HOPS. Small green cones with fragrant oils and acids that come from tall, stringy vines. Part of the cannabis family of plants, but you don’t smoke these guys—no, they end up picked and dried and brewed into your beer. Sometimes, they’re fresh and whole-leaf, like in a dry-hopped rye or pale. Sometimes they’re processed, extracted, frozen, and then reconstituted into an American style pilsner. Any way you look at it, hops have a distinct impact upon the character of your beer. Sometimes overdone, sometimes balanced beautifully, but always present. Hell, without hops you just don’t have beer.
I got the chance to talk about hops with a noted professional brewer—Scott Vaccaro of the Captain Lawrence Brewing Company. As the brewery’s founder and brewmaster, he knows a thing or two about these little green flowers. We got into the nitty-gritty of things: how craft brewers have been approaching hop profiles, the merits of American varieties, how home brewers can learn a lesson from the pros. But first I want to give you a little bit about what I’ve been up to in my own endeavors.
Since roughly May, my hop vines have been plugging away through rain and shine. We planted roughly a dozen rhizomes—small roots with little growths on them—and gave them plenty of water, sunlight, and nutrients. We cleared the area of competing weeds and mulched the ground to keep them away. We watched them through everything from two weeks of constant rain to daily burning temperatures hovering in the 90s. The bines broke ground and shot right up towards the sun with a pace and vigor I’ve never seen in a plant. Within a few weeks, they were taller than my house and bushy enough as to make the backyard a jungle.
Then something amazing happened: all of a sudden, in random spots along the vines and between the leaves, tiny little flowers began to appear. These flowers budded into hops, and are now doing their damn best to be the freshest, most fragrant kind I’ve ever seen. You just can’t beat homegrown.
Now I am faced with a conundrum: when do I pick? How do I use them? How do I keep from going overboard? How can I tell alpha acid percentages? Should I even worry? Scott did a lot to answer these questions, gave me his professional advice on how to amp-up my home brew, and even talked a little about President Obama…
Interview With Scott Vaccaro of the Captain Lawrence Brewing Company
BierMag: Hi Scott, it’s Matt from biermagazine.com. How are you doing?
SV: Good! It’s pretty busy over here. (Loud, metallic banging sound)
BierMag: We first met at Beer Table over in Brooklyn. Captain Lawrence was having a promotional tasting. I remember we spoke a little bit about hops then, and I’ve got a few questions for you.
SV: Yeah, go ahead what’s up.
BierMag: Well I remember you mentioning something about Captain Lawrence Brewing Co. having planted some hop plants for its own use. Could you tell me a little bit more about that? Like, how big is your hop yard, or how many plants you have, or what varieties you have?
SV: Alright. Well, at the moment we have two plots, [each] about 75 vines of Cascade, about 25 Nugget, 25 Chinook, I think; so a little over 200 vines. We planted them just this year. They’re up at Blue Hill Stone Barn Center for agriculture, Stone Barn is a restaurant up in Pocantico Hills, and we’re hoping to get a pretty nice crop out of them next year. This year we probably won’t get much out of them.
BierMag: Right, I have a couple plants of my own, and they’re just starting to bud right now, so it’s at that exciting time right now. So I see it’s all American varieties for you guys, probably what you use in your beers.
BierMag: Cool. Now, it’s one thing to use hops, homegrown or not, as an art form—I remember tasting your IPA, the Captain’s Reserve, was that an IPA or a double?
SV: It’s an imperial or double IPA.
BierMag: Right. I remember that you guys had brought it through to Beer Table. It was about twelve hours old, you said, by the time it got into the keg—
SV: Right out of the [finishing] tank—
BierMag: Yeah. I remember that it was super-fresh, super-hoppy. What I noticed was that it was not incredibly bitter, but incredibly smooth, and I think that’s a hard thing to achieve, and I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about using hops as an art form rather than just a blunt object to hit the drinker over the head with.
SV: Well… (laughing) we like to blend varieties. We like to take I guess the better attributes of each variety, and kind of, you know, let them meld together into something more unique and interesting. When you talk about imperial and double IPAs, and hops being a ‘blunt object,’ its typically an issue of bittering level versus residual sugar left over in the beer. We’re still kind of playing around with it three years later, getting what we want it to finally be, but using blends of different varieties and using them together with a darker malt…then you end up with a little more residual sugar left over in the beer, and everything kind of smoothes out a little bit. You get the bitterness in the background, but a little bit of a backbone in the beer. It really does help.
BierMag: I see. How many different varieties do you use, not just in the IPA, but typically in a beer?
SV: It’s different for every one. More in the IPA, two strains in some, six strains in others, it all depends on what we’re going for.
