Flower to the People: OSU Empowers Hop Sensory Panel

Written by RGW of the Indie Hopsters for inhoppursuit.blogspot.com

Hood River, Or. Oregon State’s Hop Docs wanted feedback from Pacific Northwest brewers on building a new aroma hop and it sounds like they got an earful.

The consensus? Dial down the alpha, jack up the oils, and add something “tropical” to our flavor arsenal beyond the all-pervasive citrus bomb.

In it’s mission to breed new aroma hops, Oregon State pulled together a panel of seasoned craft brewers, predominantly from Oregon, to evaluate a series of single hop brews. The format was simple:

  • Create a sensory neutral environment .
  • Present an experienced panel with six (6) single hop brews, plus a series of dry hopped brews.
  • Ask each to fill out a confidential form that best describes the primary hop aroma (viz., floral, fruity, tropical, spicy) and flavor (viz), citrus, herbal, grassy, woody, sulfury, cheesy). For each rubric, the panel was asked to further define secondary descriptors, for example, my personal favorites: rose, apricot, mango, anise, sagebrush and not-so-favorites like sweaty, garlicky, leathery and rabbit urine-ish.
  • And, finally, after each pair of test brews, open up the panel to a robust but sincere discussion.
The hop sensory panel is the first step in a novel two-part strategy designed by OSU professors Tom Shellhammer (the fermenter/hop chemist) and Shaun Townsend (the geneticist/breeder) in their science-driven quest to breed new aroma hops. Tom and Shaun have been collaborating since January 2010 in their noble mission, pursuant to a $1 million grant from Indie Hops.

The panel was convened in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Pacific Division of the Master Brewers Association (MBAA).

Help Us, Help You

The sensory panels using trained brewers, explained Dr. Shellhammer, is critical in providing clear guidance to Dr. Townsend, who will be selecting hop candidates for crosses in the hope of amplifying known or new desirable characteristics.

“We’re looking for consensus,” said an optimistic Dr. Townsend, whose mind seemed to be spinning with ideas after the panel. “Early in the breeding process, breeders generally work with little feedback from brewers and chemists. This is an important first step in selecting genotypes that can lead to new cultivars that express the profile sought by brewers. Having the end-product users involved at the front end of the breeding process eliminates a lot of the guesswork and gives me a clear set of goals.”

Dr. Shellhammer was equally pleased. “The brewers were excited about being asked to participate in the process. Their candid and honest evaluations will help us narrow down the target characteristics. In the end, we’re looking to develop alternatives to the current menu of commercially available hops that will endure the test of time.”

The next step is for Dr. Shellhammer to analyze the data for patterns. Over the next few years, Dr. Shellhammer will be conducting at least six sensory panels. He is in early discussions with the San Diego Brewers Guild to hold a second hop sensory panel in early November of 2010.

More Tongues and Noses, More Data, Better Science

Several of the brewer panelists agreed that the research effort was both valuable and long overdue. One brewer told me that it was “just nice to be included. Instead of a few brewers pursuing their own agenda behind a veil of secrecy, it was great for OSU to open up the discussion among a diverse group of brewers. In the end, everyone benefits from innovation.” To preserve the objectivity of the effort, and to avoid any hasty conclusions, OSU is keeping confidential the identity of the hop cultivars that were evaluated by the panel.

Another area of research of keen interest to the brewers was the optimal harvest date of aroma hops. As part of the Indie Hops grant, OSU will be conducting a pilot study on the correlation between harvest date and oil content in fresh cones. The brewers did not venture to say which specific oils they were interested in seeing more of. For now, their uncomplicated message is less alpha, more total oils. The panel also raised the concern that the craving for super alphas has led to a proliferation of harshly bitter concoctions that tend to blow up the tongue like a wet sponge.

The road to new and useful cultivars is long, narrow and mostly uphill into a headwind. There are no shortcuts — no magical bullets — although advances in molecular marker mapping could one day speed up the process of selecting desirable traits (such as disease resistance, crop yield, and, since we’re dreaming here, guava-mango aroma. As Dr. Townsend explains, “There’s a reason that Fuggles, Saaz, East Kent Golding, and similar ancestral varieties selected before 1900 are still used today: hop aroma and flavor is an exceedingly complex beast and very difficult to select for.”

Planting the Seeds of Future Innovation

Every paradigm shift, every great revolution, has to start somewhere. The prize starts with a vision. The sensory panels will help bring the prize into focus. Amping up oils (after first determining which of the 200 plus hop oils are useful) presents challenges that are orders of magnitude greater than the shade tree mechanic task of boosting the alpha juice.

Put simply, when it comes to tinkering with aroma oils, the current state of the art is somewhere between 1st and 2nd grade. Using conventional breeding methods, we can of course get to the “promised land” in my lifetime – and we will much sooner than that. But to get there repeatedly, in addition to bucket loads of data, ample amounts of sweat and tears and gobs of good luck, to paraphrase Mr. Spicoli from Fast Times: we’re going to need to develop a cool set of new tools, pronto.

Indie Hops is naturally proud to sponsor OSU’s aroma hop breeding program and it was especially gratifying to see over a dozen OSU undergraduate “eager Beavers” helping out with the research effort. I also want to thank them for leaving me a six pack of their test brews – sniff, sniff-sip, sip… hmm…. spicy with a whisper of anise and a minty fresh finish…