Hop Theory: a B&O Collaboration

ht1In May 2015, Hop Theory successfully completed a funding campaign on Kickstarter, officially creating a fascinating accessory for the beer world. Beer infusion – different blends of ingredients held within fine mesh sachets, to be placed directly into the glass, much like a beer tea bag – truly does live in a category of its own.

I, bjk3047, was among the “early bird” backers on this campaign, and was impressed with the turnaround (especially compared to other fully backed campaigns that often run into production or logistical delays). Only a few short months after funding, the sachets were delivered to my door in August, where they remained on my table top for quite a while. It finally occurred to me – what better opportunity than to send a sachet along to each of my co-writers! So, we all independently tried out Relativity, the inaugural blend of Cascade hops, orange peel, and coriander seeds. Appropriately, our methodology, beer choices, and results varied wildly. Enjoy!

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Since these packets could be used for multiple beers, I selected three beers with different flavor profiles to test how these packets would influence the taste of some more unusual beers. I generally gravitated towards lighter beers for my trials because it seemed more likely the flavors would match best with the citrus and spice notes of the blend.
I began with the first beer that would come to most people’s mind when handed a sachet of spicy, citrusy hops. That beer is, of course, Habanero Sculpin by Ballast Point. I am a huge fan of both the classic and grapefruit variants of Sculpin (both of which I highly recommend in their own right). I figured if the grapefruit variant was good, adding citrus to another version would be similarly pleasant in effect. The Habanero Sculpin on its own is an interesting experience. The body of the beer is very light, and the slightly sweet flavor of habanero largely masks the hop character of the beer, leaving it tasting more like a very light amber than a classic IPA. Of course with the addition of habanero, there’s also the addition of some spice, which creates an usual mouthfeel for a beverage. The beer was light with an effervescent effect that would make the beer quite refreshing were it not for the back-of-the-throat spice that lingered as a sort of aftertaste. Once I had established my baseline flavor, I added the hop sachet and allowed it to steep for a few minutes, until the beer began to exude the aroma of the packet, at which time I set it aside for further testing. Much as I anticipated, the sachet left a flavor behind that put the Habanero Sculpin somewhere between the grapefruit and classic variants on the citrus spectrum. The sweetness of the sachet also helped to balance out the slightly funky sweetness that comes from habanero peppers, making for a more balanced beer overall. I’m not sure if it was my mouth desensitizing or an effect of the packets but the “after” version of the beer also had a bit less of that throaty spiciness. Overall the packet gave the beer a more complete feel, and actually improved the flavor profile somewhat.
ht2Having a better idea of what to expect from our pouch of mystery flavors, I decided to try a slightly less adventurous beer to see how it would affect a more subtle offering. To this end, I tossed the hop tea bag into a Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale and impatiently waited for my beer to flavor. Mirror Pond is a lightly floral, and extremely refreshing pale ale. It has a moderate malt note to balance out a hop character that is more aromatic than it is bitter. Mirror Pond is pretty much my go-to beer when purchasing for a party or group of friends with diverse beer tastes. I’ve yet to run into someone who does not enjoy the beer, even if the flavor isn’t as outwardly unique as some other pale ales I’ve tried. All in all, it’s a very solid offering that you’ll never regret. Sometimes though, you want something with a