Hop to the top

I’m usually not a sucker for excessively hopped beers and think many forsake flavour in lieu of, well, showing off. Not to say I don’t enjoy a good well-hopped beer but, at times, it all just gets a bit silly.

eighty hops

The 80 hop varieties in West Coast Brewery’s beer

Recently, however, my interest was piqued when West Coast Brewery in my old hometown of Westport, New Zealand, announced they were doing a beer with 80 hop varieties… which admittedly sounds pretty silly.

Having met head brewer Dave Kurth before, I know that he isn’t one for gimmicks and is an advocate for balance in beer rather than just hops.

So I had to find out what was behind this beer and one of my first thoughts was “is this a world record”. Dave wasn’t sure so I went seeking answers and pretty quickly I learned that no. It is not. But almost.

I only found one more beer that had more varieties which was the Top of the Hops 2012 from the Great Yorkshire Brewery. That one used 2012 varieties (not a typo).

That’s a lot more than 80.

The most in Australia I found was 25, in the Hop Bach from Red Duck Brewery, a collaboration with Danish brewery Beer Here. So, in the greater scheme of things, 80 is still pretty impressive.

There will likely be debates about whether or not each hop listed in these beers a unique own variety. Some in the West Coast Brewery 1080 are blends, while the 2012 hops were selected from a hop farm, with almost all of them since being destroyed and not used for commercial production.

The Red Duck Hop Bach… well I don’t actually know. When asked if he had a list of the hops, brewer Scott Wilson-Browne simply said “Yes”.

What I also wanted to know most was how each brewery approached their beer. That many hops must be difficult to manage in stock alone, let alone formulating a recipe and brewing the beer– so I decided the best way to find out is to ask them.

Firstly I wanted to know how each beer came about.

“This was just kind of how it worked out. I was trying to get as many different hops as I could and when it looked like it would be around 80, that’s when I thought of calling it 1080,” Dave Kurth told me.

“The name was me just trying to be a bit cheeky and have a dig at the locals who as you would know are usually either very for or very against the use of 1080,” he said, referencing a controversial poison used in the forests around Westport.

“The next thing I had to do was figure out what the 10 would be.

“I originally was going to try and have ‘ten 80s’, like 80min boil with 80 additions one every minute and1080 starting gravity, but I think I thought of maybe six or seven so took the easy way out with ten hop additions.”

When it came to the details of the recipe, Dave just did it the old fashioned way, with pen and paper.

“Because I don’t use any brewing software I had to work out what bitterness I was going to get from all those additions with a calculator and pencil then make it up to my target bitterness of 60ish (International Bittering Units) by adjusting the amounts of some of the hops I had in stock.”

Scott at Red Duck made sure they had a big malt bill to keep all of those hops in check.

“Anders (of Beer Here) and I both politely asked what we would like to brew, and from the possible ideas, we both wanted to do a big IPA and explore hops…. (it) Had to be a double IPA, so that it would balance the hops. (The) end ABV was based on the highest gravity I can extract from my little mash tuns and all first runnings for Hop Bach,” he said.

Great Yorkshire on the other hand kept their ABV quite low at 4.5% and formulated their beer with more of a noble goal in mind; a way to support the local hop industry.

“The beer came about as I went to visit the UK hop scientist, Peter Darby to look at ways we could invest in hop development. The answer was simple we would purchase all the experimental hops that were previously cut down and left to rot,” brewery director Joanne Taylor said.

Their customers were happy with the result.

“We decided to use the hops in a blonde beer. The result was a very fruity, complex blonde beer that proved popular with customers”

As for the actual process, not everything went smoothly back at West Coast, and Dave encountered one unforeseen problem on brew-day.

“Just opening that many 100g packs of hops took a lot longer than I thought it would and when I got down to the last three additions in the last ten minutes it was a bit of a rush to get it done,” he said.

However, like any good brewer would Dave made sure he made the most of having that many varieties on hand.

“I also wanted to smell every pack when I opened it just so I could really get an idea of all the different aromas that you can get from different varieties. I was pretty amazed at the range of aromas I got; from savoury, soil and chocolate right through to the floral, citrus, pine and sweaty tropical. “

Great Yorkshire Brewery on the other hand had a clever solution to overcoming the brew-day problems.

“There were no problems with the hops as we paid a farm to process them into mixed bundles,” Joanne Taylor said.

Red Duck and Beer Here had similar problems to Dave.

