Seattle is full of rain, coffee, beautiful waterfront views, excellent beer and dogs on buses. (I did not expect this last one.) I also did not expect the numbers of experimental-hopped beers I found in Seattle’s taprooms when I visited earlier this month.
Experimental hops are newly bred hop varieties that have not yet been named and commercialized. Generally, they’re grown in small quantities (as little as one acre) and are designated with a letter/number combination by the hop farmer: for example, HBC 472, X 331.
Eventually, if the hops show promise—meaning they not only make tasty beer but also yield enough usable hops per acre to be commercially successful—they get a name and a trademark. Once-experimental varieties that are now popular include Mandarina Bavaria, Citra, Lemondrop and Equinox. New and experimental hops such as those are partially behind the rise of rotating-hop IPA series and the nascent culinary IPA trend.
In Seattle, I not only encountered an alphabet soup of hops on taproom menus, I also found newly named varieties I wasn’t totally familiar with. Why? Seattle’s nearness to hop farms in Yakima allows brewers there to build relationships with growers, visit the hop farms themselves and stand among the hop bines, rubbing and sniffing experimental hops.
“The proximity has its advantages,” says Cloudburst founder and head brewer Steve Luke, who says he visits Yakima six or seven times each year. “That and me being annoying and bugging [the growers] all the time about what they have that’s new.”
At Cloudburst, I enjoyed a pale ale called Broken Specter, hopped in part with a cedary-spicy little hop numbered 438. It countered the accompanying Motueka hops’ lime-rind citrus with a sort of earthy base under those jazzy, zesty top notes.
There’s a lot of swapping notes among small breweries brewing with these relatively new ingredients. When Luke discovered that fellow Seattle brewers Holy Mountain had brewed an IPA with 438, he brought some of his pale ale to their brewery so the two could drink their beers side-by-side. While there might be some general guidance from the hop farmer about what to generally expect from a new hop, that doesn’t compare to the practical sensory and technical intel that comes from brewing and drinking beers that incorporate it.
“If we make an IPA with Citra and Mosaic, it’s an easy sell, but we tend to then make a weirder IPA highlighting hops that people aren’t familiar with,” Luke says. “Variety is what keep things interesting. We will give consumers what they want, but we’ll also be selfish and say, ‘We think this other IPA profile is really fucking cool.’”
At Reuben’s Brews, co-founder and brewmaster Adam Robbings maintains a spreadsheet of experimental hops he’s encountered, some with aromatic notes based on his visits to the bines at Perrault Farms in Outlook, Washington.
“I go through my list of wants and I have about a dozen or two dozen hops that I wanted to start playing with,” Robbings says. “But first of all, can we even get any of these?”
Due to their limited quantities, experimental varieties can be tough to acquire, even if you know the right people. Sometimes, large breweries like a new hop so much that they’ll “sponsor” it, meaning they guarantee the farmer that they will buy an entire lot of a new hop. This keeps risks low for a farmer and incentivizes innovation, but also can prevent smaller breweries from buying new, flashy hops. And a moderate-size brewery like Reuben’s produces enough beer that a small quantity of a new hop doesn’t get close to filling their needs.
“To give you an idea, I need 44 pounds [of hops] to do 10 barrels of Crush [a single-hop IPA], so anything less than 44 pounds is not worth bothering with,” Robbings says. “And if we like a certain experimental hop today, it might not be for a year and a half until we can contract it … we’re small and we still contract for something like 6,000, 7,000, 8,000 pounds of Citra a year. If we were to bring an experimental hop into a year-round beer, that’s multiple thousands of pounds per year we’d need.”
Luckily, Reuben’s found a sweet spot with Loral (formerly HBC 291), a floral, minty and slightly berrylike hop that carries Loral Crush, the latest iteration in Reuben’s Crush single-hop IPA series. Loral was named only last year after a 14-year breeding and development period, but Robbings says it shows great potential. I’m inclined to agree.
Robbings credits his brewery’s size and flexibility, rather than its geographic location, for Reuben’s ability to work with experimental hops effectively. But Cloudburst’s Steve Luke says it’s the opposite at his brewery.
“For our size, [location] gives us an advantage,” he says. “There are all these other breweries in the country that are making between 1,000 to 2,000 barrels of beer a year; they’re super small, too. If we were located somewhere else, it would be a lot more work to find out about these things.”