through. Simcoe and Mosaic can be the same way. When we’re combining such hops as Simcoe, Citra, and Mosaic with other varieties, we often find that as a simple ratio of the weight of hops we’re using, we’ll dial those back so that some of the other hops can show through and those don’t just dominate the beer. In some beers, you want that dominance. In Dinner, for example, it’s Citra, Mosaic, Simcoe, and Falconer’s Flight (which has Citra and Simcoe in it). In Dinner, we wanted those flavors, but if you’re using other hops with them, we try to dial those back so the other more delicate hops can show through.

CBB // Do you ever consider oil content or some of the mapped oil amounts in various hops, or do you work from a more sensory basis?

Sensory. We document and keep track from a QA/QC perspective of the information on the hops we’re using. We keep track of the analytics because who knows when we might want to go reference them? But it’s really more sensory—how is the hop perceived on the palate. At the end, that’s really all that matters. How much myrcene or whatever is in the hops is interesting from a scientific level, but what really matters is how that carries through on the palate.

I’m of the opinion that of all the areas of the brewing process that have been studied scientifically, hops have been the most lagging. The least amount of scientific research has been done on this topic of how hops and hop oils and beta acids and alpha acids interact, and how are they impacted by the fermentation process, how they work together in the dry-hopping process, and how the dry-hopping process itself affects those. Temperature, time, density, gravity of the beer … there are so many different variables that I think it’s impossible to simply look at as a recipe where if you put two parts Simcoe and one part Citra with given oil contents, it’s going to yield a given quantity. There are just too many other variables in play to accurately predict, or at least that’s what we’ve found in our experience.

We’ve seen a real shift in the role of malt in hoppy beers as more brewers decrease crystal and caramel malts in their recipes.

CBB// How do you build a solid foundation for these strong hops flavors while still keeping that beer light enough on the malt side to let those hops flavors shine?

We do use caramel or crystal malts in our IPAs and pales, but with a pretty light hand. We prefer our beers to be very balanced and drinkable, and keeping that residual sweetness low is important. Keeping the body dry and crisp is important and affects drinkability. That crispness and dryness are really driven by the mashing protocol, the fermentation process, and the yeast that you’re using—how much residual dextrins you have in the beer, and that’s a function of what the yeast can metabolize.

CBB// What’s your beta amylase ratio?

MBC // That’s what we manipulate to keep the beer drinkable and not too cloying or sweet. I want someone to be able to pick up a bottle of Dinner at 8.2 percent and feel like they’re drinking a nice, quenching 6.5 percent beer. Too often, I’ll pick up a double IPA and it’s good but you get halfway through the bottle and your palate is fatigued.

CBB // So I assume you mash low and use a high-attenuating strain?

MBC // Yes, mashing temperatures are kept in the high 140s, 150°F. Our yeast strain is fairly attenuative and very, very neutral. It’s Chico yeast—that yeast is really a workhorse. We’ve used it from the beginning, and I love the results that it gives. It keeps itself in the background, attenuates really well, and drops out of the beer clean and bright. We don’t do any filtering here, and we don’t want our beers super opaque or hazy, so we like that the beer naturally cleans itself up (for the most part) on its own.

CBB // You’ve sometimes been lumped into the New England IPA category, but it sounds like you have very different goals for your beers?

MBC // That’s a different style. We started in 2009, and I’m sure you’ve been around and drinking craft beer long enough to know that in 2009, the turbid IPA wasn’t a thing. The whole New England IPA thing is a recent phenomenon—it’s only been a thing for the past two or three years, and our beers have been around a lot longer than that. I think a lot of those beers are really good beers, but that’s not what we strive for.

I don’t mind a little bit of chill haze. Not filtering the beer is important to the overall flavor of the beer, so we don’t filter and won’t filter. I can accept a certain amount of haziness carrying through—especially beers that are more heavily dry-hopped, as that’s inevitable. But we do centrifuge all of our beers, so we will at least get the yeast out of the beer. We strive for a certain level of clarity in the beer but accept some haziness. I would say that what has become known as the “East Coast IPA,” I would not put my beers in that category. I’m not saying anything bad about those beers. That’s just not the style we’re brewing here.

CBB // You talked earlier about innovation in the hops world. What we’re seeing in craft beer today is a result of innovation both on the creative brewing side and on the agricultural side. How do you work directly with hops farms to achieve that two-way flow of ideas from brewer to farm and back?

We’re heavily involved with that. We pride ourselves on being on the tip of the spear with innovation in hops varieties, and we work closely with one of the main hops breeders in the United States. We go out to see him every year and walk through the experimental hops fields, do sensory analysis in the fields. We’ll actually get shipments from the farm—they’ll send us test samples and, like I said, we’ll brew sample batches 5 gallons at a time. We’ll take sensory notes on those and give those back to the farmer—he really values the brewer’s input.

So we take very detailed notes of our impressions of the hops, and for those beers that actually go on tap in our tasting room, we’ll have customers fill out survey cards on that particular hops variety—what they think, because that’s particularly important to the breeder as well. We collect all that data and send it back to him. So that’s the back and forth flow of information that helps guide the decision-making on a particular variety. Obviously, there are a bunch of other considerations—agronomic considerations such as yield and disease resistance. But at end of the day, no matter how agronomic the hops might be and how abundant it might produce, if beer drinkers don’t like it, it doesn’t really matter.

So we’re heavily involved in that process, and that allows us to be at the forefront of what’s going on from a varietal standpoint. But we’re also playing around with innovations on the processing side with powdering of lupulin glands and repelletizing of that powder to make that particular product more user friendly. We’ll do a powder version of a single-hop beer, then brew a pellet version of the same hop and do sensory analysis on it. You get some really interesting experience and results from that. So we’re doing a lot on that end of keeping up that dialogue with the farmers and the breeders. That’s what makes it exciting and fun.

We take our hops selection very, very seriously. Even though we’re on the opposite side of country and it’s a long trip for us, we pick almost all the hops we use. We select by hand. While we’re out there, we use that opportunity to visit the farms. Over the course of years we've learned that there are particular farms and farmers that grow particular varieties that we’re drawn to. There’s terroir out there, and some growers have just become known to grow the kind of Centennial we like or the Amarillo we like, and so we go out and visit those farmers and see what they’re doing. It’s very, very important—I think that’s an underused tool that brewers have at their disposal—to go out to Washington and Oregon and see these farms that grow what they’re using in their beer.

Jamie Bogner is the Cofounder and Editorial Director of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®. Email him at [email protected].

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