“With so many, some nearly went in twice and some nearly got overlooked,” Scott said.

Having only personally tasted one of these beers I can’t comment too much about the result of the other two, but I can say the Red Duck/Beer Here was a long rich malty, hop bomb. Both the hops and malt arrived in layers and it had a long finish. As much toffee and caramel from the malt as there were citrus and pine from the hops.

I won’t say I could taste each hop along the way and whether that amount of hops is beneficial or just a gimmick is definitely down to opinion. However, Scott doesn’t think theirs was at all.

“Beers that are so hoppy that they are all bitter – not for me, I drink for enjoyment, not for the freak value,” Scott said.

“If you drink a beer once, just because its a freaky beer, but don’t enjoy the beer, that’s not what I am about. Sure I make challenging beers, but they are all about perspective, and especially with the historical ones I make, if you can get your pallet into the right era, and forget about the clear fizzy yellow stuff that is 99% of modern beer, then they are still balanced and enjoyable.”

Joanne at Great Yorkshire concedes there beer might fall into the novelty category but it had a specific aim and was enjoyable to do as a brewery

“This beer could be classed a a gimmick but with over 2000 hop varieties (each plant has a different scientific code making it a new variety) it was a world record breaker, the brewery had fun making the beer, the UK’s largest managed pub group purchased a product that created a huge talking point for their customers and we managed to invest in an worthwhile project with an industry recognised scientist and the customers purchased a unique pint that they would never get to try again. A win win all round” she said.

Meanwhile, Dave is happy with the response he’s received from peers and public.

“The response so far has been very positive in the most part. This is something I’ve been thinking about doing for a long time and it was really fun to try and push my own boundaries a bit,” he said.

Being Dave’s last beer for the brewery it will only be available at Marchfest in Nelson, New Zealand (6th of April 2013); then on tap at the brewery in Westport until finished. When he finishes up at West Coast, Dave is planning to start at a new brewery.

“The Brewery will be Hot Water Brewing Co, the restaurant will be called the Hay Loft and they’ll be at Sea Breeze Holiday park at Whenuakite on the main road between Whitianga and Tairua, NZ,” Dave said.

“ I’m really excited to be starting a new brewery just five minutes drive from Hot Water Beach.” (a beach well known for having volcanic water near the surface – you can literally dig your own spa pool on the edge of the beach – Luke)

The brewery might also be another first in New Zealand.

“I haven’t checked but I think this will be the first camp ground and backpackers in New Zealand with an attached brewery and restaurant .” He said.

As for the other two beers, you won’t be able to try the 2012 Top of the Hops but the 2013 version will have (no prizes for guessing…) 2013 varieties.

Hop Bach is no longer available on shelves (unless any bottle-stores have old stock) but Scott says “There are some new hops on the go… so might be able to make the next one with more.”

Scott also joked about doing the opposite beer.

“Maybe next I need to work on a “every grain” brew… Lets see, barley, wheat, oats, spelt, rye, wild rice, millet, sorghum, quinoa, wattle seeds, farro, corn and so on… If it ferments, its in! “

Given the beers coming out of Red Duck lately he may not be completely joking.

For you homebrewers out there, here is Dave’s recipe and method. The full list of hops is pictured.

  • Maris Otter for the base malt with about 4% (1 bag) each of Caramalt, Carapils, Caramunich 2 and Munich.
  • Starting gravity 15.5P
  • 60 IBU (+ or -10 depending on how accurate my calculations were)
  • With a good healthy pitch of 1272
  • Expected final abv of 6.5%.

“First thing I had to do was figure out what order I was going to add the hops to the boil ( I had 2x100g packs of everything plus the hops I always have here), was I going to do High AA% first or low AA%?” Dave pondered.

“Or I thought about using hops I knew were good aroma hops at the end then others at the start but I settled on what seemed like the easiest at the time and went with alphabetical order.

“In hindsight it probably would have been easier grouping them by AA content.

“I decided I would use one pack from each in the boil and the other one as a dry hop. Then I just split them up at random with the first seven in as first wort hops then eight with 40mins to go, ten with 30, ten with 20, ten with ten, 15 with five, 17 with one and the three cone hops in the hopback,” he said.

Personally I’m already scheming to get someone to pick some up at the brewery in Westport for me and I can’t wait to see how it has turned out.

Whether or not you think these are gimmick beers, most people could concede that these are at the very least interesting and for me, I couldn’t ask for much more.

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