little more intriguing than just a really good pale ale, so I decided to see if these hop packets could spice up a reliable friend to make something new and interesting. Possibly because Mirror Pond has a bit more malt body to it than Habanero Sculpin, I didn’t notice a huge uptick in the sweetness of the beer, although aromatically the orange scent really came through giving the beer a more distinctively fruity nose than usual. Upon drinking the concoction, I was immediately reminded of Earl Gray tea. The flavor was so strongly reminiscent of this tea, I actually wondered if the hop packet contained Bergamot in some quantity. While I’m a fan of a good cup of tea, and especially Earl Gray tea, the flavor combined with carbonation and alcohol was a little bit jarring. While not unpleasant, I would say this combination is not one I would readily attempt again, as it did nothing to improve upon a beer I already thoroughly enjoy.
This brings me to my final beer. Upon smelling the packets after opening them for the first time, one of the scents I was reminded of was wine mulling spices. I briefly thought trying these in a mead would be an interesting experiment, but seeing as this is a beer blog, I figured I should stay on topic. With that idea in my head, I decided to try combining these flavors with Honey Basil Ale by Bison Brewery. Prior to the addition of our extra flavors, this beer is sweet in a way you would associate with a honey-based beverage while having an herbaceous flavor that starts with the sweetness of basil and finishes with an aftertaste somewhat akin to fennel. In this case the hop packets actually enhanced the sweetness of the beer further, making it almost a dessert beer. The sweetness was strong, but not unpleasantly cloying, blending with the orange flavor and the herbs to create a highly satisfying flavor profile. The Honey Basil beer itself is the sort of beer you would drink on a warm day in the sun, while addition of the flavor packet made the beer feel more substantial, as you would look for in a beer on a cold winter day. I think the packets added the most to this beer, as they improved its flavor in a way that gives it multi-season appeal, whereas the base beer is best served in warmer months or climates.
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After hosting a get together, one is often left with an assortment of random beers. Some of them get happily consumed in short order, while others linger in a back corner of the fridge for weeks or even months. Such was the case with a couple PBRs from a Christmas party that I recently rediscovered behind the Fage and pickles. Happily for them, rather than being poured out, they would now get to donate their contents to science.
For this, they had the Hop Theory sachet to thank. I admit to being skeptical of the sachet at first. A few hops soaked in a macro lager does not an IPA make. To test this reasoning, I decided to try the Hop Theory alongside just that – a few hops soaked in the same base beer of 3+ month old PBR. Specifically, I used Columbus hop pellets inside a disposable loose leaf tea bag.
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I dropped in the sachets and began the five minute wait for the PBRs to complete their magical transformation into Heady Toppers. When the timer rang, I removed the sachets and sampled the beer. After five minutes of pure pellet hops, the PBR had a very slight dank hop aroma but the taste was completely unchanged. The Hop Theory, on the other hand, did affect the beer much more. The smell was changed for the better at first, with a pronounced orange/citrus note. Since I didn’t get much of a hop smell, I’m guessing this was more due to the spices in the Hop Theory, which included orange peel, rather than the hops themselves. But unfortunately, the improved aroma faded fairly quickly, before I was even half way done with the beer (maybe I should have left the sachet soaking longer?). Despite the difference in aroma, however, the beer still tasted like PBR.