BierMag: Ok. Is that all mostly just trial and error? Different varieties have not only different smells and aromas, but also different alpha acid percentages. Do you know what you’re getting yourself into, switching or substituting a different variety?
SV: Bitterness-wise, it’s pretty easy. Aroma-wise is a little more difficult. So yes, it’s a lot of trial and error. It’s just playing around with it—you have an idea because a lot of the American varieties are very similar, but you still need to experiment.
BierMag: Right. Ok. Now would you say that there are any traditional ‘rules’ you have with your hops? I mean, a brewery like Sam Adams advertises that they use ‘noble’ hops, which are specific European-grown varieties. Do you guys have any go-to dogma when it comes to hop usage?
SV: We use all American hops at this point. We’re not really playing around with any European varieties. We keep it simple, we use what we like, and I really like the bold flavors and aromas of American varieties, so we’re also sticking to what we know.
BierMag: Like a big, citrusy, sometimes piney taste…?
SV: Yeah, absolutely! I mean there’s variation within. Amarillos can be nice and tropical. Chinooks are known for being more grapefruity. Cascades are a little more tangerine. So while they’re all similar, they’re all still different.
BierMag: Very cool. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about other players within the [craft beer] industry who have become ‘all about hops.’ It seems like in America, everyone’s just trying to make an IPA or a beer so hoppy that it will almost melt your teeth when you drink it.
BierMag: I was thinking about, for example, Dogfish Head, as guys who came out onto the scene and pushed the envelope for hops. Do you think that their multiple hop contraptions are innovation, or craziness? Are they warranted in going overboard, do they have some kind of value here, or are they just being kind of kitschy? Not to pick on Dogfish Head, but industry as a general, do we need crazy ideas, or will basic brewing procedures suffice?
SV: I think that innovation is always welcome. It always brings a new twist onto things. Whether or not that twist or innovation is perceivable in the beer itself, or whether it’s just a tool for marketing and promoting, is on the ‘tongue of the drinker.’ Everyone is going to taste things differently, perceive things differently. But without innovation, without new things, we’d be a stale industry, and I don’t think it would be as exciting as it is today. While not every innovation makes a big difference in the flavor of the beer, they’re all still welcome in allowing brewers to push the envelope. You never know until you try.
BierMag: So you think even a quote “bad” flavor would be a welcome advance, even if you just found a new way to create this flavor?
SV: Well I don’t think a “bad” flavor is ever a good thing (laughs), but “bad” to one person may be great to another. Just because you’re using a new method, a new hop, it may be exciting, but it doesn’t necessarily make a positive influence on the beer. The positive changes stick around. Those innovations grow a brand, whereas the gimmicks tend to go away.
BierMag: Okay. Yeah. Now I know that you’re a former home brewer, and I’m a current home brewer—do you have any advice, knowing the professional side of brewing, on how a guy like me can get the most out of his hops and hop profile?
SV: I always find, when I’m drinking homebrew that people bring in to me, telling me ‘it’s a pale,’ or ‘it’s an IPA,’ I always feel like they’re never dry-hopping, or if they are its unperceivable. I always tell home brewers, don’t be afraid to just throw some more hops in the secondary fermenter. They’ll drop out and give you an amazing aroma. Late kettle additions are nice, but on the homebrew level it’s a little tougher to get them to work out with the volume involved. For the home brewer: dry-hop the hell out of the beer if you want a lot of hop character.
BierMag: That’s a good tip. I’ll have to pay attention to it.
SV: Most home brewers are scared to do it, they fear infection or cloudy beer. Just dump ‘em in.
BierMag: Right. Very cool.
SV: And growing your own hops at home, man, use ‘em fresh, don’t dry them out.
BierMag: Yeah, I was planning on a wet-hop ale, ala Sierra Nevada’s.
BierMag: Ok. So…last question. A little off-topic, but…I really wanted to know how this landed with you: President Obama and two Harvard bigwigs sit down at the White House to talk race relations. And they open up some Bud Lights. So what’s that all about? What does that say? What gives?
SV: (pause) Well, I…I dunno. I have no idea (both laughing). I think its ridiculous, that’s just my personal opinion. I think he’s the president, and a politician first, so what does he drink, the most popular beer that sells more than any in the world. You know, appeal to the masses.
BierMag: So you think that Obama, in quote-unquote ‘real life,’ probably not a Bud Light man?
SV: God, I hope not. (I laugh) They should think before they promote foreign-owned conglomerates. But we continue to make beer, and maybe one day Obama will drink a Captain Lawrence!
BierMag: (laughing) Well there you go, one can only hope. Scott, that’s actually all I’ve got for you. I want to thank for your time and your knowledge.
SV: Ahh…Thank You! I appreciate you giving us a call. Hopefully we see you at another beer event in the future!