Unfiltered: Reflections on Hop Selection

By John Gillooly, Drake’s Brewmaster
November 20, 2017

I’ve been going to Yakima every year for a long time now to select hops for the brewery. Hop selection is a pretty intense process–you’re at a table with various lots of the same hop but grown at different farms, and your job is to assess each lot and decide which one is going to work for you that year. While there is a bit of visual assessment, primarily you are making your determination based on smell. This presents a rather interesting conundrum. One thing we humans don’t rely on much is our sense of smell. So how do you get yourself primed for a situation where the primary sense you are going to rely on is the one you probably use least?

Doesn’t get fresher than this!

I’ve tried a bunch of different, uh, techniques to really focus my brain into my noise. That sounds weird, but really in many ways it’s true–you have to have a way to get those neurons focused on smelling! I’ve tried going in super early so my nose was fresh, but I didn’t think that mattered. I’ve tried holding my nose closed with a clothespin all day before smelling so it was really fresh (I aborted that experiment because it hurt). This year I decided to go the other way–I thought I’d exercise it.

Now normally, the one thing I spend a lot of time smelling is beer, but it struck me that that might actually be redundant, and bias me towards/away from certain hop aromas. So next best thing–wine! Yakima Valley is home to a number of good wineries, so I plotted a route between a few tasting rooms as a prelude to hop selection. First up was Windy Point, conveniently open at 10am. Windy Point produces a number of excellent reds, including some Italian varietals you don’t see much of–a really good opportunity to give my nose a workout. I eventually made my way through 12 different wines there–man there was some good stuff. I had to get full pours of both the Pinot and Nebbiolo. 

This season’s standout favorite, Denali.

In fact, I was there so long that by the time I was through, I had to cancel my next appointment and head straight to the (conveniently close) Brewer’s Supply Group, where I had major lots of Chinook, Amarillo and Cascade to select.

Fortunately, I made such good time that I was actually early, and I was delighted to find a build yourown Bloody Mary bar there. Well, clearly I had to do some investigation. After trying a few different concoctions, I was agitatedly reminded that I had hops to select. Well, let me tell you, that selection went great! I never felt more informed and decisive for a selection. No questions, no doubts–man I could practically smell them just by looking at them! 10 minutes and out! Best selection ever!

‘Unfiltered’ is a recurring column by our Brewmaster, John Gillooly, where he dishes on whatever topic he’s inspired to prosthelytize about. With over 20 years of brewing experience, ranging from Red Hook (back when they were independent) to Dogfish Head, John’s take is always uniquely his own and we do our best to bring it to you as it is… unfiltered.