Despite the lack of results in the flavor department, the packets do transform the beer in at least one way – the first thing you’ll notice when using the Hop Theory (or the straight hops) is that adding a hop packet causes the beer to foam quite a bit. This caused the beer to ultimately be noticeably less carbonated than normal. So if you like your PBRs a little bit flat in order to choke them down quicker (funneling perhaps?) the Hop Theory will come in handy. And if you find yourself in a circumstance where you are forced against your will to drink a cheap beer you can’t stand, the Hop Theory would make it a marginally more pleasant experience, though in my view not one that’s worth the cost or the effort.

flushfanI used my hop theory sachet in two different lagers: the first being KCCO’s Gold Lager, which I used for the beer battered shrimp recipe featured here on B&O, and the second being a craft lager by Shmaltz Brewing Company of Clifton Park, NY.

Resignation’s KCCO brew is a good proxy for a traditional American lager with a bit more depth than your everyday Budweiser. I figured the results of this test would be useful; I could actually envision myself risking pretentiousness and whipping out one of these bad boys at a barbecue or a baseball game if it delivered on its promises. It was a fairly successful first infusion; the nose improved from its slightly sweet and doughy (corn and biscuits) original aroma. The corn and yeast smell isn’t a bad thing – it is very common to American lagers – but over time, the yeast smell begins

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to sour and the common ballpark beer stank begins to emerge. The good news was that Hop Theory’s sachet completely nullified that effect. I didn’t pick up on the coriander or Cascade hops as much as I had hoped on the nose, but the orange peel came through nicely. The hop flavor kicked in a little, but what I noticed more were the original beer’s quality shining through: I tasted lemon (could’ve been the orange peel), honey, and even a buttery undertone that I hadn’t really tasted before. The addition of the Cascade hops was a nice touch, but simply not the same as a beer bittered at boil. The effect of the hops is hard to describe, but even as a Hophead, I’m not sure it was a necessary addition and just left me craving an IPA.

I chose Shmaltz’s Slinghot American Craft Lager to see what the effect would be on a higher quality craft brew that already contained some of the same elements. The hope here was that it would have that same ‘enhancing’ effect as it did with KCCO Gold Lager.
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Slingshot is brewed with Cascade hops (along with Warrior, Citra, Amarillo, and Crystal hops) and has an abundance of citrus notes along with rye bread and tropical fruits. The beer before the Hop Theory infusion is good but hardly amazing. Appropriately, Shawn Green would be an appropriate Mets comp because the former right fielder is one of those guys who belongs in the “Hall of Very Good.” It doesn’t hurt that both Green and Schmaltz openly celebrate their Jewish heritage. Anyway, I would say Hop Theory was effective here as well; the rye flavor was more present, the hops were bright and floral, and I sensed some caramel at the finish. Despite some enhancement, I think I preferred this beer as it was originally bottled. Although slight, the effervescence that was lost in the use of the Hop Theory packet was not worth price of the slight improvement in flavor. This might have been an unfair challenge for the Hop Theory sachel as I really did enjoy the original beer.

In the end – I would be a return customer of the Hop Theory sachets. They work best in beers that you drink in social situations- beers that make you debate if you are in the mood for drinking. At best, it will add some citrus notes, a bit more complexity, and enhance the flavors of what you are drinking. At very worst, they are a conversation starter.

bjk30471I decided on two beers to test out the sachets – Coors Light and Samuel Smith India Ale.

I sampled the Coors Light right out of the can to impolitely remind my taste buds, as well as establish a baseline for the sachet’s effect. Coors Light is a standard macrobrew- just a touch of sweetness that immediately gives way to a thin, sour finish. My friends in college used to call it “Piss of the Rockies,” and I’d say that still holds true.

ht3The head on the initial pour was gigantic (as pictured to the right). I allowed the sachet to do its frothy work for well over five minutes, for maximum effect. The nose was sweet and hoppy, though the sachet floating at the top of the pint almost definitely unduly influenced it. The taste was markedly improved. Orange and some light, sweet spice and hop elements really took the edge off the previously harsh, thin finish. There’s no question that the fragrant sachet helps – scientifically, smell has a notable influence on taste – but when combating the “flavor profile” of a beer like

Coors Light, you’ll take any help you can get. The flavors imparted by the sachet were nuanced; they don’t transform the beer as much as mitigate undesirable characteristics.

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Again, as a baseline for Samuel Smith India Ale, I tasted it without the sachet. To my surprise, it was sweet and malty, with little hop influence. The finish was kind of a one-note bitterness that just sat on the tongue. My hopes were high, as India Ale (at least in my opinion) was a pretty blank canvas with which to work. With the Hop Theory addition, the body was mainly the same. A bit of orange and spice peeked out to add complexity. Much like the Coors Light, the finish was well improved, as the bitterness was rounded off nicely. While improved overall, the payoff wasn’t as strong as I had hoped.

The Kickstarter campaign included the line, “With Hop Theory, an average beer becomes craft.” Overall, I’d say this sums up the best utilization of the product. At least as far as Hop Theory’s initial flavor offering of Relativity goes, it serves as a good “emergency kit” for situations when you have no choice but to consume a harsh macrobrew.

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