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Friday, December 17, 2010

Falconer's Flight and Pellet Blends

Hopunion sent an intriguing email over the transom this week announcing hop pellets made of a proprietary blend of NW hops, named for Oregon brewer Glen Falconer, who died in 2002:
It is with great pleasure that Hopunion LLC announces the release of Falconer’s Flight™, an exclusive proprietary hop blend created to honor and support the legacy of Northwest brewing legend, Glen Hay Falconer.... This novel proprietary pellet blend is comprised of many of the Northwest’s most unique hop varieties and is perfect for any Northwest-style IPA. Each hop has been hand selected for its superior aromatic qualities, imparting distinct tropical, citrus, floral, lemon and grapefruit tones.
A portion of the proceeds go to support the Falconer Foundation, which supports brewers and brewing. That alone should sell a few pounds, but I'm wondering: are breweries going to be interested in blends offered by a hop company? The idea isn't outlandish: Widmer uses their own proprietary blend called "Alchemy." Certain hops can contribute a "house character" to a brewery's beers--I've noticed Rogue is partial to Crystal, while Double Mountain likes Perle, for example. (Those are in addition to the usual C hops, which are ubiquitous.) And when I visited Eugene a few weeks back, Jamie Floyd denounced Columbus--one of my favorite hops--which you apparently won't find in Ninkasi's beer.

So I guess we'll see. If hop companies could come up with the right blends, it might be absolute catnip for beer drinkers. And that could give the idea legs.

Boutique Hops?
All of this reminds me of something else I've been wondering about. Why don't breweries get more involved in the development of propriety hop strains for their own use? Earlier this year, Indie Hops invested a million dollars into OSU's College of Ag Sciences to develop aroma hops. (A portion of this goes to study of essential oils and how they contribute to aroma and flavor, which, shockingly, has never really been studied closely.) Clearly, they think there's some potential there.

But what about breweries? In a densely crowded market of hoppy beers, distinctive flavors give breweries a competitive advantage. The huge variety of hops means it's possible to create novel combinations, but breweries can't invent flavors. Hop scientists have an impressive list of cultivars that aren't commercial strains. It would take years, but breweries could select for various characteristics and engineer a hop that would give a singular flavor to their beers. Seems like Oregon breweries have a real advantage here--researchers, hop farms, all within an hour or two of the kettle.

(Rogue may be embarking on this, or maybe not. They have their own hop fields and their own proprietary hops--"Rebel", "Revolution", "Independent"--but I don't know if these are re-branded extant strains or newer hybrids. Anyone?)


Kevin said...

I'll play devils advocate and give my argument for why breweries will not fund boutique hop development.

As you stated, it takes years to cultivate new strains, let alone grow them on a commercial scale. And there is always the chance that the traits you selected for are not present in the new varietal. Or it is just plain bad. Most breweries don't have overflowing coffers and this would be a hard sell in terms of ROI.

There are already quite a few hops already available that are just starting to be explored. Apollo, Delta, Millennium, Sonnet and Rainer are all commercial strains that have yet to be embraced. And if not for Widmer's Sunburn, Citra would also be in this list.

Unlike wine makers who are completely dependant on the grape, brewers have a lot of tools to work with. I can't envision the industry ever getting to the point where all the combinations of grains, hops, yeast, spices and adjuncts have been exhausted.

The pace of new hops seems to already be in step with brewing. Unless more breweries do the Rogue thing, which I think is about equal parts innovation and marketing, I doubt we will see any paying to develop their own boutique hops.

Of course, time has taught me that I am wrong at least as often as I am right, so boutique hops may be the trend of 2011.

Beer and Coding

Anonymous said...

Seriously? I'm going to have to say the "Rogue thing" is not equal parts innovation and marketing. I would venture to guess it is 100% marketing. Is there really a question when it comes to re-branding and Rogue?

Kevin said...

Well, I guess I'm just not as down on Rogue as the majority of the beer blogging community.

We have a couple "farms" here in Eugene that produce very little and get most of their stock from the same trucks that supply the area grocery stores. The onsite farm is more of an attraction than a source of profit. It is entirely possible that this is Rogue's business model with their hops farm, but I would still call it innovative since they are the first to attempt it.

Beer and Coding

hopheaven said...

I'm not sure what advantage hop-blends pose for large-scale brewing operations but on the homebrewing front it's such a simple idea I'm surprised nobody's marketed it yet. I'm sure the guys at Northern Brewer will pick up on this soon and begin releasing chosen hop blends for recreating some of the nation's more famous IPAs. It may ruin the spirit of experimentation on the one hand but on the other, it'd be much more convenient than buying large quantities of hops to select a few grams to contribute to an authentic reproduction of your favorite beer.

a non mouse said...

@Kevin: Sierra Nevada uses Citra in their Torpedo IPA, which was, if I'm not mistaken, the first bottled beer to include them. SN was one of three breweries involved in the research and development of the variety.

Kevin said...

@a non mouse: Aye, forgot about Torpedo. My point wasn't that Sunburn was the first beer to feature the hop; I assume breweries have used all the "new" hops I listed. Widmer was just the first to use the Citra name as a selling point.

Looking at the two breweries' websites, Widmer mentions Citra twice in the Sunburn description, while Sierra Nevada spends an entire paragraph describing their Torpedo system of dry-hopping, but never directly states the hop responsible for the brew's unique taste.

One of the benefits of boutique hops would be the ability to advertise varieties that other breweries do not use or have access to. The fact that it isn't already being exploited is a sign to me that, at this point, it isn't all that important to breweries.

@hopheavan: I completely agree that the biggest benefit of hop blends is to the home brewer. Trying to clone something like Pliny is expensive and will leave you with a lot of left over hops. Some sites have already addressed this with custom "packs" of hops for specific clones. Blended pellets seems like the next logical extension.

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